A woman worker assembles a Royal Enfield motorcycle in Oragadam, Tamil Nadu (Photo: AFP)
WITH THE MONTH-END UPON them, the six sales executives at Volkswagen’s all-women dealership in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, are chasing several leads—a young software engineer who had expressed interest in a hatchback, a prospective customer who requested a test drive and must be picked up from his home, a mid-career woman who has just walked in. On a WhatsApp call, 21-year-old Thivya T, the youngest member of the team, shows me around—pink walls, grey polished floors, a red banner with a happy woman on it and the words: “We put you first”, and bright cars that drip aspiration. In smaller towns and villages, these cars that cost anywhere between `14 lakh and `25 lakh have the power to reduce class and gender to minor speed bumps. Here, at one of India’s first all-woman car dealerships—Tata Motors unveiled one in Hyderabad around the same time when Volkswagen launched this store in Chennai—they are a source of hope to 40-odd women who want to prove something to the world, and to themselves. Thivya, a visual communications graduate who started driving for women passengers—inter-city, not pink taxis—at a young age, is achingly sincere. Not one to kvetch about the state of the economy and the store’s sales target of 20-24 cars a month, she says this is the opportunity she didn’t know she was waiting for. “I wanted to be an RJ or a VJ but my family suffered a financial setback and I had to take up driving early in life—before I could even get a licence. Here, I get to combine my two passions—cars and communication.” Thivya was originally hired for a driving gig at the store’s inauguration in September last year, but the store manager, Mansura S, talked her into joining her team. “Her passion for cars comes through when she talks to a customer, and they go, wow, what a girl,” says Mansura. Every now and then, however, men do ask Thivya if women can really drive, let alone sell cars. Others want to know if the store was set up to attract women customers in particular.
Mansura had worked as a back-end consultant for Ramani Cars, which operates the Volkswagen outlet, for seven years when the opportunity to switch to sales and lead a women-only team came her way. “I was an introvert and I had trouble getting used to the idea of talking to strangers for a living. The job has changed me in half a year,” says Mansura, 30. The first woman in her family to work, Mansura is a classic example of how women use gainful employment to reinvent their sense of self and to chart a way forward. She didn’t even get a chance to go to college, and completed her bachelor’s degree via distance learning later. Being good at her job gives her the confidence to resist family pressures to get married, she says. “My mother has now become my strongest advocate. She trusts me to take care of my brother. He works at an appliance store as a team lead,” says Mansura. “Everything that men at auto dealerships normally do, we do it and do it better. We offer test drives. We do events at societies, midnight marathons, you name it.”
For several decades now, Tamil Nadu has aspired to be an equal opportunity state, thanks to the social reforms seeded by Periyar, the anti-caste crusader and champion of women’s rights whose legacy lingers in government policies to this day. The Self-Respect Movement, headed by Periyar, had organised a conference in 1929 where a resolution was passed supporting equal property rights for women, and 60 years later, in 1989, the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi passed the Hindu Succession (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 1989, fulfilling the demand. Considering the Supreme Court only struck down male primacy in succession in 2020, giving daughters equal right to their father’s property under the amended Hindu Succession Act, it is safe to say that Tamil lawmakers and governments have been pioneers in championing women’s rights. It is no surprise, therefore, that 43 per cent of the 1.6 million women factory workers in India work in Tamil Nadu, which is also one of the most industrialised states in the country. A recent paper by Dhruvika Dhamija of Ashoka University based on data from the Annual Survey of Industries for 2019-20 further elaborates on the regional skew in women’s participation in the industrial workforce. “In fact, nearly three-fourths (72 per cent) of all women working in industries were employed in the four southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala,” Dhamija writes. She also highlights the differences in the gender gap in manufacturing employment across states. Manipur, she notes, is the only state with a gender balance, with the share of women manufacturing workers in the state at 50.8 per cent in 2019-20. Kerala (45.5 per cent), Karnataka (41.8 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (40.4 per cent) follow with slightly skewed participation by women in the industrial workforce. The paper goes on to point out that women workers are concentrated in fewer industries compared to male workers, and that they are paid less than their male counterparts.
SUCCESSIVE GOVERNMENTS IN Tamil Nadu have tried to level the playing field for women, who are an important constituency for political parties, of late outnumbering men on the electoral rolls. The ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government has increased the quota for women in government jobs from 30 to 40 per cent and opened up posts to women that were out of bounds until recently. It has also passed a bill, inspired by Kerala, mandating shops and commercial establishments to provide seating facilities to employees, giving lakhs of women working at jewellery and textile showrooms and factories who had literally been on their toes for 12 hours a day much-needed reprieve. Now temples, one of the last domains run exclusively by men, are opening up to admit women as odhuvar. In the Tamil Saivite tradition, the odhuvar, having studied and memorised thousands of verses from the Thevaram and the Thiruvachagam, sings hymns to Lord Siva to accompany rituals at the temple. The Tamil Nadu government’s Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department, which manages over 36,000 temples across the state, has appointed at least three women as odhuvar at Saivite temples in the past year-and-a-half.
