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Women at Work – a photo post

December 9, 2008

At times I wonder what the fuss is about when people talk about giving freedom to women to work outside the home in a traditional society like India’s. So many Indian women work outside the home anyway, due to economic necessity, for their sheer survival. In fact they do the domestic work in their own homes as well, with the help of their children. In a way they are the real heroes as their work is undervalued and as for the backbreaking domestic work they do, it’s not even counted in the GDP. GDP ignores voluntary/unpaid work, like domestic work. But think of the zillion ways it improves standard of living and quality of life, saves on expenditure and leaves time free for the men to go out and earn.

These are a few images that I captured. The first one is of women carrying firewood onΒ  a highway in Mumbai but this is a common sight in rural India, although not so common in the cities. Collecting firewood and water (for which the women have to walk long distances), is a woman’s job in rural India.


This next picture is that of two village women:

All the other pictures are taken in the city:

The woman in the picture below in the pink and blue saree was selling kulfi (a kind of ice-cream)

Women never really retire. Even elderly women work “outside” the home:

In fact most rag-picking work is done by women and children.

The photograph below is blurred, but it is still one of my favourite photographs.

Related Reading: More Photo posts on India
Reasons why Indian women fall behind in education.
Feminism in India

46 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2008 8:59 am

    nice pics …

  2. Vivek S. Khadpekar permalink
    December 9, 2008 9:35 am


    Very informative post, but coming from a (fringe) Mumbaikar, I would have expected to see the women who sell fish, vegetables, fruit etc., with full control over the business.

    And the other thing which I have come across only in Maharashtra (both big city and small town) and nowhere else, is women managing (including customer interface) legal booze shops. I first came across this in 1974, in a small town called Phaltan, near Satara. Later, of course I saw many examples in Pune, Mumbai etc. They keep the same working hours as their male counterparts, and instances of customer misbehaviour or police harassment are very rare.

  3. December 9, 2008 10:03 am

    These women work outside and at home too. Sometimes I feel working women do twice the work than men. Its just that housework is not counted as work by some people!!!

  4. December 9, 2008 11:18 am

    Nice post. good work on getting those photos.

  5. Brand Robins permalink
    December 9, 2008 11:20 am

    The issue of women working outside the home isn’t just an issue in Feminism in India, it’s an issue all around the world.

    Many lower class women in America and Canada have always had to work for economic reasons. The “right to work” fight was a fight of mostly middle and upper class women (mostly white, too) that got a lot of play and press because of the economic power of those women, and the social upheaval it caused.

    Now days the majority of women in America of almost all classes work. It’s difficult to raise a family in America if both parents don’t work at least part time, and women who can stay home to raise their children are sometimes seen as being lucky. So it really isn’t a fight in American anymore either. (The fight tends to be about women getting the same pay for the same work, and about the fact that in American women work at work and then come home and work at home as well — basically having two jobs for every one a man has.)

    The problem is that a lot of middle class North American feminists who became world leaders in the feminist movement never realized that their issues weren’t the issues of every woman on earth. The right to work was a big fight for them, so they often focus on it even in situations where it may not be the biggest issue. And thus a lot of others, who were trained by or learned from or read books by, those feminists make the same mistaken assumptions.

    Freedom and equality are worthy goals, I feel in my very North American heart. But I think the path to get to it, and the problems facing people, have to be taken as specific to the circumstances and culture. Simply importing American feminism to India is going to result in some real mistakes.

    Also, your first picture is beautiful. I have a picture very much like it that I took two years ago in Chennai, but my eye for photography is nowhere near as good as yours, so it lacks the grace of your image.

  6. December 9, 2008 12:01 pm

    Very valid points, Nita. Infact the unpaid labour of women also contributes to areas like caring for the elderly, without which we would have a lot more destitute elderly on the roads.

    But, while these women are “free” to work – ever notice how they rarely get to move up to better paying jobs? If you observe a construction site, you would see that the ‘mestri’ (I don’t know what the term is in English) and supervisors are all male, and women only do the lower-paying yet back-breaking work. Similarly, women are rarely trained as carpenters, plumbers, electricians etc – jobs that pay much better than say, working as a maid, but poor families would normally not send women to vocational courses or permit them to work in strange homes. So, while we usually look at “right” to work from a white-collar job perspective, these women too don’t really have the freedom to really move up.

