The life and labour of India's pastoral women

Published on May 17, 2022 04:24 PM IST

Lost in literature are the struggles of Indian shepherdesses, whose lives and work depend on laborious daily tasks. Their lives offer us a conduit to understand the invisibility of women’s work pervasive in our society. 

A significant part of a pastoral woman’s identity is derived from her care and responsibility toward the flock. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
A significant part of a pastoral woman’s identity is derived from her care and responsibility toward the flock. (Shutterstock)

Here's a story about the Gaddi shepherdess, a pastoral woman, who walks in the mountains of the Himalayas. She collects jadi-buti and saag, brings water for her animals, cooks, makes dera (makeshift temporary home) on the road and also stays up all night to guard the animals in her dera. In an occupation that is so physically demanding, the shepherdess performs many laborious tasks outside of her care work for the family. In addition to this, the household work she is supposed to do is even more physically challenging during migration undertaken to find pastures.

But where do we see the shepherdess, except maybe in photo essays? Amid all the conversations on working women, which often feature on various platforms, where do we find the pastoral women? The labour of the pastoral woman somehow remains unseen in economic surveys and academic work. An attempt to look at the life of pastoral women beyond the photos shows us the complexity and the invisiblisation of their labour at multiple levels.

Working or labouring is a significant part of a pastoral woman’s life, which is fundamental to the pastoral community. There is a certain understanding of pastoral woman’s labour that is deeply embedded in her body and her agility. The idea of shram/kaam (labour/work) is often invoked when speaking to pastoral women. A certain form of physical labour, and thereby, a certain type of body becomes an essential part of a pastoral woman’s identity. To be able to walk for months on difficult terrains, negotiate through different types of ecosystems, people and institutions, and relate to different aspects of life through labour, are an integral part of pastoral identity.

A significant part of a pastoral woman’s identity is derived from her care and responsibility toward the flock. Relationship with her animals is more fundamental to her sense of identity. In most cases, this relationship of the pastoral woman with her flock is one of intimate care and nurture. Her care for the animals informs her work. She often says that she cares for the animals just like her own children, in a motherly way. Sometimes she has to become like an animal to “work” with the flock. Her flock, in some ways, mediates her relationship with various elements of the ecosystems. Providing this kind of care requires bodily labour. This labour is often invisibilised in studies and surveys on women, and their work gets understood primarily through the lens of settled communities. Pastoral women in movement tend to fall outside of this framework.

The relationship of the pastoral woman with her body is influenced by many factors. There are strong notions about which bodies can do such labour and which ones cannot. 

In that sense, a major part of the onus is put on the labour embedded in the physical body; be it through the amount of labour required in the herding work or in keeping the body healthy and fit. Thus, old age and the diminishing physical capacity to do labour are the only possible exit routes allowed in the life of labouring for a pastoral woman. 

The aging of the pastoral woman worries her and makes her nostalgic about the times when she was agile enough. She remembers her body and a sense of fear takes over her when she isn't able to walk or climb the mountain at the same speed she did earlier. The aging woman reminds herself of the difficult nature of her work, and feels at a loss because of not being able to work. She tells us about her fatigue with work, but also takes pride in having done, and honing her knowledge about, the pastoral work. As she swirls in that pride, she dismisses the younger generation for not knowing how to do the work of a ghumantu pashu-palak mahila.

Many changes, especially those related to sedentarisation, have been occurring in the world of a pastoral woman. Pastoral women now have to negotiate with modern notions around labour. This is also accompanied by changes in laws, movements around conservations and forest rights, and the inflow of tourism in the region. This has further led to changes in the nature of the pastoral economy, which impacts the notions of the labour of a pastoral woman. The mobility of pastoral women has significantly reduced because of these changes and the increased concerns around the safety and security of women. Nonetheless, the labour of a pastoral woman remains unchanged.

This informs how the understanding of a pastoral woman’s labour is intrinsically tied to the question of the body, which is also seeing changes because of a changing society. Our conversations with pastoral women point to how their bodies become significant in defining their identities as well as the work that they do as pastoral women. 

At the same time, changing bodies and changing notions of labour keep their identities in a continuous process of transition. This complexity of women’s work doesn’t find space in the counting of work. And hence, the life of a pastoral woman offers us that conduit to understanding the invisibility of women’s work in a more nuanced way.

Gurpreet Kaur, Prateek and Saee Pawar are researchers working with the Institute of Social Studies Trust, Delhi. They are working on research titled Understanding Pastoral Women's Work which opens up the questions around the work of pastoral women and their relatedness with various ecosystems.

The views expressed are personal

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