In August last year, S Suhanjana, a slight woman of 28 and a new mother, became the first woman odhuvar. She leaves home at 8 AM to reach the Dhenupureeswarar Temple in Madambakkam, Chennai, in time for morning pujas. Her high-pitched voice fills the Chola-era temple as she recites verses with folded hands from outside the sanctum sanctorum. For Suhanjana, the job is everything she wanted, and more. “When I saw the call for applications to odhuvar posts across the state, I was surprised to find that women were also welcome to apply. I applied, but didn’t think I would get through. After Class 10, when I joined the Thirumurai class (Thirumurai is a 12-volume compendium of Tamil hymns in praise of Lord Siva) at the district government music school in Karur, I thought I would grow up to teach children. Singing before the lord was a dream. When I got the job, my husband and I moved to Tambaram to be close to the temple. My in-laws watch the baby when I am away at work.” Despite initial apprehensions, Suhanjana says she has found her male peers and the temple priests to be encouraging. Would she have liked to study to be a full-fledged priest? Of course. “There is a saying in Tamil about counting one’s blessings. I am grateful,” she says. In 2021, the minister in charge of temple administration, PK Sekar Babu, said that the government wants to offer training in the agama sastras to women who want to become priests at temples. The same year, Chief Minister MK Stalin appointed 23 non-Brahmin priests to various temples across the state, realising a long-unfulfilled dream. Months later, however, many of them resigned, citing harassment by Brahmin colleagues. When it comes to reform, the state is like the unreliable narrator in drama whose story must be questioned by society to discern the truth for itself.
“Sometimes, it is the humble schemes you don’t really think much of that end up shifting power structures in society,” says Tamil writer and DMK member Salma. “The MK Stalin administration’s move to make bus travel free for women has been a game-changer. Women no longer have to depend on their family to go out and look for a job, or to go to college,” she says. Mansura agrees. For working women with just the bare bones of a high school education, the savings on bus fare go a long way, she says.
Culturally, Tamil women have a strong work ethic, says writer Vaasanthi. When former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa declared in 2011 that her government would give away free mixers and grinders to all ration card holders, the scheme was labelled populist. “It freed women from the drudgery of stone-grinding idli batter by hand, and they started to go out and earn a livelihood,” Vaasanthi says. “In agrarian Tamil society, women were out a lot working in the fields. They weren’t confined to their homes. As the state became more industrialised, welfare schemes helped them find their feet,” she says. Serial entrepreneur Kumar Vembu, who cofounded Zoho Corp with his brothers and is now the CEO of GoFrugal Technologies, a retail ERP software company, says the rampant alcoholism in Tamil society over the past few decades has ensured that women became the main breadwinners in many families. “But women were never full-time housewives. Growing up in agrarian Thanjavur, where every house had milk cows, I have seen my grandmothers put away a tidy sum from the income they earned selling milk. If the paddy failed or a storm destroyed the banana crop, they dug into this reserve and took care of household expenses,” Vembu says. “At the workplace as well as at home, women are the uniting force that keeps people together. When they are not there, the family and the company become dysfunctional.” Last year, Zoho Schools kickstarted a programme called Marupadi to help women re-launch their careers after a break. In fact, a new policy drafted by the state government highlights the importance of bringing women back into the workforce, and proposes upskilling and employing 10,000 women who quit work to take care of their families, besides introducing menopause leave for women workers.
Tamil Nadu’s gross enrolment rate (GER) for higher education—which is the ratio of young men and women between 17 and 24 attending college—is 51, nearly double the national index of 27, according to data from the All India Survey of Higher Education. Fifty-two per cent of boys and 49 per cent of girls in Tamil Nadu attend college. Last year, the government, recognising that the enrolment ratio of girl students from government schools in higher education was “very low”, introduced a monthly assistance of `1,000 for girls studying in Classes 6 to 12 in government schools, to be paid directly into their bank accounts till the uninterrupted completion of their undergraduate degree, diploma and ITI courses. The programme is likely to encourage 6 lakh girl students to pursue higher studies and aspire for better jobs.
The state is therefore a natural choice for brands looking to foster diversity and experiment with women-only units. Kirloskar, which pioneered the trend by setting up an all-women pump manufacturing facility in Kaniyur near Coimbatore in 2011, is trying to replicate the success of the model in Gujarat. Ola is looking to set up an electric scooter factory in Hosur employing just women—10,000 of them. TenderCuts, an omni-channel meat retailer from Chennai, has opened a store in the city run by women butchers. Women justices at the Madras High Court and the Madurai Bench recently appointed women mace-bearers or chobdars—a post that is a vestige of princely India—after applications received from women outnumbered those from men.
There are places yet that Tamil women want to go. The sky is one. Twenty-six-year-old S Subhashini is the first graduate from her family. A Bachelor’s in Computer Science got her a job as an image processor and mapper at Dhaksha Unmanned Systems, an agricultural drone company, in Chennai. Over a year ago, when Dhaksha started to train young men and women in association with the Remote Pilot Training Organisation (RPTO) at the Centre for Aerospace Research (CASR), Anna University, she signed up for the course, and was eventually hired by Dhaksha as an instructor. “I will never forget the time I first flew an agricultural drone by myself, turning off the loiter mode and additional controls we use for instruction. I thought, if I can do this, I can do anything,” Subhashini says. Wing Commander (Retd) KR Srikanth, who heads training for the RPTO course conducted in Chromepet, Chennai, says they have trained over 600 students—40 batches of them—to fly small and medium-sized drones and enabled many of them to secure licences. “India will need one lakh drone pilots in the next two years. We are keen that women and transmen and transhwomen seize this opportunity,” Srikanth says. Pragya, a student of Loyola College, was trained last February as part of a batch of 15 that included transmen, transwomen and cis men. She is a popular instructor among the women students now. Pragya hopes to be out in the fields some day, spraying crops and monitoring soil health and showing the people of Virudhunagar, where she grew up, that drones can be more than the “tiny mosquitoes that hover overhead shooting videos of the annual temple festival”. “I cannot believe I was afraid of those drones,” she says. “An important part of figuring out how to be comfortable in my skin was to find work that was fulfilling. I believe I have.”