30 March 2014 | Priyanka Bhargava | Ajmer, Rajasthan
Reel industry just gave us an exasperating account of an all-women squad, tritely named Gulab Gang, fighting it out for rights, women’s rights, men’s rights, child rights, animal rights and you-name-it rights. They do that fighting thing in the most real martial arts style with gulabi saree-clad women doing an up-in-the-air somersault or a vertical walk through on windshields of trucks in the course of knocking the tormentor dead. Though the movie lost plot at the very beginning, it just managed to convey that self-defence is inevitable for women.
Just before this celluloid Gulab Gang swept the celluloid goons off their feet, Priyanka Bhargava of The Petticoat Journal came across a real life Gulab Gangster, aptly named Gulab Devi. This unassuming petite figure has fought a similar but quiet battle sans a gang named after her and sans any acts of martial art.
More than two decades ago when she was barely 25 years old, Gulab Devi stepped out of her house to earn money. That was quite a hurdle jumped considering it happened in a remote village in Rajasthan, a state in western India notorious for female feticide, child marriage, violence against women and more. It’s almost a crime for women to step out of their houses to earn money. But Gulab Devi became the sole bread earner of her family. Now, in a state where women were non-entities, anyone in this secluded Harmara village in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, and even around it, would proudly tell you who Gulab Devi is.
Priyanka Bhargava: Tell us about your job.
Gulab Devi: I am a solar engineer. I make electronic circuits and chargers for solar lighting panels. I also install and maintain hand pumps, water tanks and pipelines.
It began with a six-month training. We were fourteen women. Over the first fortnight, we learnt about various electronic and electrical tools and raw materials provided to us by our trainers. The next 15 days were earmarked for field exercises. We learnt to maintain hand pumps with the equipment installed in the campus. Maintaining and installing hand pumps was the first job I did. I did it for six years. Now I am working in the solar section for the past 12 years. I also package solar panels and accessories which are shipped abroad.
Priyanka Bhargava: This kind of profession sounds a lot out of way seeing the profile of your village. How did you come to know about it?
Gulab Devi: Sometime in the 1980s, a couple of people from Tilonia village came to our village and told us about solar engineering. They were from the Barefoot College, a social work and research centre. They wanted women to join the organisation.
Some women rejected the offer because of distance. The others had to refuse because their husbands didn’t allow them to go out and work. I spoke to my husband about it and he immediately agreed. He was very ill and was not able to work.
Since I was illiterate, I was nervous to go out. However, once I started going out, I realised that I had shed my inhibitions in the course of it. I have to travel for work. Sometimes we have to travel to villages 10-20 kms away from my village.
Priyanka Bhargava: Has it helped improve your financial condition?
Gulab Devi: I earn Rs 4,400 per month. When I started, my house was in a very bad shape. Now it looks much better. My family never had to skip meals ever since I started working. So it seemed to have helped.
Priyanka Bhargava: But you never went to school. Did it have anything to do with the prevalent mindset about girl child?
Gulab Devi: My parents were wage workers. They told me to stay back and look after the house and the three siblings when they were away working. So I could never go to school. However, boys are also required to go to work rather than attend school although they, undeniably, have better chances of going to school.
Priyanka Bhargava: What’s your day like?
Gulab Devi: I spend the day working. I leave home in the morning and get back in the evening. I have two daughters and two sons. My youngest son, who is still unmarried, stays home while I am at work. When I started 25 years ago, my children were very small. I used to feed them before leaving for work. My husband was mostly at home. So there was an adult around the children. When he passed away, two of my children were big enough to look after themselves and their younger siblings.
Priyanka Bhargava: Did your stepping out affect other women and families in your village too?
Gulab Devi: I was the first woman from my village to join the Barefoot College and become a Barefoot Solar Engineer. After me, many other women from my village joined the programme. Many women have been trained by me. People in my village used to tell me that it is a male-dominated profession and questioned my abilities. I worked in front of them and proved it to them how no profession can ever be gender-dominated!
If you, or a woman or women around you, are subject to domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, and other atrocities at home or anywhere else, here is what you can do.Know more