As India’s economy grows, reports have indicated alarming drops in the percentage of women in its workforce. From a high of 31 percent more than a decade ago, the number has dropped to about 23 percent in recent years. The reasons for this are myriad and include shifts in agricultural labour, which makes up the largest part of the female workforce; and changing social pressures and mores.
What this means is that women are becoming even less visible in Indian public life. In cities, more women in the workforce means more women in the streets and on public transport, which makes life safer for everyone. In both rural and urban areas, women who work gain social clout within their families, becoming decision makers by virtue of their earning power.
We decided to profile eight women in fields that are typically associated with men. These women are engaged in diverse occupations—from patching 20kg truck tires to building nanosized cell culture models for pharmaceutical testing. Their motivations vary widely, with some responding to practical concerns and other following their passions, but they all have one thing in common: an indomitable resolve to be counted as equal citizens.
A private detective and head of her own agency, Bhavna Paliwal is intimately familiar with Delhi’s darker side.
When Bhavna Paliwal came to Delhi at the age of 22, she intended to study public relations but soon switched to journalism. “I thought journalists were a big deal and could do anything,” she says, sitting at her desk at the Tejas Detective Agency, three sparse rooms off a nondescript corridor in a tower in west Delhi. Ever since she was a child, growing up in the village of Nain in Uttar Pradesh, Bhavna knew that she wanted to do “something different.”
Bhavna’s father died when she was about five years old, and the household had always seemed unlike others in the village. “You would hear about problems,” she says, “women getting beaten, domestic issues. But I had my mother’s strength to look up to.”
Bhavna had another role model in Kiran Bedi, the first woman in the Indian Police Service. “In the village we couldn’t wear pantsuits, or jeans,” Bhavna says. “But girls have this craze, don’t they? To do things the way a man would do them—to do something different.”
After her journalism course, Bhavna joined a newspaper, but realised within two weeks that the job wasn’t quite different enough for her. When she came across an advertisement for the Times Detective Agency, she decided to apply. The decision wasn’t completely out of the blue; Bhavna’s uncle had been an inspector in the Crime Investigation Department, and conversations about detective work were common at home.
On her very first case, in 2000, Bhavna and another woman came up against a man who, unbeknownst to them, was a retired Intelligence Bureau agent himself. The two women brazened out the situation “on guts alone,” as Bhavna puts it. Three years and many cases later, she branched out with Tejas Detective Agency.
“There were fewer women doing detective work in those days,” Bhavna says, “and those that were, were hidden.” She realised there were others like her when news stories about female private detectives started appearing a few years later.
At Tejas, Bhavna focuses on tracing missing people, pre- and post-marital investigations, and cases of theft or fraud. Crime has changed over the years—Facebook fraud is now one of the most common types of case—and the team has grown to almost a dozen detectives, as well as freelancers with specialised skills. Bhavna manages every case, but still finds time to get out into the field herself.
“The biggest advantage of being a woman,” Bhavna says, “is that when we’re doing an investigation, we don’t arouse suspicion. Ladies are more comfortable with you. And if someone is suspicious, they can’t take immediate action. Men are reluctant to start a fight with you.”
“There is one disadvantage,” she adds. “We can’t do as much surveillance. If a woman is standing anywhere for half an hour, someone will definitely ask what you’re doing there, or if you need help. No one would notice a man.”
With over three decades in the Delhi Police under her belt, Devki Joshi now manages an all-woman fleet of emergency response vans.
Parenting experience can be a valuable asset in police work, and as the mother of three children, with 32 years in the Delhi Police, Sub-Inspector Devki Joshi has ample expertise in both. As the nodal officer for the force’s all-woman PCR team, she ends up using both as well.
Policewomen are sometimes part of the three-member teams in Police Control Room vans, which are the first respondents to the scene of an emergency. However, they are not typically associated with this highly visible branch of the constabulary. So last year, as part of its drive to combat violence against women, the Delhi Police flagged off an initiative to train and staff five vans in the New Delhi zone with all-women teams.
In the months leading up to the September launch, a select group of policewomen were chosen and trained for the task. They buffed up on arms and ammunitions training and learned hand-to-hand combat. Some learned to drive and got licences. But beyond these skills, the team needed someone to bridge the gap between them and their male superiors.
Devki Joshi was a natural choice. She had enlisted at age 19, and was in the batch of 1985, when the Delhi Police was pushing to add to the handful of women on its rolls. Leaving her an infant daughter at home, Devki worked first on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s security detail, then went on to do every kind of police duty. In Chandni Chowk, she investigated rape and molestation cases. She worked in the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office in stations across the city, and in the Police Control Room. Some of her dowry cases are still in the courts.
Meanwhile, she raised her children, waking up at 4am, feeding the family, going to work, and returning late at night. “It was difficult,” she says, “but I kept on, because I chose this job. I chose it myself, and that’s what gave me the strength to see it through.”
