‘Many of my friends are married and stay in their houses, while I’m travelling all over India.’

Anjali works as a tour guide in India. A brave career choice for a woman in this country. She finds it important to be economically independent.

Anjali (23) - Female Tour Guide

Her tip for women

For many Indian women, marriage is the highest goal in life. I think that things can change. I think that as a woman you have to be economically independent and take care of yourself.’

Anjali Sing (23) works as a tour guide in India. This is a brave career choice for a woman in this country, as Indians feel quite strongly that the job of a tour guide is a male occupation. Considering her background, it is even more unusual. The village she grew up in lies in the countryside, in the conservative Northern India. When she was young she was only allowed to go to the market if accompanied by a male family member. ‘Many of my friends are married and stay in their houses, while I’m travelling all over India.’

Anjali arrived in Delhi by train just that morning, returning from a week-long trip through Northern India. Especially now, in the peak season for tourism, she is almost continuously travelling across India and Nepal, but doesn’t show any signs of fatigue. She talks about her work with enthusiasm and high energy. She is dressed casually in a blue-and-white striped T-shirt, sneakers and jeans.

Female tour guides

Anjali shares an apartment with her sister in the Delhi metropolis. It is worlds apart from the village of Siwan where she grew up. Siwan is located in the Indian state of Bihar. ‘When I was young, there was no supermarket, no restaurant, and no decent shoe store in the village. What I knew about the world was limited to what I saw on television: Bollywood movies and the occasional news program. I was twelve when I visited the capital of Bihar for the first time.’

At Intrepid Travel, the Australian travel organisation she works for, male and female tour guides are treated equally. And that is progressive, especially for India. Last year, the country ranked No. 131 on the Gender Inequality Index, a list of 181 countries that the United Nations draws up annually.

Equality

The Intrepid Travel office in Delhi is a haven of equality. Informally dressed men and women sit side by side, working at their computers. The company is aiming for a fifty-fifty division between male and female guides. They are getting closer to achieving this goal; last year there were three female travel guides, now 11 of the 67 guides are female.

‘I am the leader. I am paying you. And I’ll give you the instructions’

Anjali says conservative Indian society often needs a little time to get used to the idea of a female tour guide. ‘When I disembark at a train station, followed by a group of sixteen tourists, I can feel the eyes on me and hear the whispers: “Look, a girl who’s guiding a group of foreigners.” And when I’m negotiating with tuktuk drivers about the price of a ride, they often ask me, with a touch of sarcasm: ‘Madam, where is the male leader with this group?” During the tour-guide training course we are taught that you can only change things by being patient. So I answer very politely and calmly: “I am the leader. I am paying you. And I’ll give you the instructions.”’

Economically Independent

She laughs when she is asked whether she is a role model for Indian women. ‘I think “role model” is a big word. I would rather call myself a good example. For many Indian women, marriage is the highest goal in life. I think that things can change. I think that as a woman you have to be economically independent and take care of yourself.’

Her words carry an echo of the words she always heard as a little girl from her progressive mother. And those words also partly explain her desire for economic independence. ‘All of my childhood, my mother impressed upon me: never become dependent on a man. Take care of your own economic independence. My mother was married off at seventeen and then had to quit school. She always struggled with the fact that that she did not have her own income.’

Respect

As is usual in the Indian countryside, Anjali grew up in a joined family. She lived with her parents and two sisters under one roof with her father’s family. Her parents were open-minded and thought girls were equal to boys, but her grandmother, who dominated their household, thought differently. ‘My grandmother thought boys were more important than girls. Boys were allowed to do what they wanted. We – girls – had to stop and think before we did anything. My grandma always said: know your limits. Show respect for your family and your culture. Are you doing something wrong? You will be the talk of the village. In everything I did, I heard a little voice in my mind saying: Behave well; otherwise people will speak ill of you.’

When my father wanted to send me to a good high school, the community disagreed with that too.

‘Why are you spending money on the education of your daughter’

Her family was already under intense scrutiny as it was, because her parents had no sons. And in traditional India, daughters are seen as a burden. You have to give a daughter a dowry, after all. And because a daughter moves in with her husband’s family after her marriage, she won’t be able to take care of you when you are old. ‘When my father wanted to send me to a good high school, the community disagreed with that too. “Why are you spending money on education for your daughter? It’s a waste.”’ “Put that money aside for her dowry”, he was told by his fellow villagers. But her father stuck with his decision. So Anjali was one of the few girls in her village to go to a good, more expensive, secondary school: a boarding school in the state’s capital.

Springboard

The diploma from that school was a springboard for her to go to Delhi, the capital of India. There, she studied at the prestigious state-run college for tourism. ‘Although I had never seen a tourist in my life, the choice was simple for me. I was bad at science subjects, but good at geography, and so tourism it was. My parents did not think it was a good idea at all. They thought I would never find a job.’

‘I didn’t want a 9-to-5 job. Leading a group; getting paid to travel – I knew for sure that this was what I wanted.’

Anjali felt uncertain in her first months in the big city of Delhi. ‘My fellow students all came from the city. I wore traditional Indian clothes, spoke differently, also spoke less English, and was less confident than the other students.’ But her self-confidence grew. And with her diploma in her pocket, she chose to become a tour guide. She wasn’t frightened by the fact that it was a male-dominated world. ‘I didn’t want a 9-to-5 job. Leading a group; getting paid to travel – I knew for sure that this was what I wanted. And it has been my best decision ever.’

Proud

My parents first wondered if I could do that, lead a group. Now they have faith in my ability to do so. I have been doing this work for a few years now and fortunately I have never felt unsafe. But of course I have experienced difficult situations. An example?

‘You wanted to see me? Here I am’

One evening I arrived with a group of twelve tourists, eleven women and one man, at an empty station in a small village. Suddenly four rickshaw drivers appeared. They glowered at me and made demeaning comments. Without raising my voice, I said: “You do not talk to me like that. I am not afraid of you.” “We’ll see you outside”, they called as they backed off. I got outside and saw them standing there. I walked up to them and said, “You wanted to see me? Here I am. And I will be here every few weeks. If you bother me again, you’ll have a big problem.” Then I reassured my group and we drove away in tuktuks. Afterwards I felt very strong and was proud of myself. I thought: I can do this; I can take care of the safety of my group.’

Progressive granddaughter

Her family still lives in her birthplace Siwan. Her grandmother has grown to be really proud of her progressive granddaughter. ‘When she drinks tea with her friends she likes to tell them that I speak fluent English and work for an Australian company. And when I’m travelling, she often calls me. She’ll ask me to tell her who is in my group and which countries they come from. And then she asks me to send her a picture of my group.’