In India a Small Band of Women Risk It All for a Chance to Work

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In India a Small Band of Women Risk It All
On a humid, sweaty, honking afternoon last summer, two women were making their way through the court complex in the north Indian city of Meerut, searching for the office of the subdivisional magistrate.

They walked past the purveyors of stamp papers and affidavits, typists clickety-clacking on stools, barristers-at-law in flapping gowns, pillars of wadded files bound in twine.

It is fair to say that these two did not belong. They had the swaying walk of village women — half-duck, half-ballerina — who have spent their lives balancing bundles of firewood on their heads. When they entered the office of a criminal defense lawyer, in the sweat-stained broom closet where he receives clients, they were at first so conscious of their low status that they tried to sit on the floor.

They were engaging his services because they wanted to work. They lived 10 miles away, in a small settlement where, for generations, begging had been the main source of income. A few weeks earlier, the male elders of their caste had decreed that village women working at nearby meat-processing factories should leave their jobs. The reason they gave was that women at home would be better protected from the sexual advances of outside men. A bigger issue lay beneath the surface: The women’s earnings had begun to undermine the old order.

It came as a surprise when seven of the women, who had come to rely on the daily wage of 200 rupees, about $3, refused to stop. The women would have to, the men said, blocking the lane with their bodies. They did not expect the women to go to the police.

It would have been impossible — this appeal to the distant, abstract power of the Indian state — if the women had not been so angry.

Geeta, the younger of the two, was born angry. Even as a child, if her siblings took her portion of food, she was apt to throw everyone’s dinner into the dirt. “A real bastard-woman,” one neighbor called her, eyes widening with admiration.

“Let their ladies sit and cook for them,” Geeta would hiss to her friend Premwati, as they walked together past their neighbors. “Our husbands are with us.”

Premwati was a more cautious sort. In the tradition of their caste, the Nats, a person challenging a community punishment could offer a defense at trial by picking up a red-hot piece of iron and walking five steps toward the temple. If her hands burned, she was guilty, and would be placed in a hole in the ground until she confessed.

Village of Peepli Keera - India
The Nat settlement of Peepli Khera lies at the edge of the north Indian city of Meerut, home to more than one million people. But it is far from the modern world.

They had wandered into dangerous territory, she and Geeta. She knew that. When evening fell in the village of Peepli Khera, Premwati would crouch over her clay stove, rolling chapatis in and out of the embers, and survey the forces arrayed against them. Too poor to afford a house with a door, she lay at night under a thatched roof, listening for the footsteps of people she could not see.

Last summer, as they fought to remain in the work force, Geeta and Premwati made up a small part of a big economic puzzle.

In India, women’s participation in the labor force stands at around 27 percent, lower than any other country in the G-20, except for Saudi Arabia. Standard models suggest that a lucky confluence of factors — economic expansion, rising education levels and plummeting fertility — would draw women swiftly into India’s economy.

Instead, the opposite is happening: From 2005 to 2012, women’s participation rates slid to 27 percent from 37 percent, largely because rural women were dropping out of the work force. Of 189 countries studied by the International Labour Organization, India ranks 17th from the bottom.

This is terrible news for India, as it strains to become a competitive producer for world markets. Economists have put forward two theories to explain the decline. The first is that India’s boom has created jobs in segments that are generally not accessible to women, like construction. The second has to do with culture: Unless their choices are dictated by destitute poverty, Indian families seek the status that comes from keeping women at home.

The Nat families were just crossing that threshold, and many things were changing. Premwati and Geeta could feel the grip of the local moneylenders loosening; the taste of independence made them bold. In this way, over five months last spring and summer, the unstoppable force of economic need met the immovable object of social control.

The cost of remaining in the work force, they discovered, was very high.

Water buffalo are slaughtered and processed
Water buffalo are slaughtered and processed in Al-Faheem Meatex plant in Meerut. Some women from the village of Peepli Khera found work at such plants.

The Bossiest Woman in the Village

At 10 o’clock on a morning in May, Geeta and Premwati wrapped fried bread in plastic bags and set off on foot toward the meat-processing factories. It was blindingly hot, and stray dogs and buffaloes lay in strips of shade on either side of the road.

To save the 5-rupee, or 7-cent, fare for an auto-rickshaw, they walked the whole dusty distance, nearly an hour from their small community of Nats, who are Hindus, through the Muslim neighborhoods that surround the factories. They kept their dupattas pulled all the way down over their faces, following the medieval tradition of purdah, or veiling, but men in skullcaps lingered in the doorways anyway, gawking.

“What is your name?” one of the men yelled, breaking the silence.

“Geeta,” came the reply, bell-clear.

The two met as young wives, taken away from their home villages and deposited among strangers in Peepli Khera. Geeta, who had barely hit puberty, landed in the grip of a mother-in-law who believed that drinking tea made a girl greedy for extra helpings of food.

So Geeta would sneak over to see Premwati, who made buckets of tea, watery and sweet. Geeta was scrawny and mouthy. She tended to alienate women — maybe it was the way she called them fat buffaloes — but Premwati calmly allowed Geeta’s insults to bubble over her. Geeta returned the favor by stomping over and intervening whenever Premwati’s husband beat her.

“It has become a habit to take a beating,” Geeta said one day, scowling.

In this way, Geeta had carved out a role for herself as the bossiest woman in the village. No one beat her. “Her husband is like a chicken — if she tells him to get up, he will get up!” chuckled the chief in the town where she grew up.

As the women approached the factories that morning, they pulled their scarves over their faces against the smell, a stomach-turning odor that wafts off tallow-rendering vats and suggests rotting meat. Over the last five years, with the market for flash-frozen buffalo meat booming in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China, India had quietly become the world’s largest meat exporter. The factories outside Meerut were expanding.

For this reason, about five years earlier, Geeta and her friends had been drawn into the labor force, supplementing their husbands’ seasonal earnings as wedding-band musicians. Inside the boundary walls of the factories, they broke rocks into rubble and carried cement mix in shallow pans, balanced on the crowns of their heads, to stonemasons building interior walls. Some washed meat pans; some assembled cartons; some carried bricks.

Geeta and Premwati found the work boring, and also terrifying. The women of their community live by rules: If an older man approaches, they cannot sit on any surface above the ground, so it is not unusual to see them suddenly slither down off cots and chairs. They are forbidden to have physical contact with men from outside the community, with the exception of physicians or bangle sellers.

At first they went to work with their stomachs knotted with fear that a strange man might grab their hand. At this prospect, even Geeta’s nerve collapsed. Once, while carrying a load of mud at a factory that crushes bones for animal feed, she slipped and fell into a 10-foot trench, her leg buckling beneath her. But when the factory’s clerk, a Muslim, reached a hand down to help her up, she jerked away, as if his touch would scald her.

She lay there in the mud, at the bottom of the ditch, until Premwati arrived to help her clamber out.

As the weeks passed, though, their fears ebbed. At the construction sites, they watched migrant workers from Nepal and Bangladesh, buyers who flew in from China, and the sons of the factory owners, roaring in and out in BMWs and Audis…

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Written by: ELLEN BARRY
Photographs by: ANDREA BRUCE

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