  7. December 9, 2008 12:24 pm

    Brand, you are absolutely spot on, although the right to work aspect does apply to Indian women from upper caste/class families. Actually, women working is a rare similarity between the cultures of India and other ‘Asian’ countries like China and Vietnam.

  8. December 9, 2008 12:49 pm

    nice post!!… πŸ™‚ loved the concept!

  9. December 9, 2008 2:45 pm

    Nita, the sad thing is that these women have no option but to work and there is no question of ‘equality’ for them – its just do or die… More often that not, these women would have abusive husbands who, far from working – would actually be blowing the hard earned money on liquor.

  10. ahumanbean permalink
    December 9, 2008 2:51 pm

    a) Many of the women you see working in India are always *bending*. Labourers, childcarers, domestic help, sweepers…sometjing that upsets my Western country visitors a lot

    b) I’ve said this many many times ( and this is the sort of point that instantly shuts any mixed-gender conversation up, surprise surprise): home-makers need to be paid as full time time carers, whether male or female, in any country. Think of the extra cost involved in getting your house run without the Momma/domestic helper outsourced. This is a global issue and a global mindset.

    c) Brand Robins has made many of the points I had in mind, above πŸ™‚

  11. Archana permalink
    December 9, 2008 3:10 pm

    Hello Neeta ma’am,

    Same is my obeservation…in rural area generally house is run by women in poorer class, who work on fields… What happens men n women both work on fields but men use tat money in weekly bazaar to get drunk while that women use it for buying grocery for the next weeks time…and for their children.

    pls spare my spellings n grammer.. i m not so good with english. (i do belive that english is mere a language not a IQ!!!)But enjoyed reading ur blog. U write too good, more than that i like ur passion for the any topic u write on.


  12. December 9, 2008 3:27 pm

    Arvind, Sunny, Vikram, perplexed, thanks for your comments.

    Vivek, true many of the women run the businesses themselves, they are certainly a lot of small women entrepreneurs, couldn’t get a photo though! In the movie Rock On (which you must have not seen) they showed this.

    Reema, that’s true, given a chance these women just might choose not to do the kind of work they do, and would want to concentrate on the housework and child-rearing. At times their men are often drunkards, all of us have seen this amongst women domestic workers’ husbands.

    Brand Robins, thanks for that enlightening and analytical comment and a comparison with the west. As you said women of the working classes have other kinds of problems. Glad you liked my photos! πŸ™‚

    Smitha, true, these women have a tough life and I feel it takes a real toll on their health and life-span. I just feel that they are not lauded enough, that’s why the post.

    ahumanbean, I guess poor Indian women generally don’t have access to proper long brooms or other more sophisticated gadgets to help them with their housework. This bending thing affects their posture and I have seen many women by the time they are 40 have a bent body. And as for home-makers getting recognition, well, one day when we have a truly equal society when men do as much housework as women, this will happen! I doubt whether it will happen before that!

    Archana, a good point you have mentioned, the way the women spent the hard-earned money. I have observed this too. Amongst the working classes, it is the women who is the hero most often.

  13. December 9, 2008 3:55 pm

    Hi Nita – I have linked you in my post. I hope you don’t mind.

    Not at all Smitha. Always good to be linked. πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  14. ahumanbean permalink
    December 9, 2008 4:11 pm

    Even if my domestic help is offered the stand upright and mop type of floor mop, she prefers the old style of swabbing while on her haunches. It’s her preference and I’ve learnt to leave it be – that’s the way she swabs in all the houses she works at.

    But I still dislike seeing her bending and breaking her back! Human rights have to work both ways …!

    I guess they get used to doing things a certain way and don’t realise the effect on their posture. 😦 – Nita.

  15. December 9, 2008 4:54 pm

    nice post πŸ™‚

    πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ -Nita.

  16. December 9, 2008 5:01 pm

    another brilliant photo-post, Nita!

    I remember I was very impressed by women in India working on the building – carrying the bricks, doing all kinds of heavy and dirty work… And these women were mostly so tiny!

