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.


At 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….

Love 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 income.

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 extra money…

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…

Children 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 1 to 1 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 eat?"

"Bhakri-jawari 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.
"And vegetables?"

"Vegetables-- 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 remain stagnant....
"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.