From an auto driver and a wildlife guide to a detective and the CEO of a tech startup, we spoke to eight women who have taken up jobs very few women do in India. Some are driven by economic necessity and others by passion, but what they share is a fierce determination that has helped them challenge the gender barriers. These trailblazers tell us what it's like to enter unchartered territory and deal with everyday sexism.
Tabassum Bano, auto driver
As perhaps the only female auto driver in Allahabad, Tabassum Bano is no stranger to being mocked, laughed at and harassed. The sole bread-winner in her family of 10, the single mother says she learnt driving after her brother, and last earning male family member, passed away in 2013.
Born to a poor family in in the Narsingarh village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bano was married at the age of 13. After repeated dowry demands and domestic violence, her husband gave her a talaq and evicted her from his house in 2007. Bano, along with her young son, walked to Allahabad on foot, to start a new life. After living on the streets for a few weeks, she got help from a local social worker who sent her to a driving school.
"Other auto drivers would try to steal my customers and threaten me, 'You've come here to eat into our income. If you come here again, we will kill you'."
"When I began driving, a lot of people passed comments and made jokes, but I had no choice but to work. Other auto drivers would try to steal my customers and threaten me, 'You've come to eat into our income. If you come here again, we will kill you'," Bano recalled. "Some men would forcefully sit in the auto and ask me if I wanted to be their friend. I was afraid for my safety but I had to work." Bano also faced opposition from the villagers back home, who told her that she had dishonoured her father.
The harassment and threats reduced after she was featured in local newspapers and TV channels. Last year, Bano took a loan to buy an auto rickshaw and joined Ola, a platform that gives her greater work flexibility and helps her bypass the street harassment. "Women are no lesser than men," Bano said. "They should be strong and courageous, and inshallah, they will be successful."
Ratna Singh, naturalist and wildlife guide
As one of the first female naturalists in India, Ratna Singh is used to being called a 'rare breed'.
Growing up amidst a family of farmers in a village near the Bandhavgarh National Park, Singh spent her childhood in proximity to wild animals. "I used to go to the national park often and saw that all the naturalists were men," she recalled. "There were female researchers but there weren't any female wildlife guides."
In order to pursue her love for the wild, Singh decided to give up a chance to do a law degree at Oxford University in favour of a training program with Taj Safaris in 2006. The first few weeks were the toughest. "My team and immediately family were supportive but there was a lot of pressure from the extended family for being in a place where women were traditionally not seen," Singh said. "They would say I was immoral for living with a bunch of men and cast aspersions on me for wearing pants. I even got threats that I should leave, warning me that I won't last and that this wasn't the right place for someone from a respectable family."
"They would say I was immoral for living with a bunch of men and cast aspersions on me for wearing pants."
A year later, by the time she finished her training, the tide had turned. "There were brickbats in the beginning, but there were many bouquets later too." Singh said. "I got accepted as part of the naturalists' community."
Now 39, Singh works as a freelance consultant in training other guides for the forest department and as well as landscaping and creating forests. She still spends a lot of time in the jungle and advising aspiring young female naturalists. "When I joined, everyone would call me sir. When I would drive my jeep through the the wilderness, people would run out just to see me," Singh said. "Now, locals have become more accepting."
"Once you know the ways of the wilderness, you're fine. I think it's the cities that are more fraught with danger."
In her decade-long career, Singh has worked in the forests in Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench and Panna, among others. Yet, she says she feels safer in the wild than in a city. "I have been close to big animals, but if you understand their body language, no harm will come with you," Singh said. "Once you know the ways of the wilderness, you're fine. I think it's the cities that are more fraught with danger."
Anahita Dhondy, chef manager
When Anahita Dhondy was appointed appointed as the chef manager of the popular Irani cafe-inspired restaurant SodaBottleOpenerWala in 2013, she had both her gender and her age working against her. She was 23 and leading a kitchen full of male chefs, many of them more experienced than her.
