The brave new world

India Today - 19 December , 2014

Not so long ago, a woman who needed to be out at a late hour would use a recommended cab company, her employer's car and driver, or most likely, the reliable neighbourhood taxi stand. If not, someone in the family would come and pick her up.

Today, there is a swelling tide of women in the workforce, but their safety is as precarious as ever. The alleged Uber rape in Delhi reveals that now, in this new world of contract work and "aggregators", no cab company is safe. You pay a premium not for guaranteed safety, but for efficiency and comfort and travel at your own risk. The BPO bus drivers are no better. Companies who hire security for their women are still offering unknown, unverified contract workers.

A world of opportunity has opened up in the last 15 years. Rising education levels and the chance to earn more and lead a more enjoyable life has brought countless women out of their homes and into the workplace. For proof, just look at matrimonial ads. While lower income and rural women have always worked outside the home, now, even in middle- and upper-income urban families, which have traditionally kept their daughters on a short leash, the default option is "doing a job" between studies and getting married or having children.

The nature of work has changed too. We now have a more modern economy - although, regrettably, still an un-modern society. The log kya kahenge censure has also weakened as everyone knows that long commutes and late working hours are par for the course if good money is to be earned. Also, today if you work late, you can get rewarded like never before, whether as a BPO worker, an investment banker, a domestic worker, nurse, beautician, electrician or anything else.

Public transport and policing, though, have not kept pace with the new reality of spread-out cities, a swelling workforce and late hours. In the 1980s and 1990s, we were not a bubbling cauldron of social frustrations, defined by the gap between what we saw and wanted and what we couldn't get. Today we are an angry and frustrated society, especially if you are a migrant worker in a slum with no family to absorb some of the frustration, a contract worker or self-employed wage earner with no ties to any social organisation at work or home.

In the '80s and '90s, women were at home after dark. Today they aren't, especially the younger women. Families have loosened up. Mobile phones have taken the edge off the worry. "Why do you work so late, does your husband get upset with you?", I asked the young domestic help who works evenings and travels for more than an hour to come and work in two houses, where she is paid well above market rates because in one case she multitasks when the other household help is away, and in the other she works for two college-going boys whose mother lives in another city and worries about their health. She said this way the loan is paid faster (for the room with running water and attached toilet), and her husband can stay home with the children. She waits till the nurses in a nearby hospital finish their shift, and together they take the local train in the ladies compartment. After the train ride, she still needs to travel for half an hour by an autorickshaw, but her "mister" does the last-mile escorting. Another young lady in a professional service firm says that saying "no, I can't work late" is a career-limiting option, so she just sleeps over in the office or waits till some obliging soul finishes work and is willing to drop her home.

Another young lady got an amazing opportunity to intern with a large newspaper in Delhi, her dream had come true. Her family was also excited about it, but soon found that the late hours she had to keep were a problem; her father lived too far away and could not pick her up every day. She gave up her job. I felt as sad that day as I had felt indignant in my days, when a friend did the same, saying "my parents don't allow me to come home so late every day, they say I will get a bad reputation and ruin my marriage prospects". The more things change, the more they stay the same. Earlier it was log kya kahenge. Now it is log kya karenge (what will people do to you) that keeps women imprisoned at home.

Delhi was always a difficult city. Yet in those days we suffered in silence. We were told that it was dignified to hold your head high and walk away without letting anyone else notice what had gone on. Today, we need to encourage young women to fight back and give them the implements to do it. Men won't change unless something makes them; the police and the government are not going beyond lip service. It is up to us women to learn to fight for ourselves and change the discourse. From Parvati to Kali is a journey that the modern Indian woman is so desperately ready to make.

Rama Bijapurkar is the author of A Never-Before World: Tracking the Evolution of Consumer India