    Axinia, thanks. Yes looking at them I feel guilty that I don’t have to do any physical work. In fact I feel so weak as compared to them! – Nita

  17. December 9, 2008 5:24 pm

    True Nita…..GDP ignores it and doesnt consider….people ask me here, that if i fought with family/came out of family to come to work….thats really the idea they have got here in UK even now :O which is a bit surprising to me !!

    And ya, no one really acknowledges this part of the women world!! I cant really say i worked like this but definitely i remember my mom and grandmom fetching water from municipal tap to a 3rd storey building! [no lifts them!]

    atleast thats a common sight in India

    Fetching water etc is work that is sadly taken for granted. Work that is invisible, at times even to their near and dear ones. We are lucky to never have done these things. Priviliged! – Nita.

  18. December 9, 2008 5:47 pm

    Lovely pics Nita, loved all of them.
    One of my female teachers used to say that if a woman wants to work outside the house, it would be her 101th task if there are 100 jobs to be taken care of at home.

    True, there are always a 100 things to be done at home, and in fact that is why I am posting today! πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  19. wishtobeanon permalink
    December 9, 2008 7:17 pm

    Hi Nita, a great post as usual! I have nothing to comment as the pictures say it all.

    Thanks! πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  20. December 9, 2008 8:39 pm

    I consider Women more than just Heroes. I consider them Goddesses. These pictures show the real India.

    Your comment is heart-warming Dinesh. It is always good to hear it when men realise the contribution of these women whom I feel are in a way the backbone of India. – Nita.

  21. December 9, 2008 8:46 pm

    Good pics.

    Thanks. πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  22. December 9, 2008 10:44 pm

    Hi Nita

    If you visit Russia, one will get the impression that the entire country is run by older women (‘babushka’ or grandmother.) They are just about everywhere – metro stations, super markets, restaurants, buses, you name it – and have complete control over the day to day functioning. If babushkas go on strike, Moscow will screech to a complete halt.


    I didn’t know this and even Axinia didn’t mention this. Very interesting to know that older women are so much part of the economy. – Nita.

  23. stud.boy99 permalink
    December 9, 2008 11:41 pm

    thanks nita, i think your perspective is more correct… people usually think that “working women” to be the women who go to office…

    Yes, and the contribution of these women is not thought about much. – Nita.

  24. tajbinder permalink
    December 10, 2008 12:19 am

    I have seen my father work like crazy and raise our standard of living to a level i am proud of. i dont deny my mother’s role either.But talking of “backbreaking” my father just is a machine. They love each other , they both raised us , point is they are a team.I sometimes wonder, in order to match him i need to have more than nerves of steel.When i see people praising women for their “backbreaking” domestic chores, i feel bad for ignoring the mental stress and pressures borne to make ends meet by the male. I think he faces a lot more than the women, leavuing aside the topic of domestic violence .And before u label my comments as being male chauvinist then, with due respect, elaborate on this, “………….and leaves time free for the men to go out and earn.”
    I hope disagreeing with you wont lead to me being blacklisted from your blog!

    Tajbinder, this post is about the working class. Less about the about middle class people and not at all about the upper classes. In the upper classes I have seen the men work harder. The very fact that you are commenting here I am assuming that you do not come from the working class, and that your parents are educated. But even if they are not and you belong to the working class, certainly there are enough men who work outside the home, but personally I have never seen any man from the working class work outside the home and do the domesitc chores and look after kids. The women do both. And disagreeing never gets one blacklisted, its abusive and rude language. So chilll πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  25. Joss permalink
    December 10, 2008 12:42 am

    Yes, I too have seen Indian women working on building sites, and on r0ad-building sites as well , bent double, and not only that, managing to keep their saris under control. If ever there was an argument for wearing a salwar kameez it would be this, to make it easier to wield a pick or a shovel! This was in Rajasthan, and the saris were not only tidy but also beautiful colours. Amazing!

    I agree with all your points, Nita, and also with your commentators, especially Brand Robins. I made a similar point myself here recently. It’s true everywhere – ‘a woman’s work is never done [finished]’.

