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How a women’s organization in Kerala stood up for the right to sit

[By Anila Backer A P]

It hasn’t always been easy for women to attain and enjoy their rights. When we look back into history, most of the fundamental human rights have been won by women by protesting, taking to the streets in strikes and boycotts and fighting in the courtrooms. This is particularly true for women who have fought for a better workplace that often considered women as the ‘other’ and was blind to women’s needs and other basic rights that also have implications for their well-being, dignity, safety, and in the long-term even impacting productivity. This article tells the story of one such movement – ­for the simple right to sit; where a women’s organisation and workers in Kerala’s textile sector stood up to sit. 

On September 6, 2021, the Tamil Nadu government presented a bill to make it mandatory to provide seating arrangements to workers in shops and commercial establishments in the state. Tamil Nadu is the second state in India to recognise the workers’ right to sit and bring legal dimensions to it. The law was first implemented in Kerala in 2018 following the ’Right to Sit” movement undertaken by a women’s organisation and workers in the textile sector.

The movement was spearheaded by ‘Penkoottu’ (women for each other) women’s collective in Kozhikode, Kerala, and its trade union, AMTU (Asanghatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union – Unorganised Sector Workers’ Union). Through the movement, the human rights violation at the workplace, particularly in the textile sector where women form the primary workforce, came into public. The saleswomen in the textile sector had to assume the role of mannequins, being commodified, displaying the dress materials and catering to the customers’ needs by standing during their entire work time. Despite the amendment of the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act in the state, making workers’ right to sit a legal assurance, it is not a practice in most of the shops, and ‘Penkoottu’ and AMTU are still striving to get it implemented, making ‘Right to Sit’ an ongoing movement. It further raises questions in the assurance of the right in Tamil Nadu as well. 

I was part of the movement activities after the implementation of the law in Kerala as part of my doctoral field work and gained insights into the movement through the conversations and interviews I had with the organisation members. 

‘Penkoottu’, AMTU and the Right to Sit movement

On the International Labour Day on May 1, 2014, a few textile workers and other activists – all members of Penkoottu’s women-led trade union, AMTU, set out for a sit-in and rally in SM Street, Kozhikode, Kerala, carrying chairs on their heads. Through this protest titled ‘Irikkal Samaram’ (right to sit protest), the public came to know that the textile sector’s sales workers could not sit during their long working hours. The movement’s interpreting and raising the issue as human rights violation also emphasized the women’s exploitation in the sector. It brought up other grievances of textile workers, including long working hours without break times, job insecurity, gender-based wage disparity, and several other workplace issues. 

A sit-in organised as part of the Right to Sit movement by Penkoottu and AMTU in SM Street, Kozhikode, Kerala on May 1, 2014.
Image credit: AMTU Kerala

“Is there any law that states that workers can sit at the workplace, is what the authorities asked when a meeting was convened on behalf of the labour commission when we protested for the right to sit in 2014,” Viji P, popularly known as Viji Penkoottu, the founder and secretary of Penkoottu and AMTU told me as she spoke about the movement. “We responded to it, asking them if there is any law that prohibits us from sitting,” she continued. 

This was the nature of the authorities’ response when the movement raised the issue for the first time, and it was Penkoottu’s continuous struggle that led to the implementation of the law. 

The protest at Kalyan Sarees, Thrissur

The movement was taken up later in December 2014 by six saleswomen of Kalyan Sarees, a major textile showroom in Thrissur in Kerala, under the aegis of AMTU. They organised a sit-in protest in front of the textile showroom. Though their protest was mainly focused on their transfer to a different showroom because they had joined the trade union, AMTU, the strike that lasted for more than 100 days shed light on the exploitations in the textile showroom. It addressed several workplace issues, including being not allowed to sit, meagre wages, long working hours without a break, and imposing fines for leaning against the wall, talking, and taking toilet breaks beyond the specified number. 

“There was nothing like seats or chairs for us to sit at the shop and tired by standing, we used to sit at the toilets steps when we go to the toilets or during the lunch break. We thought about all these exploitations when we heard about the Right to Sit protest initiated by Penkoottu and AMTU and joined the trade union. We were also concerned about the gender-based wage gap and thought unionising would help us fight our rights. But the textile management transferred six of us from our home location to Thiruvanathapuram where we would have to spend for rent as well, which was not possible with the meagre wages we receive,”

points out Mayadevi when I interviewed her during my fieldwork. She was one of the six employees who took part in the Right to Sit protest at Kalyan Sarees. 

Despite presenting the inhumane and precarious working conditions at textile showrooms through the case of Kalyan Sarees, the movement was not given any attention by the mainstream media but gained immense social media support. “Boycott Kalyan” was trending at that time on Facebook. The social media also critiqued mainstream media for not covering the protest and the exploitations at the textile showroom, citing fear of losing advertisement revenue as the reason. The Facebook supporters of the movement reached the protest site and expressed solidarity to the protestors. After numerous discussions, the sit-in strike was later withdrawn when the management agreed to take back the protesting workers. 

