Women Workers of Kerala: K O Aysha Bai and O Koran

[This is from the discussion on Resolution No. 3 moved in the Kerala State Legislative Assembly during the First Session , by P Ravindran, on 13 March, 1964 [Proceedings of the Kerala State Assembly Vol 25, pp. 2221-24]. Besides Aysha Bai’s intervention, it also gives us glimpses of the conditions under which the poorest-paid women laboured in Kerala. The text of the resolution was the following:

This House recommends to Government to appoint a committee to study the problems facing the women workers of Kerala regarding their wages, conditions of work, health and safety measures, training opportunities for higher jobs and facilities for the care and upbringing of their children.

He defended it spiritedly, pointing out that women had worked from time immemorial, but had never really received recognition or concern as workers, and noting through examples the pathetic conditions under which women workers toiled in Kerala. He also notes that women workers have struggled for these — and alluding to the upswing of labour struggles in these years, says that they have conducted many protests for this. He especially remarks that women workers are more numerous here than elsewhere — 47 per cent of the women in Kerala were workers, he claims. He however also claimed that women were quite frequently appointed to higher posts: “There are many women in government service in our country. There is a woman judge in the High Court [Anna Chandy]. In our own legislative assembly, the Deputy Speaker is a woman [O T Sarada Krishnan]. [But] the lives of women who labour in the lower levels has not improved …” (pp. 2213-14). He further points to the many disabilities women face — of precarious and unsafe work environments, of the lack of creches and other facilities, of the unequal pay, and the rule in some lines of work that women can keep their jobs only if unmarried.

K O Aysha Bayi’s speech supported and extended these arguments, but also disagreed with some of its claims. O Koran, an SSP leader and an SC member, applied her arguments by demanding a significant change to the resolution. K O Aysha Bai (1926-2005) was the Deputy Speaker of the first Kerala State Legislative Assembly, an MLA representing the Kayamkulam constituency, and a Communist Party politician. O Koran was an SSP leader who was also an SC member.

I was particularly struck by the way in which K O Aysha Bai who spoke on behalf of ‘women’ and O Koran who ‘applied’ her critique of the original resolution to propose a change to the resolution worked together — without rancour, with the implicit understanding they must do so, almost.

Reading this, one cannot be but reminded of the contemporary debates on advancing women’s claims, especially the problem to advancing such claims without rendering the different needs of non-elite women invisible. Here Aysha Bai’s intervention implicitly brings together the issues faced by elite and non-elite women in work both, and highlights its connection to the exclusion of women from power and authority. Koran takes this up, highlighting the specific need to focus on the most disadvantaged women. Though limited as it is by the political and cultural horizons of mid-20th century developmentalism, this coming together reminds us that it may indeed possible to bring together the voices and needs of elite and non-elite women.]

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Shrimati K O Aysha Bai : Madam [addressing the Deputy Speaker O T Sarada Krishnan], I am supporting the resolution moved by Shri P Ravindran. It includes some of the welfare benefits and rights that women workers truly deserve. I believe that sisters and brothers seated on the other side will not oppose it. Today half, or more than half, of the population of our country consists of women. It is evident that women, who do constitute half of the population, are in a very backward condition. If you examine the social scene, or the economic, or technical scenes, women are found to be extremely backward. Today our Constitution guarantees equal rights to Woman and Man in work and professions. But these are mere promises as yet; they have not been fulfilled. What does our conception of political and economic socialist order today imagine? If this order is to be built, then people of all sorts need to come forward in all walks of life. Rejecting women, a group of people who are half of the people of this country, will not allow us to build this order. Our venerated leaders themselves have exhorted women to enter all walks of life. If you probe whether any sincere effort has been made to encourage women to do so, of it such effort is being made, then you will probably be disappointed. Let us take for example, this very Assembly. How many women members does it have? Not to say, does the Ministry have a single woman minister? Though there was much pleading to appoint a woman minister in the present ministry, all that fell on deaf ears.

Deputy Speaker: The resolution moved here is on women workers.

Shrimati K O Aysha Bayi: This is a matter that affects [all] women. The Deputy Speaker here too has the same experience. They need women as voters. But the situation is such that when the ministry is formed, women are dragged away. From this it is clear that women, in general, are neglected.

If you consider the employment scene in our land, women are actually few. Women are pushed away there too. First, women are not given a proper education. The idea that this is not profitable persists in some places. Today, there is much evidence that women can and do make brilliant students. Women are now prominent among doctors, engineers, high court judges, and many other professions. It is also clear now that they are able to shine better than their male colleagues. But women do not receive support to enter employment and professions. I wish to place a clear opinion about this in this Assembly. I have stated many times here before that woman member should be appointed to the Public Service Commission representing half of the people of the land. If there is no vacancy in the committee now, a new vacancy should be created. Likewise, women should be given equal consideration with men in everything. They do deserve this. Women bear the responsibility of motherhood which is vital to the creation and sustenance of the world. And so it must be recognized that women ought to stand ahead of men in every way.