    Amazing itsn’t it how they keep their sarees under control! Here the construction industry is very labour intensive as we rely less on machines and more on people. In fact construction works in India are better paid than other workers, although women get paid less. Btw, a lot of workers here in Mumbai are from Rajasthan too! -Nita

  26. gauri permalink
    December 10, 2008 7:01 am

    Very good post. I wanted to quote a line to say “well said”, but that would have been more than half your post pasted here πŸ™‚

    I remember as I was growing up I had tremendous respect for the women at these construction sites doing the same work as men – laying bricks, carrying cement up 4 storeys, joining forces to lift heavy boulders, balancing on the scaffolds, even taking a bidi break. What they never failed to do on top of this – and I wish I saw a man do it at least once – was stop by every couple hours to check on the kids, feed them, throw that quick protective glance to make sure they’re safe, and at the end of the day light a fire and make ‘bhakri’ to feed the family.

    Makes me happy and sad at the same time.


    Gauri, me too. I have tremendous respect for women who do hard physical labour and also manage the kids and the home. I always wondered at the mental state of these women, but no, they are not nervous wrecks. They are calm, stoic and brave. These are the real superwomen of India and I always felt that these so-called superwomen in glossy magazines are not superwomen at all, but simply priviliged people who leave most of their house duties to the maids. – Nita.

  27. guqin permalink
    December 10, 2008 8:58 am

    You are a good photographer indeed Nita, especially with the second photo, which could easily be translated into a painting.

    Thanks Gugin, I love that photo too. πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  28. Vinod permalink
    December 10, 2008 10:31 am

    Looking at these photos, the following questions come to mind –

    (i) why were these people who probably started their lives in the villages forced to leave their villages and come to the cities? Is the effect of globalization without being adequately prepared for it, which in turn is due to historical exploitation of Third World countries?

    (ii) Were there govt policies, made to pander to the terms of the IMF and WorldBank, that forced them to change their crops or commodities and/or slash prices and/or force exportation without consideration of whether it is something that leads to sustainable development given the social, technological and economic inquities already pre-existing in society?

    (iii) What is happening to govt spending in education and social reform? Is that being cut to fuel commodity exports? Why are cities of India becoming emblematic of the rich-poor divide

    Vinod, you have asked very complex questions! But the answer requires another brand new post!- Nita.

  29. Rashid Faridi permalink
    December 10, 2008 2:34 pm

    Hi Neeta
    Nice Post as usual.
    I have written a Research Paper on “Increasing Participation of Women in Paid Jobs in Urban Areas”. Can i use your photographs?
    I want to link your post on my blog. Can I?
    Rashid Aziz Faridi
    rashid_faridi (at)

    You are welcome to use my photos. If it is possible to credit me with the photos it will be nice, but in a research paper if you cannot, even then it is fine. And ofcourse you can link my post, but on your blog I would prefer if if you just use one photo (for the blog). Thanks. – Nita.

  30. Vinod permalink
    December 10, 2008 3:13 pm


    Just read this and keep it for private reference.

    About copyright…

    I just got to know that Indian copyright law is directly derived from UK copyright law (the Copyright Act 1956). You must know that for research purposes there is a clear defence in copyright law for infringement as long as there is sufficient acknowledgment. That means, someone like Rashid can take your photos without your permission as long as he makes reasonable acknowledgment. Just a random troubling factoid and anyway its just legal speak. Common courtesy demands that he does seek your permission.

    There is one more thing, the matter is already in the public domain by virtue of being in the blog. And, the blog is not for commercial purposes. Your copyright cry may not be taken too seriously by the courts, God forbid if it ever gets there. There is a defence of “fair dealing” in copyright.


    Thanks Vinod. Actually if my photo is used for a non-commerical purpose, like a research paper, I do not mind if it is taken without my permission, as long as acknowledgment is given. That is my grouse, if acknowledgment is not given. However as you said, it is common courtesy to ask the owner of the photo. However my blog not being for commerical purposes does not matter, because I could use my photos for a commerical purpose, and in fact I do. I sell them to parties who write to me and so far I have made several sales. Its like this blog could be a kind of showroom for my photos. πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  31. December 10, 2008 5:36 pm

    Good that you went out to capture these kinds of “work” typically Indian media goes after the power woman and for a while I was used to seeing those images. But yes this is the reality for many Indian women.