With improved leave policies in place, things have improved somewhat for Delhi’s policewomen. Devki’s superior, Assistant Commissioner Surjit Malik, has recently been pushing for a crèche facility using police resources, such as pregnant officers on light duty as staff. With a 33 per cent quota for women in the Delhi Police announced in 2015, he hopes such measures will be adopted to meet the challenges of the future.
For now, the 51-year-old Devki handles any issues that come up with sensitive efficiency. Rakesh Bala, a member of her team, tells us that “whether it’s a problem at home, or with a vehicle, she doesn’t need to take it to a senior officer—she sorts it out at her level. She understands us so well that before we even say anything, she knows what we’re worried about.”
While Mehrun-Nisha Shaukat Ali once dreamed about becoming a soldier or a police officer, she ultimately put her brawn to use as a bouncer.
Whenever there was military action on the border, Mehrun-Nisha Shaukat Ali and her six brothers and sisters used to stand on the roof of their house in Saharanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, watching troops muster. “Our mother would yell from below to come downstairs,” she tells us between purse-checks outside Hauz Khas Social, a bar in Delhi. “It was incredibly hot up there, but we’d stay for hours.” The kids would stand at attention, saluting, and yelling out, “We’re coming too! Someday we’ll join too!”
Mehrun-Nisha has always been a fighter. While she used to come back to school covered in scratches, she was also waging a war on another front—for the right to attend school in the first place. Her mother was her ally, encouraging her and her sister to study. Her father, afraid something might happen to his girls, was overprotective and against their going to school.
It was only after Mehrun-Nisha finished 12th standard, and her picture appeared with former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav in the newspaper, that her father came around. “He was mad with happiness,” she says, describing how he put his arms around the sisters, admitting he had been too harsh. “We were so happy that year,” she remembers. “He bought us everything we wanted, celebrated—it was heaven.”
But the next year, in 2007, the family suffered a serious financial blow and relocated to Delhi. Mehrun-Nisha wanted to help out, and dreamed about joining the police. But though she had won the battle to study, her father was still against her working. Mehrun-Nisha secretly joined the National Cadet Corps, and completed her training, but when she brought home her new uniform, her father set fire to it on the stove. Yet Mehrun-Nisha persevered, studying for a masters’ degree from Meerut, and working in retail, first at a clothing store for children.
When she heard about a job as a bouncer, Mehrun-Nisha thought it might be a good fit. She was physically fit, thanks to the gym routine she and her uncle had established years earlier. She soon became known as a good hire and eventually joined Hauz Khas Social, while her younger sister, Tarannum, took up a bouncer job at another club nearby.
The two sisters like their work, but Mehrun-Nisha, now 30, hasn’t stopped looking at the road ahead. Alongside her job at Social and freelance security work, she recently completed a one-year cooking diploma and is finishing up as a trainee at Joocy, a delivery restaurant in Gurgaon. “I can’t be a bouncer forever,” she says. “I always liked cooking, and figured this would be a good career.”
A visually impaired activist and stand-up comedian, Nidhi Goyal took up the mic to talk about the way people perceive her.
From the age of four, Nidhi Goyal loved to paint, and by the time she was a teenager, she knew she wanted to be a portrait artist. When Nidhi was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disorder, at age 15, the loss of this dream was the biggest blow.
“I’m not sure, looking back now, that I would have had the temperament—the patience—for it,” Nidhi tells us over a lime soda at a beachfront coffee shop in Malad. Articulate, chatty, and quick to laugh, this through-and-through Bombay girl eventually found a different creative outlet to suit her personality. A few years ago, she turned to stand-up comedy, both as a form of self-expression and as a way to extend the advocacy work she was already doing for disability and gender rights.
“After the first couple of years, when I acquired my disability, I think everything else became laughable,” Nidhi says. With two visually impaired children and one sighted one, the Nidhi family developed its own brand of humour, which treated prejudice—not disability—as something to be pitied or mocked. “To do comedy,” Nidhi tells us, “you need to be strong enough to point to that elephant in the room, which everyone is pretending is not there. And that’s something I’ve done since childhood.”
Nidhi dabbled in the performing arts in college, exploring every creative endeavour as her eyesight worsened. But she eventually chose a career in mass media and then transitioned to rights-based work for people with disabilities. (She currently heads a program on sexuality and disability at the non-governmental organisation Point of View; is researching disability and gender violence for Human Rights Watch; and is participating in a Civil Society Advisory Group to the UN Women initiative.) She had never considered comedy, beyond the usual mainstream artists.
