An open labour market cannot differentiate along lines of gender. India moved a step in this direction with the approval of the Union cabinet to a proposal to allow women to work night shifts. This fulfils a long-standing demand of women’s organizations that women be treated as equals of men in every sphere of life. There was no rationale behind keeping women away from working at night. The arguments against night shift for women were couched in the language of tradition and fear. Conservatives and traditionalists argued that women’s place is at home especially at night when they are supposed to be dutiful wives and mothers. The argument based on fear portrayed women as potential victims of male lust. The growth of the feminist movements and stringent laws against sexual harassment in the work place have eroded much of the basis of these positions. The cabinet’s decision thus brings to an end a particularly odious discrimination.
It would be simplistic, however, to locate this shift simply in the triumphs of the women’s movement. The latter has been an important force but not the only one and perhaps not even the fundamental one. In India, at least, there is a growing demand for more labour. It is significant that the information technology sector, a burgeoning one in post-liberalization India, needs extensive night work, seven days of the week. This sector obviously generates a demand for women workers who are legally entitled to work at night. Some states that are way ahead in the economic race — Maharashtra being an obvious example — have already enacted laws to remove restrictions on women working night shifts. The decision of the Union cabinet will bring into existence a uniform nationwide system. Such a system, it is needless to add, must ensure proper facilities for women and provide adequate safeguards. There is always the danger in a country like India that women will be allowed to work at night without the necessary safeguards and facilities in place. This is where the role of women’s organizations may turn out to be absolutely critical. A changed social environment and the demands of the market have impelled the government towards making a new legislation. Only dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists will be unhappy at the development and the forces that made it possible.