When wave after wave of #MeToo hit the country, I looked with awe at the sheer grit and determination of the women who spoke up. “It is easy for the women in the corporate world to speak up. Women in media and fine arts are already all over the place, they own something called a ‘space’ to spill the beans”, I mused, transported back to my Railway days. Seventeen years in Railways is time enough to surmise that ‘nothing is going to change’ there, especially the situation of women.
I remember very particularly this cancer survivor in Tiruchirapalli’s famed coach maintenance yard. The elderly woman nearing her retirement was dragging a drum of grease, almost her size through the platform. I was part of a team trying to collect information on problems faced by the women workers on behalf of a trade union. When I enquired about her with the other female workers, all they could say was that the woman was victimised because she vehemently refused to be part of the most favoured trade union and refused to part with a share of Diwali bonus subscription to that union. In retaliation, her immediate boss had made her perform the strenuous task of refilling grease at the work stations.
When I spoke with her, Lakshmi Amma had no qualms about it. “No, this has nothing to do with union or anything. This is usually a punishment post earmarked for women who don’t ‘fall in line’ with the bosses. It is good that I am here, so the other young ones can be spared of this hard work”. She shooed us away and walked down the grease laden platform. The next time I went to the shed, a year later, I was told her cancer had relapsed, and she had gone on medical leave.
Mani Amma’s story was different. She was a gang woman at Tiruchirapalli Junction. Most of us don’t know how difficult it is for women to work in the lower rungs of technical/mechanical departments. Mani was employed with a gang of about 25 people, along with 10 other women. The problem they had was something I couldn’t comprehend- they had a common bathing place. It was just a portion of their common staff room, the bathing area had taps lined up along a wall. The women had tied a couple of sarees along the last few taps to cover up what little modesty they had left, and were using it since ages. Trouble started when Mani Amma highlighted this to the trade unions and administration. Her boss thought the best way to silence her would be to ‘teach her a lesson’ in his style, which included sexual advances too. When Mani fought off the advances, she was punished. Made to carry cement blocks on her head till she bled through her hair profusely, Mani Amma stood her ground. The last time I saw her, her daughter was taking the mother to the hospital.
This is how the system works. I owe all my musical prowess to Railways. The first station I was employed – a major junction station that, mind it, had a unisex rest room and a rickety door that couldn’t be locked from the inside. What did we do to counter this? We women used to sing. Loudly, of course. The men were a different lot though. The decent ones announced to everyone that they were making a visit to the loo. The rest were happy to flash their goods. There was this supervisor who was so lazy that he used to zip up his pants only on his way out, inviting attention to his privates. The action was so gross that when I, for once decided to complain directly to him, his response was simple- “Close your eyes!”
The ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ sleeping within me woke with a start at that and wrote a written complaint to our Divisional Manager, and the rest they say is history. I was hardly 20 when the incident occurred. Then there were no Vishaka Committee guidelines, but the officer concerned was kind enough to conduct a personal enquiry into the incident, and finally the accused was found guilty and punished with a transfer. The accused staff was merrily chatting away with friends saying this was the first time in history that a person was punished for zipping up his pants in public! To him, unzipping was a crime, and this wasn’t!
The king of all predators however came to light at the fag end of my unfortunate public career. The perpetrator was an officer and women staff were only doubly happy to be sending the guy “Good morning” and “Good night” messages, laughing at his lame sexist jokes across social media. This was not offensive at all. But when the hunt for my phone number started, I resisted with full force and all hell broke loose. The misuse of power with those holding key posts in such organisations are alarming. Called into chaperone officers’ children in a garden party as part of my training programme, asked to work at places with limited or no infrastructure, the cat and mouse race continued until I decided to quit. Not all women are lucky. I know of a woman who was ‘caught in the act’ with her boss on a railway platform, with her name doing the rounds all over the place.
The prime targets for middle level managers and supervisors in Railways are the poor widows who join work on compassionate grounds. The initial credential check by the outdated Railway’s personnel department ensures the women are ‘in line’ with the system. The so called ‘good looking’ ones get appointed in the favourite places, landing plum posts, subject to ‘adjustment’. Adjustment – the common word that is used to sweep under the carpet all misdeeds and sexual overtures. The women who don’t ‘adjust’ are of course the cast-aways, the ones who ‘deserve’ posting to punishment areas and punishment posts, to bring them under ‘control’. Sad, the women around them just do not understand the plight of these women and gossip as the grapevine teaches them. There is a saying that goes – gossip travels faster than the Rajdhani in Railways!
A ray of hope?
Things have got better these days, my close friend still with the Railways, tells me. She promptly complained about one of her colleagues who stepped over the friendship line, to the superiors. An enquiry by the Committee formed on Vishaka guidelines revealed the guy was guilty, and he was punished with a transfer. The details of Vishaka guidelines and officer to be contacted in case of trouble has been plastered across the offices, and thanks to this, the trade unions and front runners have been able to stir up some awareness in the lower rung of women working for Railways. I wouldn’t say all is robust and rosy. There are misgivings. There are still women who haven’t found a way to speak up after years of abuse.
One can only hope that the sound #MeToo has created reaches these women without voices, to open up, and speak out boldly. It has taken me 20 years to do so and for them it might take few more years. But yes, instead of asking “Why not earlier?”, “Why now?”, “Have they fallen out?”, it would be better if the world just would sit up, take notice of these voiceless women, and listen to their stories. And of course, as women, let us not think women doing manual labour are ‘prone’ to such misgivings, given their economic background. Rich or poor, blue collar or white collar, it is a woman who says “#MeToo” and her voice needs to be heard, period!