The Strength of a Woman


– Kriti Gupta

Rameshwari is in her early 50s. She sells pots in a shop right next to her house in Okhla. The income generated through this endeavour supplements her husband’s income. Together they are able to earn enough to provide for their family’s basic needs.

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Although, Rameshwari plays an important role in supporting her family, her day is spent in silence apart from the occasional negotiations with customers. When asked about her situation, she speaks up, “My husband doesn’t let me go and work outside. This is the only job I am allowed to do (and that too, only) because the shop is right next to the house.”

This predicament is faced by a large number of women across India. Indian notions of femininity prescribe a status quo – women should not be educated or allowed to step out of the house, cannot partake in masculine professions and so on. These might appear as mere stereotypes to some, but for Rameshwari they are a way of life.

These set notions make certain types of jobs more acceptable for women than others. A baseline survey on women in low-income groups shows that women mostly work in jobs that are predominantly “feminine”. The analysis shows that most women cook, clean or take care of children. These are domestic professions similar to the ones a woman would perform at home and therefore, in keeping with the stereotype.

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An example of this is Filomeena, a Christian girl from Jharkhand, who came to Delhi with the aim of supporting her family – “My father couldn’t support us alone and I don’t have any brothers who could help him out.” She works in a residential area near Ashram as the nanny to a 6-month-old baby girl. Meena (as she is conveniently called) talks about how this job is a perfect fit for her. “I had taken care of all my sisters while they were growing up. So I knew how to handle babies. Besides, I like to work in a house because Delhi is not safe for women.”

The dichotomy between Rameshwari and Meena is interesting. Rameshwari wants to work outside the house but is not allowed to do so. Meena, on the other hand, internalizes norms about women and their place in society and therefore, prefers to work at home. However, her parents have sent her to a far off place, because they cannot support the family.

For women in low-income groups, this is a ubiquitous problem. There is a constant struggle between the needs of the family and individual desires. It is the struggle between following the stereotype and trying to break out of it at the same time.

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One woman who breaks the mould is Santo. She is an ironsmith and welds iron to make all sorts of tools – hammers, scythes, etc which she sells on the roadside. She constantly faces criticism of society because her profession is considered undignified for women.

Her husband started with the trade but he became a good for nothing. “I had to take charge. I started using his tools and soon I was earning enough to sustain the family.” With two girls and a boy, Santo not only earns for the family, but she also takes care of her children.

Santo battles with society on a daily basis. Male ironsmiths constantly steal her customers and the women consider her a pariah. Despite that, she has created a space for herself. “I depend only on myself and apologize to no one”, she says, “So as long as I’m not hurting others, I believe that god will give me strength to support myself and my family.”

It is evident that stereotypes play a major role in the lives of all these women. While Santo herself wishes she were educated, she does not send her daughters to school. Rameshwari has educated her daughters but does not allow them to work in fear that they might become too successful for marriage. Meena feels the need to explain that she doesn’t have brothers in order to justify her work. It is clear that these women live by balancing the various polarities in their lives.

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Ranviri is a woman who does that as well. She has worked for the last 30 years. “I worked through all five of my pregnancies. I used to commute everyday from Mandi House to my school in Batla House.” She works as a sweeper in a playschool and supplements her husband’s income.

With a wry smile on her face, she continues, “My husband wanted to stop me, but I explained to him that this would be the best for our family. He understood.” She balanced family and work life by dragging her children to her workplace, nursing them between breaks and so on. Now, despite having two working sons and one married daughter, she continues to work at the school.

 

This middle ground is what allows these women to survive within the spaces available to them. Despite stereotypes, these women support their families. They constantly negotiate with desires and expectations in an attempt to bring happiness to the people they love. Their femininity is their strength. And maybe that is the only stereotype that should be expected out of women.

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~ by kritigupta on October 31, 2009.

2 Responses to “The Strength of a Woman”

  1. krit 🙂 this is really nice! and i love the pictures!!!

  2. awww…thanks! 🙂

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