Delhi Through the Eyes of Its Working Class Women

A cafe in south Delhi, a theatre that routinely sells show tickets around the Rs 600 mark – these were the spaces I found when I started compiling a feminist guide to Delhi a few weeks ago. But even then I knew that such spaces, important as they are, aren’t really accessible to millions of working class women in the city. So I set out to find spaces that offer safety and relaxation to women whose incomes limit them from such places.

In the jhuggi jhopdis of Uttam Nagar, I met Rukmani, a radically opinionated construction worker. When I asked her about spaces she occupies to enjoy her free time, she pointed me toward the government’s winter ban on construction which has left her and other women unemployed for days on end. “If we find work, we take it. We need the money. Who has the time for mazaa (fun)?”

In another corner of the city, Sandhya, a domestic worker in an elite south Delhi colony, established that safety from harassment isn’t her primary concern. Sandhya is far more worried about finding a space that feels like home in this alienating and atomised city. When I asked if she worries about rape or sexual violence, she hesitated before brushing off my question by saying that “getting lost” or “being fleeced by shopkeepers or while using public transport” is more worrying to her.

Women like Sandhya who do not have the luxury of friends and family are disproportionately disadvantaged by a city that offers no sense of belonging to those outside its traditional folds. Routinely paid less money for work that men do — Rukmani said they are consistently paid half to three-fourths the amount men were— burdened with household chores and restricted by a lack of community, female migrant workers are stuck in the position of having neither time, nor money, nor safety. In this prohibitive grid, leisure becomes almost non-existent. Consequently, even “big days”- Diwali, weddings, regional festivals- become just more reminders of what one doesn’t have. Rukmani recounted this Diwali saying, “I couldn’t get myself to light a diya. What would I even celebrate?”

Also read: A Feminist Guide to Delhi

Of course, simply having the freedom and ability to enter public spaces is a narrow view of relaxation. Many of the constructions workers I spoke to have flourishing social lives within their communities. It took some thinking, but Paana Devi, another construction worker, finally offered me a decisive answer on the most leisurely part of her day – a cup of chai, drunk in the company of other women, is all the rest she needs. Yet the fact that the only time these women leave their district is for work and the occasional wedding is an unsettling reminder that certain forms of leisure are simply off limits for women of certain occupation and income groups.

Move even slightly higher up on the income ladder and the story changes. More spaces are open for women to explore, relax, celebrate. Many of the women I spoke to professed great delight in strolling through open air markets such as Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar, spaces that are “safe” by virtue of having eyes on the street. Crowded with auntys and teenagers alike scrambling for the best deal on a Zara knockoff, these markets are some of the few spaces in Delhi that don’t reek of testosterone, allowing women a great deal more freedom to roam.

There was an underlying assumption that characterised my conversations with all these women – and prompted this discussion to begin with – that safety would play a huge part in how women across class choose to spend their free time. Yet what I have found is that while our concern for safety as “freedom from sexual harassment” cuts across income lines, it is only a tertiary issue for many women, outranked by access to work and full bellies for their children.

By solely prioritising the fight against sexual harassment and rape, we are steadily reducing the ambit of women’s issues. The unsaid agreement that “female concerns” must always mean “safety from sexual harassment and assault” but not higher wages, better healthcare and protection from inflation is a slippery slope. We must reimagine the very concept of safety, making it broader and catered to a much wider range of needs. Without this, leisure- the ability to have and enjoy free time- will remain a luxury for the elite.