‘Women find a way to survive and be strong. That’s all I did’

Nivedita N (Twitter: Nive_nk) examines how women are coping with increasing professional and personal responsibilities and comes to the conclusion that on the road and in government, women continue to fight personal battles to succeed.

When Mariamma* was 40, her husband abandoned the family for his childhood love, who had then been widowed. Today, she is 65, and sells pakodas from her tiny counter adjacent to a bar in Lingarajpuram, Bengaluru. Back in the early 1990s, when she decided to capitalise on this spot beside a busy bar by the Oil Mill road, she couldn’t reason its profitability with her son, and was abandoned again. Because “old mother selling pakodas by a bar brought shame to his wife and son”, Mariamma says, scooping out piping hot pakodas off the stove.

Now, it is the mother and her physically challenged daughter, who has perpetually closed doors on marriage proposals and teaches Kannada to kids to support what remains of Mariamma’s family – the two of them

Ask the sexagenarian if managing the shop and home is not a demanding task to her lone self, she shoots back that it is men’s general worldview that all sort of work is difficult for women. They think “we are not good at physically demanding tasks,” she says swiftly packing 100 gm pakodas for a teenage boy at her counter.

“But this chap is not one of them, otherwise he wouldn’t be here buying from me,” she says, simultaneously building customer-ship with the possible new regular at the bar. “Most of these fellows mature from boys into men, firmly believing that work done by females has ever been inferior,” she sarcastically remarks.

Mariamma goes on to elucidate the disparity that is ingrained in the way boys and girls are brought up. “Young girls are told they need to be protected. They can’t step out after dark without a male companion, cannot sit idle at home etc. But, young boys grow up amid less regulations. This is why women feel lost amid difficult situations, but they do not give up easily. Women find a way to survive and be strong. That is all I did,” she says.

Economically and professionally independent women from different strata of the society whom Karnataka Today when asked if they had been considered inferior at work had similar responses.

Men aren’t questioned if putting extra hours at work is a challenge to them when they do two jobs in a day or log overtime in shifts, says Suchitra Swamy*, who works as a peon by day and househelp by evening. The 32-year-old says that men are not probed despite taking up odd jobs like salesmen and security guards. “Even in bigger offices, there are managers who work for 16 hours, but does anybody ask them if it is challenging? Then why ask this to a woman,” Suchitra questions.

Suchitra, who has been the sole breadwinner in her family after her electrician husband took to alcohol, says she couldn’t let her and her daughter’s life get ruined because of her husband’s alcoholism and decided to take up a job.

A resident of Bayappanhalli in Bengaluru, Suchitra says her neighbour, who is a lab technician at a college near her home, got her a peon’s job there. But, a peon’s salary alone was not sufficient to fund her household, daughter’s education and other needs. “So I got a job as a househelp in the evenings,” Suchitra says, adding, “My in-laws had a problem with me working after 6 pm. I asked whether they can assure me that my daughter will never have to leave her education because of lack of money. They had no answer...”

Ruling the roost

While women like Mariamma eke out a living amid male-dominated spaces, there are others who have penetrated into predominantly male professions, and make every effort to win the respect they command from subordinates.

Shalini Rajneesh, principal secretary, department of primary and secondary education, did have the privilege of being an IAS officer’s daughter, but only till she became one herself. Once on the job, she had to face the common perception that most men have about their woman boss - that she is inexperienced. Rajneesh was all of 24 when she graduated as the ‘youngest woman topper’ in the 1989 batch and was posted as assistant commissioner, Bengaluru. “Everybody looked at me with the thought that ‘here is a young person, on top of that a girl, who is going to order us around’,” she says. So, the first thing she had to alter was how she carried herself on the job. “I made a conscious effort to look like an adult by wearing sarees, a huge bindi and my hair up in a bun. I took up learning Kannada as I realised that they (her subordinates) would trust me more if they saw me as one of them,” Rajneesh says. Her effort to learn the language seems to have paid back, as she considers people in Karnataka as “very encouraging and helpful, compared to other states”.

But, appearance and speaking the state’s language alone couldn’t have helped Rajneesh command the respect of her male colleagues. So, she made it a point that her legal knowledge was up to date. “That made it easier to tackle them (male colleagues) as people have no answer to knowledge.”

Recalling an incident that led to her clearing many pending cases of land disputes, Rajneesh says she was told “this is how a court works” when she questioned her subordinates about the numerous adjournments that had led to a pile up of pending cases. Rajneesh served quick fare orders, even admonishing the lawyers at times for not being prepared.

“As a woman, you have an additional responsibility to be strict, because there is always someone who will take a female lightly only because of her gender. So that is what I was - fair and strict and a task master,” she laughs. The reputation of being a strict officer gained during her initial days preceded her wherever she served afterwards, she says.

A stern attitude and a ‘no-nonsense’ approach has recently earned IPS officer Roopa D the President’s Medal for Meritorious Service, which was conferred on her at the Raj Bhavan. Known in the department for tackling corruption and the VIP culture, Roopa says women have to constantly prove themselves as any slack on her part leads to judgement upon her gender.

“If a woman fails at a task or is not able to complete it, the superiors say, ‘Because she is a woman, she could not finish it’. But if a man fails in a similar scenario, they say, ‘circumstances caused him to fail’,”, she says. This established opinion about women is what needs to change in workplaces, Roopa says, adding that she had made up her mind to become an IPS officer at the age of eight, and today, the khakee she wears comes above everything else.

‘Away from posts of power’

“The department needs more women to let men, and the world know that women are capable of all kinds of jobs,” she says. She reveals that women are often kept away from powerful postings as these involve vested interests of politicians and other higher ups. “They feel awkward asking a woman for an unlawful favour and prefer the posting to be held by a man. They won’t change their unlawful way, but will hold an important post away from a woman because of their corrupt interests. Men do not have to deal with such struggles.”

Constantly reminding subordinates of their seniority is a requisite for women in such circumstances when their orders and views are dismissed because of an ingrained gender-bias, says the IPS officer.

“Any job with the right amount of training and hard work can be done by anybody. Only when more women hold more positions in all kinds of jobs will the society get rid of its gendered prejudices. That is what will change how the world views women,” says Mariamma.

*Names changed to protect identity

(Nivedita N is a ​Bengaluru- based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Karnatakatoday.com and Karnatakatoday.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.