We are sitting in the Taj in Mumbai, sipping champagne, waiting for the time for high tea, playing ladies when one of the women said, where are all the women? Looking around I wondered what she was talking about. I didn’t see any women in the room or had not been in touch with any women since arriving. There weren’t any in the restaurant, or in the restaurants we had been in since they arrived. We were indeed the only ones in that fancy lounge, 8 ladies who had been out in the sun all day, were now being surrounded by men whose job was to serve us.
We continued on our indulgence of the many finger bits, mini pizzas, posh street food (just to say you have eaten some), tiny cakes in bit size pieces along with handmade delectable chocolates being served on neat little plates. I never really gave her a definitive answer as I didn’t have one at the time. Perhaps all that tiny food and the pretentiousness didn’t warrant one at that moment.
But it got me thinking! Looking at the statement from her perspective, a tourist perspective. People who come to visit India see mainly men and interact with them just about exclusively. Staying in hotels, the hotel reception staff are men, as are the security guards, concierge, the wait staff, the chefs and even the people who clean rooms are men. There are always exceptions to the rule. You often see younger woman working in the higher end hotels, mostly on reception or in the restaurants, looking immaculate in their beautiful saris.
As you step outside the hotel, your driver will be male as will your local guide. Depending on who is leading your group, it will inevitably be male. People who serve you in the shops are male.
Why is this so? Could it be that the tourist industry is seen as not a particularly desirable occupation for women? As a young carefree woman 40 years ago, I chose this path as the start of my couple of working holidays overseas. Wasn’t it an occupation where we could live our dreams, work around the world in and get paid for it?
As a keen observer of Indian culture over the past 15 or so years, I would not think that tourism (except in the high end hotels), as a desirous occupation for someone’s daughter, someone’s wife or sister. Can you imagine, a father discussing his daughters work situation. Oh my daughter is a hotel receptionist…hardly rings the same as oh my daughter is a doctor or a dentist.
As we continued on our journey to the tourist Mecca of India, Rajasthan, I did my own research and asked a few tourist guides (men of course) about this burning question.
The main answer I got was security. They didn’t feel that they would let their daughters, sisters; wives to do this kind of work as they may have to travel at night. They felt also the women were and had been too protected within the family unit and did not have the confidence to face the challenges of this kind of working environment (where you have to think on your feet and toes sometimes, where you encounter every type of person – from the polite through to the aggressive) and just sometimes that whole range of emotions on the spectrum are also brought to bear dealing with some situations.
So what is the fate of women, have a short career then marry, bred and become a model housewife? After all, this is a fiercely Patriarchal society where men decide for women what to do with their lives.
Still reflecting on this, I did see the women last weekend. Lots of them, at least 500 of them, women and girls sitting under a rented tent waiting for a cultural program for Women. Happy, laughing, smiling, together gossiping, knitting, feeding their children with loving care. They were there, shyly enjoying their time but together in their comfort zones. Would they be able to handle a rude customer demanding a discount off his bill because his water wasn’t hot enough or his chapattis won’t just so.
There is a change, though. At the event the Compares were women, enticing the audience to speak up with leading questions so they had to answer with a microphone in their hand. The girls from the nursing college were happy to jump up and speak as were the adolescent girls. There was plenty of confidence on show, the Gaddi dancing girls in their traditional dress, dancing their hearts out twirling and swinging to the rhythm of the traditional drum played by a woman with young girls as vocalists. This was an event for women, by women. Men were there but in support roles. It is true, education gives more confidence and we will see upcoming generations changing.
Getting back to the event, one of the Compares’ of the day has a story to tell and I want to share it. Ritu for the sake of the story, is a local who was taken in as a young girl out of school to a local NGO and has worked every since in that organization ever since. She is now 32. She has since done a degree by distance learning, works and wanted to marry her sweetheart who she had been ‘going out with’ for 8 years. She explained that during the negotiation process to marry, her mother told her beloved’s family that Ritu was lazy and didn’t do housework. She worked and bought in money. According to Ritu they said it didn’t matter all would be ok. For the first few months it was. Then Ritu didn’t live up to their expectations. She was indeed lazy and didn’t like doing housework, was tired from working particularly at night and before work couldn’t do all the chores expected of her. Her five sisters in law who are all housewives grew resentful as well as her mother in law and turned against her. Her Mother in law sent her home to live with her mother, saying they didn’t want her. She is lucky she tells me that her husband loves her but they are separated as he can’t leave his mother. She is about to give birth to her first baby now…and continues to live with her mother and her husband visits.
I tell this story because it shows there this is the India that is changing and the India that doesn’t want to change…the new values and the old values, both enabled by women themselves.
What are the solutions? I have always thought of India as an onion, peel off one layer and you find another, and another. Maybe the solution required is a peel off effect. As the older generation passes to the new one, attitudes will also change and as younger women attend and listen to their elders and their peers striving for more freedom, less dominance and influence from their men, to have the ability to think for themselves and overall to have the confidence to be what they want rather than being told what they want.
Hopefully also a new generation of tourists won’t need to ask that question as the women will be visible in their hotels, at their tourist places provide a service which they are proud of. It may not be a forever career but it is one that teaches people about people, about life and that is lifelong skill. One which serves everyone to survive and prosper.