Stand up straight. Chin up. Look forward. Move fast, but with purpose. Brace yourself.
These are not the words of a ballroom dance instructor, but those of Yamuna, the sole newspaper girl in Chennai, as she mutters to herself every day at three in the morning. This is the time when she sets out to pick up newspapers she delivers to a middle class neighborhood.
She has done this every day for the last ten years. The other day, an old man – a customer – touched the breasts on the image of a model posing in a jewelry advertisement printed in the newspaper while ogling at Yamuna with lecherous eyes. He had stopped her on the road and asked her if it was a gold necklace the model was wearing – a silly question, she reminisced later. But, at that time, she simply nodded and left.
“It happens before you know it,” Yamuna says. The daughter of a newspaper agent, she has never faced such issues with the newspaper boys she spends an hour with before dawn. They sort newspapers and arrange supplements under a dim street light at a junction two kilometers away from her home. They have accepted her – a pink-collar worker – as a colleague.
“I do not have any problems with the male staff. In fact, they are very protective,” says Deepa, a hotel receptionist at a four-star hotel in Chennai. “Sometimes it is the customers, and sometimes it is simply street harassment,” she tells me.
While the media is replete with stories on the safety issues of the Indian white-collar working women who constitute only 20.4 percent of the urban women workforce, the insecurities and challenges of the remaining 78.6 percent pink-collar workers is often unacknowledged and overlooked. Pink-collar jobs are jobs generally considered “women’s work.” In India they include personal-service-oriented positions such as maids, garbage workers, shop assistants, nurses, and receptionists.
For Indian pink-collar workers, working odd or stretched hours is not a choice but a necessity. Retail shop assistants and hotel staff return home by midnight after a twelve-hour stretch. For most of them, street harassment is common but not unmanageable. Catcalls, groping, flashing and stalking – the tough pink-collar worker is prepared and knows how to handle the harassers. Her solutions range from walking in groups, staying close to the workplace and using a two-wheeler, to wearing modest clothing, keeping a stern face, and using anything – even a safety pin’s pinhead if required – as a weapon. It is, however, the veiled sexist comments from customers that traumatize. Yamuna prepares her mind every morning in her own simple way to tackle her 200 plus customers, most of whom are men.
According to a 2009 National Crime Bureau Report, Chennai, a conservative metropolitan city in the south of India, is safe for women. Chennai ranked 34 out of 35 cities surveyed for crime and offences against Indian women. Chennai has seen an increase of women in low-skilled sectors migrating from various areas in the state and other parts of India. Although street harassment goes largely unreported, it is perhaps too soon for city police stations to receive reports of harassment of women by customers.
Indian white-collar women workers are tentative to report harassment; one can hardly expect the pink-collar worker, if she even manages to identify harassment, to be in a position to voice it. Her job is at stake, and there are many mouths to feed back home. According to Indian society, she does not exist. According to the employers, she is a liability. According to the media, she is not glamorous enough to be written about.
Surya, a shop assistant in a supermarket tells me that the glamour of the city is overwhelming. “It was at least three years before I could get over that breathtaking and wonderful feeling I had initially,” she explained. “And, it took another two years to consider the frequent brushes of well-dressed gentlemen against me ‘accidentally’ as a premeditated gesture of sexual harassment. Touching my fingers while handing over packages, groping my back while I am busy arranging shelves and looking under my skirt when I climb the ladder to arrange top shelves - these are incidents I encounter frequently.”
So, how does Surya handle them? “While I ignore some, I react mildly to some others by frowning. I try to arrange shelves before customers arrive. There is no solution for all, and it is not something I can complain about,” she says with a sad smile. If ever she did, the staff will stop being friendly with her. Anything ‘less’ than sexual intercourse is not considered worth making a complaint. In the name of culture, it is tolerated. However, her face lights up when she says, “Some of the delivery boys are sensitive and take over when they sense something amiss.”
Kuppamma, a garbage woman shares a similar story. By six in the morning she is ready with her garbage cart to pick trash from the streets. When she goes into the backyards of houses that bachelor men share, she picks up lots of used beer cans. The young men are bare-chested and dressed in lungis (a common night wear for men till their morning bath) and bunch up near the back door ogling the ill-fitting blouse revealing her cleavage when she bends down to pick up the trash. “I tighten the top end of my saree every time before bending. What more can I do?” she asks. “I cannot comprehend what they can see in an old woman like me” she adds with disgust.
Fighting every day, all day, becomes exhausting. Harassment is traumatizing and is an everyday battle. Although hardened through physical work and toughened through worldly exposure, the emotions of the pink-collar workers are delicate. Yamuna’s initial nervousness turns to steely vigilance that change into anger when such incidents occur. Surya feels insecure and worries all the time. Kuppamma loathes. According to a 2008 by the ASDF, the Assocham Social Development Foundation, about 48 percent of pink-collar workers worry enormously about their safety.
Deepa, who is trained to handle customers, attempts to use her training to handle harassment. She tries depersonalizing to assuage her raging emotions, but it does not always work. When she made eye contact with a customer who in turn looked at her with lust-filled eyes, she ignored it. Repeating the mantra that she was only the face of the management and it was merely her duty and using Yoga and breathing techniques helped her remain calm. But when he stalked her home, she relied on the help of neighbors to beat him up. Despite women-friendly hotel rules, Deepa was too scared to mention the incident to her supervisor.
If she complained, the management would only see her as a non-performer who complains in order to hide her inability to handle normal work pressures. Instead, she shifted her job to back-office work with minimal customer interaction.
Many women working in low skilled sectors do not have knowledge of or access to techniques to deal with the emotional scars from their harassment. A shop owner finds it prohibitively expensive to arrange for such sessions, and the meager salaries earned by pink collar workers do not allow for psychiatric help. The only way for pink collar workers to get the pain off their chests is through discussions with other female workers. Something that is impossible for Yamuna.
“I just hope we can join hands and form a union or forum that can address these issues,” says Kuppamma, who is on the verge of retirement.” After a pause, she adds, “At least, [we can] secure the future…”