Employees at another textile centre later took up the movement to address several workplace issues. This continuous struggle led to the Kerala government’s amendment of the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act in 2018.

Digital support in the organisation and mobilisation of the movement

While the mobilisation of the movement in its initial stage took place through the door-to-door campaigning in shops conducted by the members of AMTU and Penkoottu in Kozhikode in 2014, the activists who come and go within the organisation articulated the need for the movement and why they are protesting with the aid of a blog, titled, “Asamghatitham”. It mainly carried the content of the pamphlets and newsletters that were distributed among the public and other posts detailing the essence of the movement.

The movement received immense support from activists in Facebook during the Kalyan Sarees protest. Apart from this, the Facebook pages of Penkoottu and AMTU Kerala, though not that much active, also carried out campaigns at all the stages of the movement to mobilise support. Currently, the organisation is making use of WhatsApp groups to mobilise and organise campaigns in this regard. The organisation has WhatsApp groups respectively for Penkoottu and AMTU members, and an additional group for Penkoottu comprising feminists and activists across the state and uses the groups to provide information about the campaigns it conducts. Through WhatsApp groups, the organisation mobilised its members for a campaign in association with the International Labour Day in May 2019 to make the right to sit a norm in workplaces and ensure that the right is protected.   

Penkoottu campaign
Image credit: Anila Backer A P

The struggle to make Right to Sit a norm in shops 

Despite the implementation of the law, the organisation continues with the movement to make it a norm as it has not been put into practice in the majority of the shops in Kerala. During the campaign it conducted in May, 2019 in Kozhikode, in which I participated, apart from creating awareness among the workers and employers, we also checked whether the shops are providing seating arrangements for the workers to sit and notified the authorities about those who are not implementing the law. Though seating arrangements are being provided in many shops and workers are encouraged to sit occasionally, it was evident through the campaign and the checking that most employers haven’t taken the law seriously and are not ready to implement it. The workers who are afraid of losing their job supported their employers, saying that they have no restriction in sitting, although the lack of seating arrangements communicated that the right is still being violated.

This situation further raises concerns on the assurance of the right in Tamil Nadu as well. However, this does not negate the fact that the introduction of the bill itself is a revolutionary move. But it needs to be put into practice and for that, workers need to be aware of their rights and must again stand for it. Let’s hope that the situation will change soon and the workers will avail their rights and protection of the law. 


Anila Backer A P is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad. She works on gender and social movements. Her research interests lies on women’s movements, movement performances, gender, feminist communication studies and spatiality.  She had been working as a reporter with The New Indian Express before joining University of Hyderabad. 

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When women’s employment equals family disgrace: A Case from Rural India

[By Renza Iqbal]

Fariha, 19 years, belongs to a middle-class family. Though her family could afford to get her a smartphone, it was not deemed necessary. Fariha’s first smartphone was gifted to her by her husband. She sought her husband’s approval before installing WhatsApp on her phone. She had been married off soon after her schooling and had no hope of pursuing further education or employment. However, this is not a story of a girl from some “backward” place. Fariha is from one of India’s most progressive states—Kerala.

As a PhD scholar at Erasmus University Rotterdam working on digital inequality in rural India, I carried out a month long pilot study in rural Wayanad – a district in the north of Kerala, conducting a focus group discussion and 25 in-depth interviews to understand how the Kerala state fares in terms of digital access and usage. My findings revealed a bigger problem. Though my focus was on the usage and access to mobile phones and the internet, these digital barriers appeared to be culturally induced, embedded in long standing gendered notions of education, employment, and leisure.

Kerala’s women: The most educated and the least empowered

Among the states in India, Kerala often gains the spotlight for its exceptional achievements. It tops the indices in education, gender ratio, health and governance. When the country records 48.5% of its population as female, the state of Kerala boasts a 52.02% female population. But the series of remarkable achievements by the state’s government seems to have had little effect on improving the number of women in the workforce. It is a curious case of education not being converted into employment or empowerment.

Women in the state have a higher education level compared to women in other states in the country. Yet, women’s participation in the labour market has been consistently lower than men, and the wage gap compared to men remains high. It doesn’t end here. According to the Gender Statistics 2017-18 report by the Economics and Statistics Department of the State, around 75% of the female population in the state is considered to be economically inactive. So how is it that a state with the highest female literacy rate is also the state with the highest female unemployment? Add to that the fact that girls in Kerala consistently outperform boys in national-level achievement tests and language tests., you start to see a pattern—a suppressive social order at work.     