If you examine the labour-scene, you will [actually] find fewer women. Very few of the factories actually permit women workers. Women are made do the work that is the dirtiest, the most laborious, and that which men will not do. If you want examples, you need to just find out about the women in the cashew and coir industries. Even there, the women are not so much. If you leave aside these industries, few women are able to find jobs. The claim made by the mover of this resolution, that many women now receive professional appointments, is not true. In the same way, few women are able to receive training in skills. Women workers should be provided with facilities for learning technical skills at work. It is necessary to make arrangements for women to find work in factories, to give them good jobs, to make available technical skill-training, and ensure a healthy work environment.

There are no creches or maternity wards that women workers can make use of today. I saw this directly when I visited a factory recently. There is a place near the factory bearing the board on which the word ‘creche’ is written. There was a cradle there on which the women working in the factory would leave their babies. The space used as a creche for the children of women workers turns into a cattle-shed at night. It stinks badly of cow urine and cow dung. The children are left in this dirty, unhealthy place. A really senior woman has been appointed to care for the children, at a mere pittance. There must be effort to ensure that these places are clean, and trained care-givers — young women trained in the care of children — should be appointed there. In the normal case, even housing facilities for women workers near the factories are non-existent. Today lakhs of rupees are set apart in our country for social welfare, especially the care of women and children. The use of this funds happens within a bourgeois setup. It is very necessary to change this. A creche, a nursery school, an international school, and a maternity centre needs to be opened near every factory. The money that is spent for social welfare now will be enough for this. Also, the funds of the social welfare department should be spent on opening working women’s hostels. They must be low-cost buildings, and women with training, as mentioned earlier, should be appointed.

Also, no medical care is available for the health needs of women workers. Though 90 percent of women workers have joined the ESI scheme, the maternity care it promises is unavailable to most of them. I request that to remedy this lack, maternity wards or other facilities should be built under the ESI scheme near the factories. If women are to receive a special consideration in social welfare, then there can be no other way to do it except by appointing a committee like this resolutions demands, to study the specific issues they encounter and producing a report on it; we cannot move towards socialism if urgent measures are not taken on the basis of such a report. Like a bird cannot fly without two wings, unless women, who are half of humanity and who are placed on the right side of humanity, cannot be simply ignored and rejected. I believe that women have proven themselves more competent than men from the time of Adam right up to these days of space travel. It was woman, Hawwa, who plucked up the courage to taste the fruit that was forbidden by God. It was a female dog that was chosen for the first space flight. Valentina Tereshkova who flew into space is a woman known the world over now. So I request that women, especially women, be provided with all the facilities they require.

Shri K K Balakrishnan: Are we to understand that the Respected Member is against appointing a Harijan in the next vacancy in the Public Service Commission?

Shrimati K O Aysha Bayi: No, I only said that women should be given the place that they truly deserve.

[At this point, Shri O. Koran made a forceful and relevant intervention, agreeing with Aysha Bai and proposing to add the following addition to the resolution:

After the word “Committee” in the resolution, add “including women Legislators”.

He then proceeded to speak at length about the dire situation of women doing scavenging labour, and women agricultural workers: ” As far as women of these groups are considered, their situation is very difficult. About women-scavengers, women up to the age of 40 are found to be very anaemic. It is said that this is caused by their constant exposure to noxious odours. The Committee should consider the issues of scavenging labour separately. ” He then mentions the plight of poor Pulaya women workers in the fields. He concludes by saying that this committee will need to include women legislators as members.]

Shri P Gopalan: Madam, I agree completely with the views of the mover of this resolution. But I must inform the Assembly that some facts mentioned by Shrimati Aysha Bai in support of the resolution do not match the facts. It is pathetic to state that women have abilities, they need charity, that they are weak, and so on.

Shrimati K O Aysha Bai: I did not say that they need charity, I said that they must be given greater consideration.

[The resolution was debated further and both resolution and the proposed amendment were put to vote — they were both lost. This is not perhaps surprising, but interestingly enough, the mover of the resolution did not accept the proposed amendment! Why, one must surely ponder.]

2 thoughts on “Women Workers of Kerala: K O Aysha Bai and O Koran”

  1. It is great to know that we had such fiery women legislative members who fiercely talked about women issues, representation, and cracks and crevices of the patriarchal system before the assembly in 1960s.

    Devika ma’am, may I ask you one thing that came across my mind while reading this in connection with what I have read about Ruth Ginsberg. If I am not wrong, in US, even in 1970s, there were about 200 laws that explicitly discriminates based on gender & Reed v Reed (1971) was one of the earliest federal cases to declare descrimination based on sex unconstitutional. I was wondering that, it was only in these times such constitutional or legal level interventions on gender equality started happening in US where as India had gender equality in its original constitution, also we have fewer laws that blatantly discriminates on the basis of sex.(Correct me if I am wrong)

    So what intrigues me is, was women’s status legally better in Kerala (or India) compared to US in 1960s? If so, why is it not reflected in practice?

    1. Yes indeed, the reason why we often think that the Anglo American world is somehow the origin and the centre of all human history… surely India in the middle of the 20th century had taken a huge step. The difference was of course second wave feminism in the 60s and after which wrested gains that were definitely not guided solely by the logic of state. For example, in India too abortion was legalized in the early 70s but that was for population control. The USA was never some model of women’s liberation, it was the feminist movement there that made a difference, and again, the difference was by no means complete…

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