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On metro, heroines of female workforce

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:51 PM

They are called the "enforcers," armies of female officers in starched blue uniforms who kick men out of metro cars reserved for women.

Chubby and wearing oversize glasses, Hema Rani, 44, spotted a group of men pushing onto a women-only car. She plowed through the rush-hour crowd, her finger punching the air as she yelled, "No men. Go! Women-only here."

She flashed a crooked grin when the offending men - red-eyed government workers, shaggy-haired college students and a mortified-looking Buddhist monk twirling prayer beads - squeezed into an adjacent car.

"I'm the mother of two sons, and they may not like it, but they have to listen to me, too," she said, as the female riders roared with laughter. Rani said she fines 20 to 25 men each day on the capital's new metro system.

The enforcers have become unlikely heroines of India's female workforce, one of the largest in the world thanks in part to the country's booming technology and corporate sectors. The enforcers are helping women here travel to work safely and in comfort by making sure the first coach of every train is reserved for them.

New Delhi's metro has received complaints from "women from all walks of life who said the coaches were too overcrowded and men were shoving them on their ride to work," said Anuj Dayal, a spokesman for the system, which transports 1.6 million riders a day.

In response, officials decided to test the women-only cars, similar to those in Mumbai, the country's financial capital. Several other countries, including Japan, also have subway cars reserved for women.

Officials recruited more than 100 enforcers, whose job interviews included questions about how they would tell men that they were breaking the law. Many of the enforcers used to work as security officers on India's railways, others were housewives. Most come from middle-class or rural backgrounds.

Large pink stickers on the platform indicate the cars for "women only." Women can also ride in mixed cars. The arrangement has been so popular that more women-only cars might be added, Dayal said.

At first, there were no fines, but so many men were breaking the rules and stowing away in the women's car that the Delhi metro system announced fines of 200 rupees, or $4, per offense, a hefty penalty here, Dayal said.

Indian men are used to getting preferential treatment in the workplace and at home. In many families, sons are still prized over daughters, and rural women are far less educated than men.

Young urban women say they battle daily discrimination and harassment, including what is known in South Asia as "Eve teasing," or leering or grabbing. Although many women hold high-ranking political positions, Indian women still struggle for dignity in daily life.

More than a third of Indian women encounter bias in the workplace, where entrenched "old boys" networks form almost insurmountable barriers, according to a recent study about women in growing economies by the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has introduced legislation aimed at helping women, including measures to combat sexual harassment and to allow women to work in more fields, such as bartending. The legislation targets the growing private sector and unorganized construction industry, which employs large numbers of women, who are building the new India - bricks balanced atop their heads and toddlers tugging at their saris.

As women rode the New Delhi metro on a recent day, they smiled as the enforcers insisted on respect.

"Oh, it's fun to see the men get scolded. It's the best part of my day," said Sangetta Pareek, 35, with a laugh, while traveling to her job at a cosmetics firm. "They crib and cry about it. It's funny."

Mennu Malik, 42, a fashion designer, rode the train with her 12-year-old son, Arjun. (Male children are allowed to travel with their mothers.) She said she frequently takes him on the women's car and points out the enforcers.

"Men are always trying to be physical with you, pushing and shoving you a lot," Malik said. "But the enforcers mean we have equal dignity. What has made them heroes is that most of our laws are on the books but are never enforced. The women's-only car is actually one thing that is implemented."

The passengers laughed as Rani lifted her arm to playfully swat a male police officer who was trying to steal a ride in the women's car.

"It's okay, sister," the towering officer said, moving back. "I will obey you."

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