Being a woman in India’s great spice market (photo report)
By Stephanie Chen and Hareem Khan
Story #1 – Leena Chawhan
In one of the most crowded streets in Old Delhi, a single figure stands out amongst the sea of bodies.
Here, in Khari Baoli, the largest wholesale spice market in Asia, Leena Chawhan is a rare sight – she is a young woman.
“I’m the only young unmarried woman vendor in this whole market,” Leena says, pointing down the street towards the thousands of other vendors.
A quick scout of the market reveals at least six other women, but having worked the stall since she was just 15, Leena, has had to develop a strong sense of survival.
“You have to be loud and assertive here. You have to captivate people to make a sale and you have to make the sale to survive,” she says.
“You have to do what it takes to stand out in the market because there is so much competition. You can’t be shy about being a woman.”
“Standing here is the hardest part. I can’t even begin to describe the amount of filthy minded people who come here and I have to deal with them every day.
“I’ve been here since 2006, its 2017 now, so I started here when I was 15. It’s not a good environment for young girls.”
Despite the difficulties, Leena has strong reasons for staying and working the stall.
“My sisters were very young when my dad passed so I had to take control of the stall, but now they are studying,” she says proudly.
“I’ll pay for them to finish their studies, and move forward in life. I don’t want them to face the same difficulties I’ve faced in this job.”
Every day, Leena witnesses many of the challenges faced by female workers in Delhi, but she doesn’t let that take away from her pride as a woman. Instead, she admires the women of Delhi who make sacrifices everyday for the sake of their families.
“The amount of strength of a woman in Delhi, no one can compare. The amount of work a lady can do, no one can do.
“I see a woman every morning who comes through the market at 5am and she buys vegetables. She works in a bank, and while she works she cuts her vegetables and leaves work at 6pm back through the market to look after her family.
“No woman is less,” Leena says.
Story #2 – Champa Biyen
Champa Biyen understands all too well the responsibilities that come with being a woman in Delhi.
“I have four daughters and four sons. When they were younger, I’d get up at 4am and make them roti before coming here to work. Then my sister would look after them. I’d get here to the market around 7am, and then leave around 6pm,” Champa recounts.
“But when I get home I have to look after my children and I have housework, so I never stop working.
“Men don’t have to go home and worry about kids and cleaning and feeding them,” she says.
Like Leena, Champa finds being a woman negatively impacts her ability to succeed in the marketplace. However, after years of working her stall in Khari Baoli, her main concerns lie with the difficulties of competing with men in such a male dominated industry.
“Women of course struggle a lot more here,” she says.
“Going to the main wholesale market to get the vegetables that I resell here is very rough. Its full of men and they’re always pushing and shoving. Its really hard as a woman going into that environment and having to make yourself heard, and safe.”
But she can see that times are changing.
“I’ve been selling vegetables here for 25 years, and I’ve noticed that the number of women around here is increasing.
“There still aren’t many though.”
Story #3 – Amar Devi
Amar Devi is enthusiastic to recount her daily activities working in the spice markets.
“We wake up at 6am, and go to the main market to pick up goods to sell. We come here around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, after coming from the main market. We close up around 8pm, and it takes us about an hour to get home,” Amar says.
>Although the work is hard, she enjoys the work and has done so for 50 years.
“It really is a grind… [But] I’m working for my kids, so it puts it all in perspective. For me it’s not too hard, I just think it’s what I have to do for my family,” Amar says.
“The kids go to work, I’ve married my older girls off so no one is really at home. It gives me some kind of variation in my life.
“I like being here in the market, it’s kind of like an escape for me.”
We ask Amar the same questions we asked Leena and Champa, but she remains positive about her life in the market as she jokes and laughs with the girl sitting beside her.
“I don’t mind [being a woman here]. It’s what you have to do for money and business. We’re also in a very public area so I generally feel safe. After all these years, I know everyone here and my whole family is involved in this business so no one will hurt me,” she says.
And while Amar was sympathetic to the plight of women like Leena, she believes there’s no other way.
“I can understand that some younger women may have a hard time in such a male dominated environment,” she says, shaking her head.
“When women are younger, of course they’re going to be worried and have a hard time stepping out into such a male dominated market. But what are they going to do at home? How are they going to make money? I tell them, men are going to be men. What can we do about it?”
“It’ll get easier as they grow older.”
All interviews conducted in Hindi by Hareem Khan.