"Every industry has an imbalance of the men and women working in it, but in the food and beverage industry, the gap is huge," the 26-year-old said. "Specifically in the kitchen, it is difficult to even get that one is to ten ratio. So when I was college, I had no mentors to look up to."
"Every industry has an imbalance of the men and women working in it, but in the food and beverage industry, the gap is huge."
An alumni of Le Cordon Bleu, Dhondy got her love for cooking from her mother, a Delhi-based home caterer specialising in cakes and Parsi cuisine. "I started helping her out, and she realised it wasn't just a hobby but a potential full-time career," Dhondy said. While she had been warned about the demanding nature of the job, it was only when she began working at Soda Bottle SodaBottleOpenerWala that she realised that everything about the gender gap and the problems faced by women chefs was true. "Initially, the chefs in my kitchen didn't respect me because I was so young and a girl," Dhondy recalled. Yet, when they saw me cook and flog with them, they realised I wasn't just a pretty face. I also made it a two-way street, teaching them skills I knew and asking them to help me in turn."
In the last few years, Dhondy has seen more women coming into the kitchen, but adds that the attrition rate remains high. "You get stereotyped that because you're a girl you can't do certain things. It would unnerve me and make my blood boil," Dhondy said. "I had to prove that it doesn't matter whether you're a girl or a boy. For instance, I decided to spend three months in the butchery. Back then, owners and managers did not take women chefs seriously, because they thought she'd work for five years, get married and then her career was over."
Pooja Gaur, delivery girl
Dressed in a t-shirt and pants and perched on her TVS scooter, Pooja Gaur is not your average delivery person. All of 20, she is an employee of Even Cargo, a Delhi-based delivery company that hires only women to deliver packages for e-commerce companies in the city.
Gaur joined Even Cargo last May, after hearing about the company through her friend. "Maine mazak main socha ki try karte hain (I thought I'll try it for fun)," she told HuffPost India. "I knew how to ride a cycle, so I thought I'd be able to drive a scooty as well." Her parents initially refused, asking her to focus on her studies as well, but she managed to convince them.
Several months later, the job has given Gaur a newfound independence and self-confidence. Last year, she brought her first smartphone with her first salary, but lost it after a group of boys accosted her and stole her phone. A little more cautious now, she uses her salary to attend classes in spoken English. In between deliveries, she finds time to study -- she is doing graduation by correspondence from Delhi University -- and learn computer skills and English from the staff at Even Cargo.
"I was very afraid I would not be able to do the work and would ask someone to come along with me. Yet there was also this conviction that I had to do it."
"I had never ventured out alone before this without friends or family," Gaur said. "I was very afraid I would not be able to do the work and would ask someone to come along with me or pass the work on to others. Yet there was also this conviction that I had to do it. Now I have no fear."
Aardra Kannan Ambili, co-founder and CTO at Ray IoT
It is no secret that the world of Indian start-ups has a gender diversity problem. In this, Bengaluru-based Ray IoT Solutions stands out as a company founded and headed by three women. Two years ago, when Aardra Kannan Amili moved to Bangalore and met her roommate Ranjana Nair and her friend Sanchi Poovaya, little did she know that the three would end up collaborating to create the world's first non-contact baby monitor. Called Raybaby, it tracks sleeping and breathing patterns using radar technology with 98% accuracy, alerting new parents for signs of illness. Ray IoT, the parent company behind Raybaby, is also the first Indian company to receive support from Johnson and Johnson, and Chinese hardware accelarator HAX.
The idea for the device took root when one of their friends had a premature baby and spoke of how the infant had to be monitored using a device powered by lithium ion batteries, which carried a safety risk.
"We have observed that there are definitely more male-founded companies and male VCs, and so, we definitely need to encourage more women to enter the workplaces as well as to start their own businesses."
The three faced their fair share of biases while starting up. "We have observed that there are definitely more male founded companies and male VCs," Ambili said. "Therefore, we definitely need to encourage more women to enter the workplaces as well as to start their own businesses."
