By Nitya Sriram:
“I have faced multiple [levels of] discrimination – being physically challenged, being a girl, being a Muslim, and being poor. Being a Muslim girl, I face gender discrimination within my community, and religious discrimination from other communities,” says Farheen, 23, of her experiences in life and work. Hailing from the Janta Mazdoor community in Delhi, Farheen has always struggled with access to the basics such as food, education and jobs.
“We didn’t have money for my higher studies,” she says. “So, I stopped my studies after Class 12, and started working in a private school, where I got a salary of 1000 INR per month.”
When the school closed down, Farheen was turned away by several other institutions before she finally found a job with a call centre. “The call centre was far from home and despite my disability, I used to walk from my home to the metro to save money. If I was late by even five minutes they would cut a half-day salary,” she recalls. But that wasn’t all.
“I wouldn’t be informed about anything that was going on at work and my talent and capabilities were often ignored. At one point, I was even pestered to leave my job,” she says. Eventually her gruelling routine brought on an illness and Farheen was forced to quit and seek treatment. This went on for over three years following which she took up a course in nursing. “During the course they said I would get government job. But I didn’t.”
Farheen’s reality starkly contrasts with the rosy picture of the ‘Modern Indian Women’ who flock to Indian workplaces today. In a country that has legal mandates to protect women at work and encourage more participation at the workplace, Farheen found that her disability, caste, religion and background – all stood against her. What is disturbing is that her story is not an isolated one.
Manjula, 32, faced similar discrimination at the hands of her employers in Bengaluru. Born with a condition that requires her to use crutches to walk, Manjula had a difficult childhood. Having been abused by her brother, she left home at a very young age and joined a missionary institute for girls to complete her education.
During graduation, she took up work in a retail company to support herself. Despite possessing the necessary skills for the job, Manjula’s pay remained unchanged for six years. It was the same story in two other organisations, where neither her talent nor her skills were acknowledged and the pay remained stagnant.
Manjula’s life changed when she met members of V-Shesh, an organisation that equips individuals with disabilities with life skills and communications training. With their help, she was placed at ANZ in Bengaluru where she now works as an analyst and is happy.
Farheen, too, eventually pulled through with encouragement and support from the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, an organisation which advocates for inclusive policies and helped Farheen hone her leadership skills. She now works as a facilitator with the Nai Umang Nai Soch Society.
However, for both Farheen and Manjula, these negative experiences have left a lasting impact. The fight for gender equality has been further complicated by their narratives of marginalisation due to both social standing and specific needs. And due to circumstances, their voices of dissent were silenced.
This culture of silence is more common than we think, and Joyita Mondal, a trans woman from North Dinajpur district in West Bengal, is certainly no stranger to it. Shares Joyita, “My community comes from an area that is on the border. Transgender activists generally fight for rights in big cities like Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. But in our area, we are triply stigmatised, being transgender, women and from a rural area that is not centrally located.”
Despite progressive laws and positive media reports about the rights of trans people and how they have broken barriers, individuals like Joyita continue to suffer. When she joined the call centre of a prominent national bank, she was forced to quit in two months. But in her case, neither the hiring process nor the pay-scale was an issue – her challenge was dealing with her fellow employees.
“I wasn’t attacked physically or sexually, but I was made the butt of many insensitive jokes. People would talk about me, stare at me and make fun of me. The situation was so bad that I was completely depressed working there. I decided to quit,” says Joyita, who now works as a Project Manager with Dinajpur Notun Aalo Society, a community-based organisation working with LGBT plus groups, senior citizens and youth.
In a society that has seen the fastest drop in the number of women in the workplace, the question is: what is the meaning of growth when it is not for everyone? Farheen, Manjula and Joyita’s stories point to the lacunae in the system. These shortcomings of India Inc. conflict greatly with the so-called spirit of ‘modernisation’ that everyone talks about ever since the liberalisation of the economy in 1991.
If we dig a little deeper, we will find that there are only certain kind of women who benefit from gender inclusive initiatives — privileged, hetero-normative, healthy, non-disabled. This is a problem. If policies continue to ignore the importance of the social inclusion of all women – women from minority communities, women with disabilities, women who identify as queer and those from underserved and oppressed communities – we will never truly be a modern, progressive and holistic workforce or society.
It is time to see women of all kinds – participate in our workforce. With collective will, sensitivity and awareness we can turn our work spaces into truly inclusive, positive hubs of economic activity and creativity. If you see an unjust work practice where someone you know is being judged as a Dalit woman, or because she hails from the North-East, or because she has cerebral palsy, or simply because she’s a woman employee, then speak up!
Dear working woman, we want to hear your story. Write to us. Tell us about YOUR career aspirations, the struggles, discriminatory practices you want changed, your expectations from your workplace, skills mismatch and wage gaps, and your unique experiences in starting your own business. Join the conversation and let us strive towards making decent work a reality for all!