Women are stepping out of traditional boundaries to enter hitherto predominantly male areas. As cab drivers, bus conductors, cobblers and more, they are standing shoulder to shoulder with their men folk in contributing to the family kitty. They are also shedding the stereotypical ‘martyr’ role and see no reason why they shouldn’t keep some of their hard-earned money for their personal needs. Here are the stories of Hameeda, Puttalayamma, Janet and Venkatamma
“I need to work, as my family is economi-cally disadvantaged. However, I ensure that I put some money aside for my personal expenses and also to help me to study for a bachelor’s degree,” says Hameeda, a member of the She Cab service launched by the Telangana Government about two years ago.
“I believe that women can do any job and must stand up for themselves whenever required. While I agree that many girls are raised to be docile and submissive, they can choose not to remain that way, although it may be tough to go against the tide,” Hameeda says.
I had long wanted to meet a She Cab member, and was delighted when I found that Hameeda was to be my driver. I found myself telling her about my recently deceased father and my mother’s consequent ill health as she drove me to the city from the Hyderabad airport. Hameeda comforted me. “Women can meet for the first time in their lives but they can converse as though they have known each other for a long time,” she noted with insight.
Hameeda, now 32, could not continue to study beyond Standard X due to the financial constraints faced by her parents. She learnt to drive a car some years ago. That came in handy when the government called for women with driving experience to apply for jobs as cab drivers. She was among the ten who were selected for training out of the 30 women who responded.
Hameeda and the others were given three months of training by the state Departments of Transport and Traffic Police in passenger etiquette, negotiating through heavy traffic while keeping the rules, and dealing with other drivers and pedestrians. Ten women police officers were assigned the responsibility of overseeing the training of the She Cab candidates. Then each of them was provided a 30 per cent subsidy to buy herself a car.
The She Cab drivers are allowed to take in only women passengers from the airport. “We accept the ‘ladies-only’ condition as male customers may misbehave with us. Also, we do not ply on other routes as it may involve waiting at locations where our safety is not guaranteed,” says Hameeda.
Despite the precautions, there are challenges. “As women, we need a few additional facilities, such as paid time off during our menstrual periods. Unfortunately, the government has not provided these basic necessities in spite of many requests, although the She Cab initiative has earned kudos for it because of our enthusiasm and commitment,” Hameeda notes. The cab rates charged by the women are also very affordable.
The She Cab drivers meet with officers of the Transport and Traffic Police departments at least once in a month in order to report about their ongoing work and also the problems they face. The officers do not seem to have done anything to address their concerns.
The drivers, who number seven at present, regularly discuss their professional and personal challenges among themselves. Their primary issues include sexual harassment from male drivers, especially cab drivers who also pick up customers from the airport. Hameeda and her colleagues have learnt to counter these issues with courage, determination and pragmatism. But they do not seem to have been made aware of the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act, which is a violation of their human and gender rights.
The women conductors on Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses are in an almost similar situation. It was only about a decade ago that women conductors became a fairly common sight on BMTC buses. Janet (name changed), in her twenties, has been a conductor for about two years and is satisfied with her job. “I did not study beyond my pre-university course as I was not interested in doing so. We hail from Chikballapur District which is close to Bengaluru and I relocated to the state capital as I was keen to work. I was called for an interview after I filed an application,” she recalls.
While it is encouraging that the women conductors are expected to carry out the same activities as their male counterparts, including working on public holidays and Sundays, it is unacceptable that they face sexual harassment from passengers and a few of their co-workers while they are at their workplace, that is, inside a bus or at a bus station. Further, it is not clear whether the women are paid as much as their male colleagues with the same academic qualifications and experience. They are unwilling to commit to demanding equal pay for equal work, probably because most of them are afraid of losing the job that they are so badly in need of.
There are other women too, who have ventured into hitherto predominantly male bastions. There is Lalitha, a vegetable vendor in her thirties. Not many women can be seen pushing vegetable carts along the streets of Bengaluru.
Puttalayamma is a cobbler who sits near one of the main bus stations in the city. In her late forties, she learnt the trade to help her husband, with whom she also does agricultural labour for some months a year in Cuddalore District of Tamil Nadu.
Just about 100 metres from where Puttalayamma usually sits is Venkatamma, a woman in her sixties. She hails from a family of fortune tellers who are women. “I am the only one among my sisters and women cousins in this line of work now. None of my daughters or nieces was interested in taking up this profession and it was the same with my granddaughters, great granddaughters and grand nieces. All of them chose to study and pursue other careers. Hence, there is no one to continue this job after me,” Venkatamma says.
Venkatamma migrated to Bengaluru from Theni District in Tamil Nadu after she got married at the age of 16. She now lives in the northern part of Bangalore with her daughters and grandchildren. Puttalayamma and Venkatamma are under the constant threat of being evicted without warning by the Bengaluru police from their work spots, apart from having to appease ruffians in the locality.
It is heartening to see women like Hameeda, Puttalayamma, Janet and Venkatamma doing what they can to empower their families and themselves, too.