Documents on Women's Lives in Modern India
Excerpt from an account of "Problems Facing Working Women," by Seita Vaidalingam, an Indian lawyer, 1986
The Indian constitution assures and seeks to ensure equality for all
its citizens irrespective of sex. In also propounds the concept that
men and women are equal in the eyes of the law. The Supreme Court has
laid down the rule of equal pay for equal work. Despite all of these
assurances from the highest quarters, women face problems all along
the line even if they happen to be working women.
the outset, I must confess that I am no feminist. I am just a
professional lawyer and, of course, a woman. I treat everybody as
persons primarily and not as men or women….
financial wherewithal is necessary for every human being to develop
self esteem and live with dignity come up the way to do it for women
is fraught with hills, problems and even greater exploitation simply
because they work. In other words, according to me, working women are
subject to more exploitative problems and pressures than their
non-working sisters. Finding a suitable occupation is the first
problem. Invoking her right and wish to do so proceeds It and of
course fighting for the right amount of education to secure a decent
job tops at all.
After having completed her
education when a woman steps into the field of her chosen vocation
she soon learns that people's attitudes to working women are not
quite encouraging or correct. We tend to be skeptical of women's
staying capacity and the usual remark is that, "She'll only be
there for a short while while she's on a transitory course to
marriage and therefore why take her seriously or pay her adequately."
This kind of attitude can spoil a woman's chances at all levels and
particularly in the field of self employment. With a job become other
problematic situations-- laid hours and having to cope with all kinds
of people at work especially men. Laid hours necessarily mean having
to be prepared for unsafe situations while returning home…. The
home situation is also not always particularly conducive to the
working woman. A woman's job gets low priority and the household
chores and social obligations that await her tend to be distracting.
At this stage if a woman works the main accent seems to be one her
earnings-- they are either expected to be used towards household
expenses are for collecting a dowry for a further marriage mainly
comprising jewelry and clothes. Whereas young men who have just
started to work tend to utilize their money either towards getting a
vehicle or equipping and office-- both items of expenditure
calculated to make them go further in their chosen field….
The instances of discrimination are numerous. If a woman works in the
marriage breaks for no fault of hers, her earnings are taken into
account and she may be denied alimony even if she cannot maintain the
same standard of living as she did when she was married on her
salary. In India most investments are made and the husband's name and
as there as yet is no concept of community property-- namely joint
property-- if a marriage fails the wife may be left with nothing to
call her own even if she has been working and augmenting the family
Once a working woman marries as she
eventually does and indeed must, more problems are in the offing. The
change of residence may prove fatal to her present job. If she goes
into a joint family, than the expectations of that family will
definitely tell on her working life. The demands of married life also
take their toll. The onerous burden with household chores, child
raising and the mental and physical pressures of a job or not for the
faint-hearted. Indian men are not entirely the house husband kind.
And are not quite used to the working women although they like the
This according to me is double
exploitation at its extreme worst because in such a situation the
woman concerned is subjected to all the harassment a housewife is
subjected to plus The Strain of holding a job with not even the right
to control her finances. This is contradictory with the people who
maintain that working gives a woman financial independence and the
right to control money….
The single working woman
faces an accommodation problem if working in a city where their
families do not live. One has heard and read in the newspapers of the
unfavorable and unsafe conditions prevailing in hostels which in any
case are not enough to meet the need…
constitute yet another problem for the working woman. The leave she
compulsorily has to take during the days of confinement, delivery and
post-delivery may prove a set-back in her career and besides in most
cases maternity leave and benefits are hopelessly inadequate.
Domestic help to look after the children is becoming more and more
scarce and creches are a far from satisfactory solution. The Joint
Family system has its own inbuilt tensions. A working woman may well
find that she has to spend on transport, child care and other
increased expenses because of her job may not be worth the job in
terms of monetary return….
A decade and a half
ago, an Indian woman who is well educated was a rarity-- one who
worked even more so. I do not remember any of my friends mothers
working. My own mother has never done a days work despite having
secured a medical education from the Madras Medical College…. Times
have changed-- so many women work now-- some like me out of choice,
many more out of sheer necessity-- many of my friends are successful
lawyers, doctors, engineers and heads of business organizations. In
our position it appears that if a woman works it's roses all the
way-- the world outside sees the facade, the statistics and applauds
and shouts "Vive la femme," in that moment of glory, the
stress and strain, both physical and mental-- but when the curtain
comes down-- the problems remain.
Excerpt from an Interview of a Rural Indian Woman for the United Women's Liberation Conference in Puna, India, 1975
We [the interviewers] begin concretely: What time do you get up in
the morning and what do you do? And it doesn't take them long to get
over whatever hesitancy or shyness in speaking may be there. One
woman, Kaminibai, a strong, independent-looking woman of indefinable
middle age, emerges as the main speaker.
What is their work
day like? They get up at 5 AM, get water from the well, collect
cow-pats for fuel, cook, clean the floor, take their baths, wash
clothes and then go to the fields at 8 or 10 AM. They work until 6
PM-- on the days when they can get work-- and then return for cooking
and household duties until they finally go to sleep at 9 or 10 PM. 16
hours of work today and we added up together face and head for this
the land owners pay them 1¼ to 1½ rupees.
“What do men get?”
“Two and a half
rupees for light work, three for heavier work.”
What is the
difference in work? Kaminibai tells me: men's work is ploughing,
cutting ears of corn, collecting the crop, carrying it away,
collecting leftovers for cattle. Women's work is winnowing grain from
chaff, weeding, picking cotton and removing the seed, sowing. This is
the normal division of labor in India; It only has to be added that
women generally apply fertilizer where this is used and do the work
of rice-transplanting in rice areas.
"What do you
bhakri or lab bhakri." This means it course,
tortilla-like bread made of millet and sometimes of American
milo (sorghum) which is often imported and sold or given
to the poor.
what shall we tell you?" says Kaminibai. If we have vegetables
we can have spices but no salt, or salt but no spaces, such is our
poverty! There is no work. Some collect twigs, some collect wood and
sell it, or use it for fuel. What can we do? We are poor...."
They complain of the
lack of work. Sometimes they get it, sometimes not, about two or
three days of work a week. If they don't get work, they often just
lay around and try to sleep because there is no food and they have no
strength to do more. they can't eat, they say; all have become
beggars these days because the prices keep rising while wages just
"But is there
male supremacy?" I ask...
"Yes, there is
male supremacy." Still, during the days of government relief
work during the famine, they got equal pay. But in the work they do
in the fields, men get more daily wages and they get less, and the
reason for that is that men's work is heavier, more toilsome. Women's
work is different…
"[Women have to
do double work! . . . .We have to do the housework and when
housework is finished we have to do the field work and when the field
work is finished we have to take care of the children, we have to do
all the work! Suppose someone is thinking like this, some
reader-and-writer, let him sit down and write an account: what sort
of work has to be done, what sort of work the men do come what work
we do. I am ready to tell you! What do men do? They get up, they take
a bath, they eat some bread and go to the fields. But understand what
their duty is: they only do the work that is allotted to them in the
fields. They only do one sort of work."
Source: The Twentieth Century: Readings in Global History. Edited by Walter Moss, Janice Terry, and Jiu-Hwa Upshur. Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999, pp. 247-250.