Formal education, a mere formality

Education does not necessarily lead to empowerment. I have witnessed this my whole life. As someone who grew up in a traditional Muslim family in Kerala, I bore witness to patriarchy’s hand at work. I have experienced, both within my family and around me, women with tremendous intellectual capacity being married off early, to take on their predetermined life role of carrying out household chores and responsibilities. In my community, education for women is understood as an acceptable engagement until marriage—a mere formality. This notion is so ingrained that one often finds families waiting outside college gates on the lookout to identify potential brides. This goes beyond this particular community; restricting women’s potential is found in almost every community in Kerala, just in different ways.

Image credit: Pippa Ranger/DFID – UK Department for International Development

Caution, women at work

A 2019 study on women’s labour in Kerala gives us better insight into the cultural influences on women’s low representation in workspaces. It found that working women in Kerala are seen as representing the inadequacy of the primary male bread earners’ capacity to provide sufficiently for the family. For women coming from the privileged classes and castes, engaging in employment outside the confines of their home is even considered disgraceful for the family. Paid work is regarded as a threat to their femininity arising from the shared fear that working women could be exposed to sexual harassment. Those who dare to challenge these norms are often ostracized. The most readily accepted solution to protect women from unwanted advances is to restrict women’s access to public spaces. This keeps them from becoming financially independent.

Welcoming a digital Indian!

While growing up, women are monitored by the family on who they are engaging with on their devices. The amount of time they can spend on their devices are also often restricted. That is, if they manage to pass all hurdles to finally get access to smartphones.

During the pilot study for my research, I had the opportunity to engage with young people and listen to their experiences on the gendered differences in mobile internet usage and how education, employment and leisure influenced their behavior online. Among the participants, of those who did not own a smartphone – 70% were women. My study also shows a gendered difference in the age at which they first attain a personal smartphone, with it being 15 for males and 18 for females. Some young men engage in part-time jobs from when they are teenagers and buy their own smartphone. Women seldom get the opportunity.

15-year-old Nihas tells me that “girls use their mother’s phones. They do not generally have a personal phone.” Young women’s mobile phone and internet usage is both controlled and monitored, fearing they would engage in romance. Even being seen speaking with a stranger of the opposite sex can bring shame to the woman and her family. 23-year-old Thresiya was instructed by her family, not to engage in phone conversations when outside the house, as there is a possibility that the local people would assume that she is in a relationship. Fear looms around the impact of gossip on the reputation of the family. Romance outside marriage is taboo in these communities; therefore, a constant effort to reduce their interaction with strangers is a must, even if it means confining them to their homes.

Other aspects from the pilot study surfaced, reflecting the socio-digital life of an average woman in rural India:

  • Most young get intermittent access to their mother’s smartphone around the age of 15.
  • Many women, irrespective of their academic interests and performance, will be married off anywhere between 18 and early 20’s; uprooted to a new life under the supervision of their husband and his family.
  • Further education is at the mercy of the husband and his family, who in most cases, do not see it as necessary.
  • They are rendered financially dependent.
  • Their household responsibilities begin; they succumb to their gender role set and protected by society.
  • This reduces their leisure time, giving them less time to explore internet possibilities, and learning by trial and error.
  • This makes them less skilled at using the phone or the internet compared to their male counterparts.

Nowhere in the timeline do women in rural Kerala get to exercise their independence, financially or otherwise. But not everything is in despair; there is a silver lining. An interesting finding from my study is that unlike middle and upper-class women, for women belonging to economically backward tribal communities, engaging in employment is acceptable. Rarely did it affect family honour or reputation negatively; rather, womenfolk being capable of earning enhanced their prestige. In their case, any contribution to the family’s finances is welcome – even if it is as little as the women taking care of their expenses. Women feel empowered when engaging in employment; they also develop healthy relationships and networks outside their family. Women from these communities often bought a smartphone for themselves using their salaries, or in some cases, scholarship funds. Two of my participants from the Kuruma, a financially “backward” tribal community, shared their experiences. Gopika works as a teacher, whereas Archa is a Master’s student – the two made use of their salary and scholarship fund respectively to purchase a phone – and they are proud of their achievements.

The future of her

For many women like Fariha and Thresiya, education doesn’t equal empowerment. What we need is a reform that tackles societal and gender roles. If in a supposedly progressive state women are not encouraged to leverage on their education to contribute to the labour economy and not valued for their formal work, then maybe, it is not women who need to be educated. The trends change; if it was education restriction yesterday, it is fully autonomous access to smartphones today. Before the dawn of the next regressive trend, let us address the root of the problem: patriarchy.

Women’s employment has to be normalised if we are to develop healthier societies. Women’s liberty and autonomy to engage with the internet and mobile phones could open up numerous employment and growth opportunities. In a time when there is an increasing focus on digitisation across spheres, it is essential to pay attention to the existing structural inequalities and resolve them. Besides, one cannot truly call it digital India till women have unrestricted access to this new basic need


Renza Iqbal is an external PhD candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a Fellow at MICA, Ahmedabad. She works in the area of digital inequality and is particularly interested in the intersection of gender and rurality. Renza has previous experience working in diverse areas such as education, media and advertising.