By Pallavi Ghosh:
The word ‘work’, in its most basic and general sense, means the effort one puts to achieve a pre-determined result. Not even a single one of the eleven ways in which Merriam Webster’s dictionary shows us the use of the word is included the notion that certain tasks or work are masculine or feminine. Still the gendering of work is not a very uncommon experience across the globe.
In many families this belief that women can do only certain tasks and not others results in son preference as they are seen as more capable of performing a wide variety of jobs involving physical and mental strength, thereby earning more for the family. While girls being considered to be weaker physically, if not intellectually too, are seen as having limited capacities to sustain the family. However, any task, say that of a butcher or a mechanic, has nothing to do with gender. It’s just work at the end of the day. Yet when we see women doing these very tasks, the way society perceives work, we find it odd.
Such a belief is similar to a simple phenomenon explained by the Black Swan theory. According to the theory, the existence of black swan comes as a surprise because one being familiar with white swans has assumed that swans are always white. Similarly, any work is an impossibility as long as it is not rejected by examples of its possibility in the world. Here are some of the black swans around us who are changing the narrative around this being a ‘man’s world’:
1. We hear often that women should take up work that does not involve much physical effort or is dirty; since they are relatively ‘weaker’ than men. But meet 55-year-old Shanti devi who works as a mechanic on the outskirts of Delhi at one of the largest truck stopovers in Asia-AW-7, Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar Depot. While fellow mechanics respectfully call her auntie, she goes about her work just like every other mechanic.
2. We usually tend to associate women with salons specially designed to cater to the ‘feminine’ needs of beauty solutions or services. Rarely do we see a female barber chopping the hair of men queued in front of a unisex salon. But Devi in the Tirupur district of Tamil Nadu runs a roadside barber’s shop where she provides haircutting and shaving services to men. Devi also works as an accountant, but the salary fails to meet the requirements of her family of four. Devi is a B.Com graduate from the Chikkanna Government Arts College and fears that working as a barber in a men’s salon could affect her future. However, she feels that, “to get out of the family debt, I need at least Rs 5 lakh.”
3. The idea of male bravado, which incidentally can be as oppressing for men, often chooses to overlook others who perform the same task with equal merit. The job a fire fighter for example. Nirma Chaudhary of Rajasthan is one of the first female fire fighters of India. Nirma recalls how the common perception was that girls cannot do this job and how this became the reason for her to take up the very profession that people believed her kind could not handle.
4. And then there is that completely ridiculous notion that women cannot handle blood. Clearly people need to know about Rukhiya. She is a 53-year-old butcher at Chundel in Wayanad and has been hacking away for more than three decades. “Yes I am a butcher,” Rukhiya says firmly. She opened the OK Beef Stall at Chundel market in 1989. The fifth among nine children of Khader and Pathumma’s the burden of the big family fell on her shoulders at a young age. Everybody, including her relatives and friends, opposed her decision to take up this profession. They argued that the job was not fit for women. Rukhiya, however firmly disagreed, “Who said it’s meant only for men?” Today she has managed to buy a four-acre coffee estate and built a spacious house.
5. In my years of growing up, I have broken many bones. This means that I have met an orthopedician all too often. But not once have I met a woman on the other side of the table. It is indeed rare to find women orthopedician. But Dr. Rujuta Mehta is Paediatric Orthopaedic and Paediatric Hand Surgeon at the Nanavati, Jaslok, Wadia and Shushrusha Hospital in Mumbai. She however remembers how her peers reacted when she announced her decision of taking up orthopaedics. “They thought I was being fool hardy and didn’t know the demands of the branch,” says Dr Mehta. “Dealing with trauma on a daily basis requires immense mental strength. Therefore, there is no denying the masculine flavour to the branch,” she adds.
6. Again, women’s intellectual capabilities continue to be considered suspect, if not discredited completely by many ‘enlightened’ members of the society. So to think of a woman detective is perhaps a revolutionary idea! But then there is Rajani Pandit in Maharashtra who became the first woman private investigator in India when she started Rajani Pandit Detective Services in 1991. She solved her first case while still in college. It was through her family’s support that she could take it up as career. She has worked with 30 detectives and is said to solve around 20 cases in a month. You have competition Mr. Holmes!
There is no end to this list of women who are breaking barriers and proving themselves equal if not better at tasks traditionally considered a male bastion. It isn’t their sex, but what society deems appropriate for them that has pushed women and the work they do into neat little patriarchal boxes, denying them an equal chance. When work in its very definition doesn’t segregate between sexes, why must we?