At the Cochin Shipyard, these women are with men and steel, cutters and machines. What makes them so special?

The steel grey ‘hull shop' at the Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) is a man's world. The high dome structure is a cacophony of whirring machines, of ready-to-be-cut stacks of marked steel sheets, of hard hatted persons in protective gear and bursting flames of searing heat. It's a tough terrain to handle. Here men cut, weld and fit pieces of cold steel and build ships. A lone woman welder has happily been a part of this technical and mechanical world for 33 years.

Jagadamba N. K. looks askance at you and wonders what the curiosity is all about. After all she has never felt out of place, “even once in my working years”, she says.

Though gender is not a burning issue anymore in this millennium, women working in male dominated sectors are an inspirational lot.

Proven strength

There are a total of five women who work with 320 men in the hull shop, the section that prepares parts of the ship to be assembled later. The five have proved themselves and matched the men in every department of the job, says Venugopalan A. T., Assistant Engineer, who has been working in CSL for the past 37 years. Jagadamba, who hails from Pandalam, is matter-of-fact about her job. Dapper in her blue-grey uniform, black shoes, light gold jewellery and a small feminine red bindhi on her forehead, she is pragmatic about her career choice: “One has to work for a living.”

She enrolled for the Industrial Training Course at Chengannoor and was hired. There was no special reason why she chose this line and recalled that there were no women working here when she joined. Jagadamba works on all the different types of welding machines. The plasma cutter and the CNC or Computerised Numerical Control are the more sophisticated ones but she began on the arc welding machine and the flame cutters.

Sobhana Kumari from Thriuvanthapuram is a fitter and a welder. She found her life partner in the shipyard and her world seems complete right there. Happy with her job and full-of-beans the 52-year-old has two children. Her daughter is completing her MD, while her son is studying Hotel Management. She says that her husband has been a pillar of support for her in all her decisions.

Recalling the early days in her career, she says that there was no crèche or day-care facilities then. “It was tough balancing home and work. Now things have changed. Jagadamba too agrees that the situation has improved a lot for the woman in terms of working and raising children.

The work front, which to any outsider seems to be a mechanical, technical, grey, mundane affair seems to charge the women. They speak with excitement at the joy of being part of building ships. When the MV Rani Padmini, the first ship they built rolled out from the yard, in 1981, their joys knew no bounds. They take immense pride in their hard work.

Sobhana works on the short blasting machine, the Electro Print Marking manual machine. Vijayamma, in her bright white uniform, looks every bit the supervisor which she is. Her 33 years in the hull shop give her the seniority and experience that she happily passes down to the few young trainees.

She did her Industrial Training, “applied for the job and got it,” she says, playing down her efforts of working and matching her male counterparts in every step.

Seema P.S. and Lathika N.S. are the youngsters who have joined the field. After 10 years of training in different departments such as apprentice training, company training and Air Defence Strips they are competent to work in all departments, they say. Their children are young and their spouses supportive. They enjoy their job.

Is their job tough? They seem to have inured to the nature of their work and are in it for the love of it.

Currently they are all excited at putting together the country's first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC), which is under construction at the yard. This will be a milestone in their lives at the shipyard and once again they will be part of history.

While they cut, fit and weld with precision, on the sidelines they chat and giggle and enjoy themselves,. despite being a minority. My daughter often wonders how her mother landed up with this job, says Sobhana , who has won a gold medal in track events at Veterans International Athletic Meet in South Korea in 1996. In 2005 and 2007 she was honoured with the outstanding performance award, an appreciation for contributions in the field of sports.

The male zone has not intimidated these women. They, in a typically fun and feminine way, have interpreted their situation. Jagadamba puts it all too well when she says, bursting into splits, “we have no problems here. All the men are our sisters!”