Growing up watching the inequality meted out to women inspired P Viji to form Penkootu.

P Viji from Kozhikode who came on BBCs 100 Women list tells her story
news Women Saturday, November 24, 2018 - 10:30

P Viji cuts the call twice and asks for time - that’s how busy she was on the day BBC put her name on its list of 100 Women of 2018. She finally returns the call after 10 in the night. As she shushes her teen children to be quiet when she speaks, Viji remembers her difficult childhood and later recalls the more recent years that brought the new recognition.

Viji talks about her contribution that fetched the big honour - her much-written work for Penkootu, an association to fight for women's rights. From campaigning to build toilets for women on the street to protesting for the rights of saleswomen to sit for a while – there has been a lot of work and a lot of struggle to make each of this happen. There’s still much more to do. And all this, she does without taking a break from her actual profession as a tailor.

“That’s my job,” she says in her deep Kozhikode dialect.

What made an ordinary tailor turn into an activist, into someone other people came to for help, is the intriguing part. Viji says that her inquisitive nature - to question everything - must have developed in those early years of her life, seeing and understanding the unequal treatment meted to women by society, which also includes her father.

“Both my parents were working. My dad was a bus driver and my mother worked as a maid. However, women labourers were not even accepted as human beings. They would be beaten up. They had to be alert 24 hours – to work, to look after the house and the family. I watched my dad hit my mom, and she never took rest,” Viji recounts.

Even political parties that came to solve the problems of workers, did not give a solution to the unjust treatment towards women.

She grew up watching such unjust treatment until activist Ajitha came to her part of the town and spoke against domestic violence. That’s when Viji realised such injustices could be fought and that new laws had always come out of such fights.

So when women working at various shops on Muttayi Theruvu in Kozhikode did not have access to toilets, Viji and others formed Penkootu and launched the moothrapura samaram (protest for toilet). It was a long struggle that led to a court case but the women stood their ground. It’s their protest that finally led to the installation of e-toilets in the state, which we now see in every corner.

“After that, workers began to come to us with problems. One of these was to do something for saleswomen to sit while they worked. We did the irikkal samaram (sitting protest). We protested by sitting with chairs on our heads. When that protest won, the next problem came - for minimum wages. It was called the CO samaram (Community Organiser) of Kudumbashree. Despite the day and night work they did, the COs used to get just Rs 1,500 as monthly pay. We took it to trade unions and to courts until at first they increased the pay to Rs 10,000 and later to Rs 28,000 per month,” Viji says.

A protest campaign for Supplyco employees came next, to increase their pay from 50 paise for packing one packet of provisions to one rupee per packet. Viji also worked for the Muthalakulam washer women’s job security.

“Every problem becomes a protest,” she says. And from the tone, one can understand that life is not going to change for Viji. She is going to run between her tailoring job and the many campaigns of Penkootu that need her.

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