A breeze in Kasar blows, swaying the wind chime hanging in a humble cabin transformed into a homestay. Below it sits the owner, who is among the minority of women who are in the hospitality business in such rural spaces. “I was not prepared for the sexism here; I only discovered it over time and am still learning about it. Women are questioned more over their work ethics here,” sighs Shalini, owner of RabbitHole, Kasar.
Workcation has become a common phenomenon, with more people traveling to rural areas for an extended stay as the pandemic shifts the work culture away from on-site jobs toward remote work. Homestay culture is now prominent in several parts of India. The hospitality and tourism industry is the fastest-growing industry in the country, and the Indian travel and tourism sector, which is a $121.9 billion market, contributed 4.6 percent to GDP in 2020.
Large corporations are establishing homestay chains and capturing a significant portion of the local economy. While local businesses are concerned about the dwindling tourist numbers, the small network of women-owned businesses has additional barriers to get through.
Women in hospitality
Although these women managed to crack the glass ceiling and are now running successful businesses, their journey has not been as easy as that of their male counterparts. Even bringing guests to their business is a completely different experience. The networking capital necessary to run a homestay is mostly in the hands of men and women have to work much harder to build these relationships.
Damyanti Devi, the owner of Snow View Hostel, Munsiyari, Uttarakhand, had to take over the business after her husband’s untimely demise. She goes to the taxi stand to bring guests to her place. “Men in my village know enough people that they don’t need to use my tactics; I carry business cards with me because many doubt my claim to own a hostel but a visiting card reassures them. If I am not carrying my visiting cards they don’t even talk to me,” she says.
Some guests, on the other hand, visit such homestays because the property is managed by a woman. Muskan, the owner of the Hostel LazyStays in Pushkar, Rajasthan, shared that many guests, particularly men, visit her property only when she is present, forcing her to post photos of herself at the property on social media even when she is not there.
One of the biggest deterrents is the absence of support from family as well as from society. While a cis-man is encouraged to be financially independent, for women, safety becomes the only concern. “Because I am from Uttarakhand, it would have been easier for me to find a property and arrange for my homestay if my family was on board, but since nobody liked the idea of a woman living in the wild, it was a lot harder,” says Shalini.
As hospitality is not seen as a woman’s work, many don’t take their aspirations and work seriously, Nidhi the owner of Cafe Rain’s Coffee and Bakes in Dharamkot, Himachal Pradesh, says. “There were mixed reactions from different people; a lot of people thought I had lost it and pointed out I must be going through a phase,” she recalls.
Business relations also are determined by the gender of the person. Akriti, the owner of The Farm Haus cafe in Kasar, found herself being tricked on three different occasions where people would finalise every detail of leasing the property with her but would not enter a written contract as they would change their mind at the last minute. “I’m not sure if they did it to me because I’m a girl and assumed they could kick me around,” she says.
Aside from that, the competition can be much harsher as others attempt to intimidate these women, which becomes one of the most significant threats to their safety. The means to intimidate can even extend to harassment and assault.
“When I arrived in Kasar, I was only 21 years old. Then, only one other woman was working in the homestay business. On occasion, an association of all hoteliers and homestay owners meets, and I was invited to attend. That meeting was the first time I realised how widespread misogyny is; everyone was hostile to me, and what was even more shocking was that these were men in their forties and fifties. They surrounded me, yelling at me for starting a business, demeaning my work, and insisting that this was not a business for women. That memory is so traumatic that when I try to recall it, I don’t see faces; instead, I see faceless figures screaming at me,” says Amrit, the owner of the homestay Stars and Pines in Kasar. However, these forms of friction are not only limited to the competitors but also come from the employees themselves.
Women as authorities and employees
Patriarchy has its teeth sunk deep and these women entrepreneurs constantly find themselves fighting it. Due to the power dynamic of the genders in our society, it becomes hard for these women to be seen as a figure of authority. Ityka constantly finds herself asking her brother to give commands as the male employees do not take orders from women easily.
“I know I should stand my ground, but there’s this unseen tension, so I send my brother to talk to them,” says Ityka, who runs Dopka Guesthouse & Homestay with her brother.
The solution is not as simple as hiring women because many are discouraged from working outside their homes. Furthermore, these female employees become easy targets for harassment. Akriti takes the responsibility to safeguard her female employees by ensuring that they leave early, which however affects her business. This also becomes the reason for many to not employ female employees.
“I wish my cafe was open longer, but no girl would be willing to sit until 10:00 p.m., and I can’t hire a boy just for that time. I do miss the prime time from 8-10pm when everybody comes out for dinner“, says Akriti.
Male employees are just as vulnerable under female heads when it comes to harassment by others. Raman, co-owner of Stars and Pines, shared that there was an instance where a competitor beat their cook at her place of business. “There is an ingrained belief that if a woman runs a business, anyone can do whatever they want in my space,” she says.
Constant methods of abuse are also used against the business where these women are harassed through different means. Online bullying is one method as many of these businesses have their contact details on the internet. Raman also speaks about how she receives inappropriate messages asking for sexual favours daily.
Ityka shares her harrowing experience of how she was approached to bring her female friends by a neighbouring owner of a Homestay for sexual favours. ”He further explained that he had many guests who want women, and he wanted me to pimp him,” recalls Ityka.
The harassment does not limit itself to an online space but also follows in physical settings where the threat is direct. Muskan found herself in a situation where 2-3 cars came to her property around midnight demanding her to open the gates to serve them dinner. “They began banging on the door and even attempted to drive through the gates. One of them got access to my number because it’s available in online spaces so he called me saying I know you are inside so open the door“, says told Muskan.
While it is easy for such elements to enter the workplace, the personal lives of these women are also affected. They become easy targets to harass. “There was one incident where a man found my house and called my number while standing right outside,” says Nidhi.
Online Reviews are also used as a tool against these businesswomen. “I had a drunken guest who played a song and came into the kitchen, constantly getting close and singing in my ear. When I discouraged his sexual advances, I got a negative review of one star saying not worth it, all because I did not flirt with him,” sighs Amrit.
To combat these constant situations of danger, many take up different measures to safeguard themselves. Shalini was suggested to keep men’s shoes outside her room as a man’s presence can discourage many from harming a woman. Many of the owners also use the tactic of calling their guests brother or son, so it discourages them from making any romantic or sexual advances. Muskan mentions that this is a simpler method than getting into quarrels.
While there are many obstacles, the efforts of these women are bringing balance. “When you see women running businesses and you want to do something similar, it gives you comfort to know that you are not alone in this section. and I believe it will inspire many young women to follow in my footsteps, ” Amrit smiles.
Swati is a freelance journalist. Her work focuses on human stories that explore issues such as human rights and gender. She is eager to learn more about gender and hopes that her work will make a significant difference in society. Swati can be found on Twitter and Instagram. This story has been written under the Laadli Media Fellowship
Featured Image Source: Brigad