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In India, a Small Band of Women Risk It All for a Chance to Work

Source | The New York Times

On a humid, sweaty, honking afternoon last summer, two women were making their way through the court complex in the north Indian city of Meerut, searching for the office of the subdivisional magistrate.

They walked past the purveyors of stamp papers and affidavits, typists clickety-clacking on stools, barristers-at-law in flapping gowns, pillars of wadded files bound in twine.

It is fair to say that these two did not belong. They had the swaying walk of village women — half-duck, half-ballerina — who have spent their lives balancing bundles of firewood on their heads. When they entered the office of a criminal defense lawyer, in the sweat-stained broom closet where he receives clients, they were at first so conscious of their low status that they tried to sit on the floor.

They were engaging his services because they wanted to work. They lived 10 miles away, in a small settlement where, for generations, begging had been the main source of income. A few weeks earlier, the male elders of their caste had decreed that village women working at nearby meat-processing factories should leave their jobs. The reason they gave was that women at home would be better protected from the sexual advances of outside men. A bigger issue lay beneath the surface: The women’s earnings had begun to undermine the old order.

It came as a surprise when seven of the women, who had come to rely on the daily wage of 200 rupees, about $3, refused to stop. The women would have to, the men said, blocking the lane with their bodies. They did not expect the women to go to the police.

It would have been impossible — this appeal to the distant, abstract power of the Indian state — if the women had not been so angry.

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