In May 2015, she was having coffee with the queer activist and filmmaker Pramada Menon, and the two of them were in splits over some of Nidhi’s insights about the way disabled people are treated. Menon was performing a comedy set in Calcutta that December, and insisted that Nidhi perform too. So for the next six months, Nidhi recorded instances of ignorance or prejudice that she encountered, ranging from misconceptions about disability and sexuality, to observations about navigating public spaces—from city streets to airplane bathrooms. Then, it was just a matter of stringing them together for the show. “It’s part of the way I’ve looked at things in life—the lens I adopted to my own challenges,” she says.
After her performance in Calcutta, Nidhi, who is now 31, has done stand-up in mainstream clubs, at conferences and for corporations, while continuing with her advocacy work. On top of all this, it’s almost easy to overlook her achievement in navigating India’s notoriously disability-unfriendly spaces—all the while taking notes for future jokes of course. “It’s a shame that I get so much material,” Nidhi says, laughing. “I mean, it’s good for me…”
She may not have become a portrait painter, but Nidhi has succeeded in holding a mirror up to society, challenging its stereotypes one quip at a time.
Young classical vocalist Pelva Naik lets nothing come between her and her passion for dhrupad, a genre that has largely been performed by men.
For Pelva Naik, a 31-year-old classical vocalist, art is something that transcends differences. In interviews, one of her favourite responses to the question of being a rare female dhrupad performer is that “gender dissolves once the tanpura starts”.
She points out that her legendary guru, Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar, had “some very feminine qualities, all throughout my study with him. I still haven’t figured out that how people say that dhrupad is a masculine art form, or where that idea comes from.”
Still, the fact remains that Pelva is one of the very few women performing this particularly abstract form of Hindustani classical music today. “Dhrupad is all about the nature of the note; and I was always interested in detail, in description,” she tells us. When Pelva met her guru, during a workshop at school, she realised dhrupad “matched my element.” It was the art form most suited to her personality, and “felt like a rediscovery.”
She might have chosen from several others. Pelva grew up in an creative family in Ahmedabad, with a father who wrote and made films, and a mother who practiced Bharatanatyam. She studied kathak and khayal, was interested in miniature painting, and enjoyed literature in English, Hindi, and Gujarati.
After school, Pelva went to study at the Dhrupad gurukul near Panvel, Mumbai, where she still lives. Her parents never let her feel insecure about the decision not to go to college, and she threw herself into years of rigourous training, which led to her public debut in 2012. Since then, Pelva has been performing regularly. She also began teaching students at a relatively early age.
Rather than dwell on her position as a “woman dhrupad vocalist”, though, Pelva insists that there have always been women who have practiced the art. “It’s just that on the public platform, men had more exposure,” she says. “But I have heard stories from my ustad about his mother—and ustad’s grandmother was a veena player. She used to practice veena at home, and teach the children.” Pelva considers these women maestros; for her, “it is more about what kind of practitioner you are—what kind of routine you have. Do you wake up in the morning, and practice, teach, think about your work, talk about your work?”
Pelva is glad that now the number of women on the stage is growing, and that more people are discovering dhrupad thanks to the Internet. For her, there has never been a question of what comes first. “Even today, when some people say, ‘Oh, now I’m married, I have children, I don’t have time’—you can understand that to an extent, but I would not support that point,” she says. “When you’re in love, you call it love. You just go for it. When you’re in a relationship, you are committed.”
Biotechnologist Prajakta Dandekar is on the cutting edge of a new technology that could revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry.
Lush gardens filled with tropical plants and meandering paths surround the buildings of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Matunga, Mumbai. The inside of Prajakta Dandekar’s lab presents a stark contrast, with machines for the culturing and analysis of cells crammed in every corner, gleaming white surfaces, and shelves bursting with flasks and vials.
“We end up spending more time in the lab than in the house,” says Prajakta, a 35-year-old professor at the institute, who is doing some of the most interesting work in biotechnology today. Here, along with her team of students, Prajakta works on culturing human and other mammalian cells for drug experimentation, using a method that reduces the pharmaceutical industry’s reliance on animal testing and is more accurate than traditional ways of testing cell cultures.
Only a handful of scientists around the world work on this aspect of biotechnology, which involves growing three-dimensional arrangements of cells on a tiny “chip”, fed by fluidic channels that simulate the flow and exchange of nutrients in the body. Prajakta’s husband, also a professor at ICT, focuses on the application of trial drugs to the different cells cultures, such as skin, lung, or gut. Her own emphasis is on developing the chip’s underlying structure, particularly exploring the use of biodegradable materials such as chitosan, a biopolymer derived from crustacean shells, to create a scaffold for the cells.
For Prajakta, who has received several awards and fellowships for her work, this area of research was a way to bring together her training in pharmaceutics with her graduate work in bioprocess technology. Prajakta had lots of doctors in her family, and originally wanted to be one too, but pharmaceutics threw up a different insight. Prajakta realised that greater ethical concerns about animal testing were exerting real pressure on the development of new medicines, and that the drug industry needed new ways to test their products. Though she didn’t become a clinician, Prajakta points out that “whatever we’re developing is ultimately for the patient.”