Ambili points that their diverse backgrounds -- she's a postgraduate in artificial intelligence and Poovaya in mechanical engineering -- improved their innovation and problem-solving skills. "The only advice I can give to anyone starting out is that there will always be a thousand critics to tell you why your dreams are impossible," she said. "Work hard and it pays to develop a community that will support you and encourage you. And always build something that you are excited about."
Akriti Khatri, detective agency owner
Nancy Drew aside, the word of detectives and private investigators remains largely male. But this didn't deter Akriti Khatri from taking up her first job at a local detective agency in Delhi at the age of 20. Now 31, she is one of the youngest female detective agency owners in India, with her Venus Detective having four branches in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Mumbai.
Khatri specialises in what she calls 'matrimonial concerns', i.e. exposing extra-marital affairs and pre-marital investigation."If you're a woman, people can easily trust you," Khatri said. "If I knock on someone's door, someone will entertain me and share details with me."
"People accept women working with them, but not women working above them."
While there are more female detectives than a decade ago, Khatri says they remain a handful largely due to the way her profession is perceived. She has had cases of women refusing administrative and clerical positions in her office and minces no words in talking about how men feel threatened by female detectives. "It has now become glamorous like Bollywood but there are still biases. Female detectives still get questions and comments such as 'oh, she will rule me' or 'tomorrow, you'll try these skills on me'. People accept women working with them, but not women working above them."
She also attributes the low numbers to the fact that the profession is still not legalised in India, with no formal detective schools to get trained at. She says her own success in the field is both due to her confidence and her family's support in helping her raise her two-and-a-half year old son. "I keep my work and personal life separate," she said. "To grow you need support, and I am glad that my parents have been so supportive."
Ami Shroff, flair bartender and mixologist
Ami Shroff didn't think she was breaking any stereotypes when she decided to take up bartending. It was just the lure of stylish flair bartending, when you flip and toss bar tools while presenting a cocktail, made famous by the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail that drew her to the field at the age of 18.
Strangely enough, the fact that there were so few women in the all-male industry made it easier for Shroff and her friend Delnaz to find work and learning opportunities. She learnt on the job, and is now recognised as one of the "By now, I am used to the fact that the food and beverage industry is so male-dominated but for many women it creates a restriction," the 31-year-old said, "it is a space that they may feel reluctant to enter."
"The biggest bias is from the law -- and women can't work at a regular bar beyond 11 pm."
Now working as a freelancer, Shroff says she has seen more women in the profession today but says that the biggest deterrent is legal. "The biggest bias is from the law -- and women can't work at a regular bar beyond 11 pm. This makes bar owners think twice about hiring women and restricts them to private parties and events. Though the industry is largely positive and welcoming to newcomers, there are rare sexist encounters and unpleasant characters. But mostly there is more harassment that happens outside the bar, because you have more control and authority since is your workplace."
Shabana Saifi, security guard
Shabana Saifi is the only security guard at the European Union embassy in Delhi's Chanakyapuri, but she is the face of the changing profession. With rising concerns over security and the all-pervasive practice of scanning and frisking, the demand of female security guards has also been increasing, changing the gender dynamics of a traditionally male field.
Born in a poor family in Delhi's Khanpur area, Saifi was married and had her first child at a young age. Her husband was an auto driver, but financial difficulties forced Saifi to look for other avenues of income. When a friend told her about her work as a security guard, she didn't think twice about taking it up. "Initially, I used to have difficulties during the training and wondered if I would be able to do it," Saifi said. "It took me some time to understand the work but then I was able to do it."
At the embassy, Saifi takes care of scanning baggage and the entry of visitors. "Occasionally people question my line of work, but I tell them that there is nothing wrong with it and it is like any other work," Saifi said. "Everyone has to do a job that suits them, and all that matter is that I do my work properly."