The agitation staged by women sales staff in business establishments of Kerala demanding facilities to sit at the workplace has earned international recognition. P Viji of Kozhikode who led their struggle has been selected by BBC as one among the 100 women who have influenced the world significantly.
"My politics is based on love for fellow human beings and I have more than a little partiality towards the weaker sections of the society," says Viji.
"I have a clear opinion on all major issues and am not afraid to reveal my stand," she adds.
Viji, who earned the BBC's honour for taking up the saleswomen's right to sit during working time, heads 'Pen Koottu,' an organization based at S M Street in Kozhikode and the unorganized sector labourers' union (AMTU). Her struggle had, in July this year, forced the Kerala Government to enact legislation protecting the rights of salesgirls to sit.
Ask Viji regarding her motto in life and she would reply, "If there is a problem, there is a solution too." This philosophy makes her stand apart, along with her determination to carry on her struggle till the goal is reached.
"The recognition by an international channel like BBC is indeed a great honour for Pen Koottu," says Viji.
"A worker's basic demand is eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours of entertainment. However, it is doubtful whether women workers in Kerala enjoy this schedule and Pen Koottu and AMTU are fighting to secure this right," she explains.
"Our method of agitation is striking work and we will continue doing this till our goal is met," adds Viji.
The first stir
Viji's first agitation staged was at her own house. She had completed her class 10 and started made dolls and flowers at home and sold them to earn some money. "At that time, regular fights were witnessed at home. Our father, a bus driver, came home drunk every night and beat up mother. It was mother who looked after us by working as a daily wager. The situation was the same in other houses of the neighbourhood too," recalls Viji.
"I wondered why we led such lives and decided to take up the matter with my father himself. He replied that he was in deep trouble, which made him behave the way he did," says Viji.
But she soon realized that her father was not in so bad a condition that she imagined. "He was, in fact, shirking the responsibility of running the house," says Viji.
One day, former Naxalite Ajitha came to Viji's colony and addressed a meeting. Viji, too, attended the programme and noticed that all the men in the neighbourhood treated Ajitha with respect as well as fear. "The men who regularly thrashed their wives at home were afraid of Ajitha, also a woman. She strictly warned them not to beat their wives," remembers Viji.
After Ajitha's visit, Viji's father rarely tried to beat her mother. "I realized that a fear had crept into him. My mother, too, was no longer afraid of father. I liked that," she says.
This incident inspired Viji to join Ajitha's organization 'Anweshi,' which worked among the women in Kozhikode.
That was Viji's first step in social intervention and struggles.
Viji's family had secured a loan to repair their house and repayment needed a good amount. Viji started working as a tailor at S M Street in Kozhikode to earn some money. "There were four-five of us, all women, who started the tailoring shop. At that time, no other women worked at S M Street and we were a sort of local celebrities," says Viji.
All the shopkeepers were known to the women and were friendly too. "My job was cutting the cloth for stitching it into various dresses. After every day's work, I used to exchange pleasantries with everyone on the street and also enquired about their life and work," says Viji.
At that time, there were no wash rooms at S M Street. Viji and her women colleagues used a wall in the area for their basic needs like the men did. "We told the nearby shopkeepers to look the other way and one among us would use the wall and the others would stand around, blocking the view," recalls Viji.
But soon she was fed up and launched a stir which would win her international recognition.