As a graduate of the ICT herself, Prajakta has always felt at home in science, but concedes that there is room for improvement when it comes to the ratio of men and women. “In the basic sciences, there are more women,” she tells us, “but in technology and engineering areas, the percentage drops. In my field, I wouldn’t say it’s pathetic, but it’s not good.”
“Right now the policymaking is more male dominated,” she says, “If it starts from the level of education, eventually you would have more women policymakers in top positions, such as directors of institutes.” Prajakta counts herself lucky to have her husband on the same campus, and parents nearby to keep an eye on her two-year-old daughter, but believes that more women at the forefront of her field and its affiliated industries would only be an advantage.
Shanti Devi works alongside her husband in the no woman’s land of Delhi’s largest truck stop.
It’s unclear how the Internet originally discovered Shanti Devi, a 50-something who works alongside her husband, repairing truck tires in the Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar, a sprawling truck yard stuffed with mechanics, about 16 km away from Delhi’s northern border. Pointing to a my smartphone, she says, “Open this up and you’ll see dozens on pictures of me.” She shakes her head and offers a hint of a smile, “Sometimes they’ve even made me pose while pretending to remove tires from trucks. Though that’s the truck driver’s job. I don’t remove or replace them, but repair them.”
Shanti Devi seems bemused at the attention. For her, working alongside her husband in the repair yard was a necessity, and though the decision has given her a solid sense of her own capability and brought her the admiration of readers around the world, these were hardly her considerations when she made the choice to do it.
Originally from Gwalior, Shanti Devi has worked all her life, in whatever odd job she could find, from rolling beedis to sewing work. She came to Delhi about 35 years ago, with her first husband, who drank himself to an early death. She married again, and set up a tea stall in the transport centre with Ram Bahadur. “We hired a mechanic to bring in some more income,” she says. “After we learned everything we could from watching him, we started doing the work ourselves. We built a house and got our children married off.”
“Trucks come here from all over the country,” Shanti tells us. “People do come back to us—there’s a relationship, but also we have a kind of stamp. They say ‘Come on, let’s go to the old man and woman’s place and get our work done there.’ They know we do our work well. Someone calls me tai, someone else calls me chachi.”
But though the family has been here 20 years—almost since the transport centre was created—the shop is still an impermanent structure, subject to the mercy of the municipality. Sipping her afternoon cup of tea, Shanti Devi surveys the life she’s made in her little tented shop, dwarfed by the large orange trucks surrounding it. “The work is easy enough,” she says, “though I’m starting to feel my age. But we’ve never received any help from anyone.”
As an officer in the Mumbai Fire Brigade, when Shubhangi Yuvraj Mandare is on the scene of disaster, she’s the woman in charge.
Shubhangi Yuvraj Mandare can’t remember the details of her first call, but she does remember a small incident, one or two days after she joined the Mumbai Fire Brigade in 2012. She was sitting in the truck, and someone in a passing car flashed her a thumbs-up. “That felt so great,” she grins, recalling the incident over four years later.
The 29-year-old is one of the first few officers hired by the fire department, along with about a dozen firewomen. It wasn’t a career Shubhangi would have ever imagined for herself when she was growing up in Pune. “There’s no one in the police or the army in my family,” she tells us, sitting in an office at the brigade’s central Byculla station. Shubhangi studied chemistry, which is compulsory for becoming a fire officer. After graduation, she happened to see a recruitment ad in the newspaper.
“It was the first time they were calling women,” she says. “I thought, let’s try.” Shubhangi travelled to Mumbai and made it through as an officer. As the only accountable person on the scene of a fire, the officer has heavy responsibility, but Shubhangi manages her duties—directing the firefighting, and managing resources, information, and people in the heat of the moment—with buoyant self-assurance.
She recounts a call she was on, during a fire at the MNTL office in Parel. “Some incorrect information was passed on to me about the route we should take to go in,” Shubhangi says. “So when I went that way, I saw that there was a 10 to 12-foot high wall, which was completely covered with flames. It was very difficult to fight. Still, we doused the area, but I immediately reported that the route was dangerous. You have to guide the people behind you.”
Shubhangi says that though the work is sometimes dangerous, her family is more proud of her than nervous. She got married in 2015, but isn’t thinking about expanding her family at the moment. Her daily work routine is enough to keep her occupied, from morning warm-ups that go on until 8am, to drills to build unity amongst the team, and of course responding to calls. We ask her about her ambitions and she giggles slightly, glancing over at one of her male colleagues. Then, she replies, laughing, “Why not head of the department?”