    These are the superwomen! Its amazing isn’t it that women who are supposed to be physically weak show more stamina than even their male partners. – Nita.

  32. December 10, 2008 5:51 pm

    Nita, those pics do tell the tale of many women who toil hard. The story would have been more effectively told if there were some men sitting around and boozing!

    And I would have had the men reading this blog fuming! πŸ˜€ – Nita.

  33. December 10, 2008 7:16 pm

    i think its totally unjust that GDP doesnt include the services of home makers but i suppose its a non economic activity and thats the reason for its exclusion
    but nita this was an out of box post….you see your photo post are always interesting and you always touch the feminine side πŸ˜›

    Thanks Arpit. Glad you like my photo posts. I enjoy doing them a lot. – Nita.

  34. December 10, 2008 8:12 pm

    love it….!

    πŸ™‚ thanks. – Nita.

  35. Vinod permalink
    December 10, 2008 9:37 pm

    I checked with my law lecturer and you’re quite right. You actually have a much stronger case of copyright protection than what I thought. The mere fact of being published in the blog does not do any damage to your right.

    Thanks Vinod. That’s sweet of you. – Nita.

  36. padmini permalink
    December 11, 2008 8:23 am

    I loved the pictures. Notice how thin and straight these working women are. At least for the most part. That by itself is so revealing and tells us almost everything about them.

    I noticed that too, and I think it underlines their dignity. I also feel they look very graceful. – Nita.

  37. December 11, 2008 9:47 am

    And that is why I am irritated when somebody says that it’s the modern woman who wants to be independent (like that’s a crime!) and neglects her family and children for work, as if all these, not so modern, hard working women just don’t count!!!!!

    Brilliant Post πŸ™‚

    Thanks IHM. And good to know that I am not the only one irritated! – Nita.

  38. December 11, 2008 9:48 am

    I also loved the blurred picture of the woman in the yellow sari with her two cute kids πŸ™‚

  39. December 11, 2008 1:23 pm

    Great post and pictures Nita – these are examples of many hard working women at work that deserves appreciations. Kudos to all of them! πŸ™‚

    Thanks Kiran. πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  40. December 12, 2008 8:04 am

    In Hong Kong, the finance city of China, you would take the same pictures only with different outfits.

    I was in Hong Kong not too long ago, but somehow missed these sights. Overall though I feel people are better off there. And one thing I noticed that in Hong Kong very few people cook, particularly those who work outside the home. In India these women bend over stoves and cook the family meal as well. – Nita.

  41. December 12, 2008 8:13 am

    i always wanted to post something about them coz i see them every day in every corner of the city and at any time, even at 2 a.m. collecting paper for recycling. but then i turn my attention to other things more joyious because i know that these women do not occupy the right place of our society. if we ‘d live in normal societies we’d see them enjoying other things more dignifying, more beautiful and mirroring the true spirit of the womanhood. Hopefully next generations will not himitate them in the practice but will carry the strenght of their spirit. Kudos to the way they keep going the daily routine.

    Thanks Radha for your comment. It is sad isn’t it. – Nita.

  42. December 12, 2008 8:23 am

    Hi Nita, yes in HK every family now has a lady from Philippine cooking and taking care of the home + the children for them. its becoming really tough for women here and they seem quite confuse about priorities in life…

  43. nishitsaraiya permalink
    December 12, 2008 12:36 pm

    hi Nita, great work nice pics…….and i agree to fact that women are the best when it comes to work….be it either home or outside…..every sees his dad as a super hero but i see my mom as a hero………she definately is a super woman………….cheers to womenhood

    nishit, thanks. cheers to womanhood! πŸ™‚ – Nita.

  44. December 14, 2008 4:29 pm

    Great post. These women deserve a lot more recognition for the type of work they are doing day in and day out. Everything goes unnoticed – people have decided it’s not glamorous enough to make a big deal about it. It’s really quite sad.

    You brought up really good points with this post. I’m glad I read it!

  45. July 29, 2010 11:00 pm

    shortly “women are restless” hatts off u WOMEN!!!!

  46. suar permalink
    August 1, 2010 3:09 pm

    love it….!

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