Rishi Majumder gets a crash course in two professions that are being gender-bendered, namely taxi-driving and body-guarding
Photographer (for Priyadarshini Taxi Service): Rana Chakraborty
Somewhere in the middle of the last century, woman participation in labour force (Indian and world) began extending from menial and manual labour (which women from the poorer class resorted to for survival) to office jobs (for those in the middle and eventually upper classes). Some jobs, however, fell in between these two categories. They necessitated a minimum skill set and lifestyle which only men were thought capable of. We bring you today, taxi driving and body-guarding — two such ‘male’ yet modern professions that the fairer sex has begun to permeate. The primary reason for this change is rather feminist come to think of it: female customers who feel more comfortable with a woman driving their taxi or guarding their body, than they would with a man. A sizeable portion of these customers are working women – from clerks to executives. Funny, how one thing leads to another…
“He didn’t even give me time to learn the clutch-and-break balance on the hill (a driving school teaching manoeuvre) yaar!” says one woman to another. “How’s your son feeling now?” is yet another question murmured in typical female bonding. A room at the Stree Shakti Kendra at August Kranti Maidan teems with the energy of 25 odd women wearing black trousers, pink kurtas, and striped purple scarves. They exchange notes — both professional and private — while waiting for Susiie Shah, aka Susiie Behn to lis ten to their individual problems. Ten taxis driven by these ladies will go on the road this Monday, with ten more in eight days, and another ten by December end. The Priyadarshini Taxi Service is the first Indian initiative to launch women into the taxi driving profession, ideated by Renuka Choudhry, and executed by Susiie Behn, an advocate-cum-politician. The inauguration of the initiative had the 30 taxis to be driven laid out, with each new taxi owner’s name painted on her taxi. Their relatives, friends and neighbours came in droves for the event, with their children showing off their mother’s names on the taxis to onlookers who exclaimed at the fact that this plan was finally afoot. “Your USP has to be skilful driving,” shouts Susiie Behn, ending the chatter. “Remember practice makes a man perfect!” This isn’t ironical. ‘Man’ in Old English was gender neutral, with ‘Wer’ and ‘Wyf’ denoting the two sexes instead.
“30 women from about 200 applications received,” Susiie Behn quotes. The women were chosen on the basis of being from households with an income of not more than Rs 12000 and being the “kind who would continue in this profession and not leave it mid-way.” “I had to meet their families personally,” Susiie Behn emphasizes, “to ensure they’d support them enough to stick it out.” The three-month training module included, besides driving, “yoga, Art Of Living, information on the tourism industry, communication skills and nutritional intake – because some of the girls were anaemic, and you need energy for this job.” The women’s security concerns have been handled by a self-defence module and a wireless in each car for emergency contact. The down payment for each taxi is courtesy corporate sponsorship, with the sponsor’s name emblazoned
alongside the taxi owner’s. “Any empowerment begins with economic empowerment,” explains Susiie Behn matter-of-factly. “Getting the girls to take the taxis on loan would have been too risky. One EMI default would crash a future.” But as we proceed to interview the new cabbies, we discover how economic empowerment is effective because of psychological and emotional backing.
“My mother, brothers and daughter encouraged me fully,” says 45-year-old Maryam Satar. “I have longed to drive since childhood – finally I hold the steering wheel!” Despite Maryam being a widow from what is termed ‘a conservative Muslim family’, a busload of neighbours and relatives came in to cheer her on inauguration day. Sugandha Raut, 36, interrupts her to quicken the interview so they can proceed to one of their last driving lessons. She has previously been a telephone and computer operator and showroom assistant, and recently set up her own juice stall at a park: “My husband has supported me throughout. Now people come to my juice stall and shake hands saying, ‘We saw you on TV. Congrats!'” Madhavi Loke, 34, too embarked on this with her husband’s encouragement: “He said you should take this as a challenge. Men have to be involved in women’s empowerment for it to work!” Surekha Satpal, 31, has a different story though. “I’m divorced,” she replies point blank when asked about family. When another woman with the same history hesitates, she reproaches: “Saaf saaf bol na — divorced. Ismein kuch sharam nahin hai.” Surekha’s father was a taxi driver too. “He cried on the inauguration day, and said, ‘Beta ka sapna beti ne poora kiya’,” she recounts, and adds: “Make sure you write my son Akshay’s name! He’ll be so happy. He grabbed the keys to the car even before I could, to run and show his friends.” Then there’s Vidya Pawar, 30, who credits her success to her mother-in-law and childhood friends, who “took care of my household during my driving lessons so I could do this.”
Then there’s 25 others, who rush out with Maryam, Sugandha, Madhavi, Surekha and Vidya to their taxis and trainer, drawing from yet another pool of support – each other. Their last great joint outing, they declare excitedly, was a showing of Chak De!
Gitanjali Pawar was an active sports person and a karate black belt. “But after a while I wanted to channelize my abilities into earning,” she remembers. “And I wasn’t able to earn from athletics or karate, considering the poor support sports are given in our country, to say nothing about the amount of competition.” Her application to the police force was accepted, only to deem that she join the force in another town: “I couldn’t do that because I had my child to bring up, and my husband, in Mumbai. Yet being just a security guard didn’t seem ‘challenging’ enough.” It was amidst such daily dilemma, three years ago, that she and her husband heard of a call for women to be trained as specialised bodyguards by Tops Security.
The number of women in body-guarding began to see an increase around five years ago, when opportunities made the security industry spread its wings in a far more specialised manner, to realise that women were just better suited to certain protection roles. The boom continues. “The primary takers for women bodyguards are women,” states Kunwar Vikram Singh, Chairman of Central Association of Private Security Industry (CAPSI). These include multinational company CEOs, high ranking lawyers and solicitors, and film stars. They especially include foreigners who don’t want to end up with an unpleasant aftertaste while sampling the country’s exotic flavour. And finally, there are wives of CEOs, lawyers and film stars, under threat from those targeting their spouse. “Close security concerns necessitate client comfort,” says Singh. He then explains how for a male body guard, many areas in the client’s personal space – such as a common toilet or private bedroom – would be relatively less accessible, than it would for a female: “Add to that the comfort factor, an essential ingredient in any client relationship.”
But comfort isn’t the only reason. Certain security operations needed to be conducted clandestinely. In such instances, the male bodyguards, with their bulging muscles and military demeanour, can often be identified by assailants from a distance, alerting the enemy to the game plan. “Our body guards pose as ayahs to children or secretaries,” explained Deepak Monga of Tops Security. “Which is why we cannot have images of them out in the media.” Most bodyguard agencies, because of similar security concerns, commented only on condition that their names be withheld. “A lot of people don’t even know we provide women bodyguards,” said the head of one agency. “The only reason I’m talking to you is because of the great job these girls are doing. They’re our best bets for ‘covert security’.”
Gitanjali has now been a bodyguard for three and a half years. Her training took off from her martial arts experience to incorporate an assortment of jargoned subject names like defensive driving, environment gauging, evacuation planning, risk analysis etc, which probably make actual sense to one who’s gone through the drill. “We’re taught through a series of practical tests to react to every sudden situation, yet secretly so,” she explains. “Our role is often confused with that of bouncer or security guard, which is inane.” Finally, she reacts to the fact that men are held to be biologically stronger. “This is not the WWF. If you actually gauge the amount of risk situations a client can be in, you’ll find that the ability to lift weights has very little to do with this game,” says Gitanjali in a rather shrill voice.
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: