Working Nights Liberated Me, Even If It Took A Toll On My Health
I was working for an international news agency from 2007 to 2010, and during that time I took turns with my co-workers on the monthly ‘graveyard’ shift — more specifically, a week of working the hours between 12 AM and 8 AM, which we called ‘kabaristan ka chowkidaar’ (obviously out of the earshot of the editor). It looked like a walk in the park, initially, because unless something catastrophic happened overseas, the pace of work was languid. But, as time went by, it became apparent the toll that shift was taking on my body.
Most days, when I returned home, I had to cook for myself before I could rest. Eating at 3 or 4 AM became routine, as a result of which I gained weight. Indigestion was a constant problem. On top of that, as an insomniac, I could never immediately fall asleep – so I would finally doze off at 2 PM for only a few hours, before it was already time to get up, get ready, and go to work again. On the days when I was on my period, all of this became excruciatingly uncomfortable.
For me, the graveyard shift, though bodily punishing, was an immensely liberating experience.
The start of the shift week was the most difficult because, by 3 AM, barely three hours into the shift, it became a Herculean struggle to stay awake; your body hasn’t yet adjusted to the break in your sleep cycle. Tuesday would be slightly better; I would walk out to the office’s balcony to see the sun come up at dawn over Connaught Place. In winter, the city remained cloaked in a thick fog at that hour, the lights of passing cars shining through like ember eyes of invisible, mythical monsters. On early summer mornings, Barakhamba Road would be bathed in an ethereal golden light as sleepy-eyed security men on bicycles rode into offices to report for duty. We went home to sleep when the rest of the world started to wake up.
But here is the thing most conversations about the ‘graveyard’ shift seem to miss: Despite this toll, I always felt it was an incredible opportunity that allowed my female colleagues and me freedom of mobility in a system that fights to keep women inside. It’s easy to underestimate what that means. Women have long envied men’s ability to go out at any time of day or night with limited concern for their personal safety. For us, that choice often is the line between life and death – and that’s not really a choice at all.
There’s a cost to not having a choice. According to the 2011 Census, women’s rate of participation in the workforce was 25.51%, virtually unchanged from 25.63% a decade earlier. (More recent estimates place the figure at 26%.) For the longest time women have faced limits on what that participation could be — and when; Section 66(1)(b) of the Factories Act, 1948, which stated that “no woman shall be required or allowed to work in any factory except between the hours of 6 am and 7 pm,” was overturned only in 2011.
Taking women off the night shift is a lazy solution to the problem of security.
The good news is, more and more states are now amending the law to ensure that women can choose to work the night shift, allowing them greater economic parity with men. In March this year, the Uttar Pradesh government lifted restrictions on women working night shifts in factories, joining the ranks of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Haryana. Infrastructural support, including all-night assistance for female employees’ comfort and safety, is catching up.
But change is slow. In 2017, a joint house committee of the Karnataka State Legislature recommended that women working in IT and bio-technology companies should not be put on night shifts in the interest of women’s safety. In sexist comments that were challenged by women across the state, the committee chairman, NA Haris, said at the time: “A woman has a greater social responsibility than everyone else. She is going to groom the next generation and has maternal responsibilities. If a woman is working in the night, it could result in the neglect of the child as the mother and the child can’t meet.”
Taking women off the night shift is a lazy solution to the problem of security. It puts the onus of safety on women, while at the same time punishing them for the crimes committed by men. It allows companies to shrug off their responsibility to ensure workers’ safety, the government to ignore its responsibility to ensure all citizens’ safety. And the assumption that a woman’s role as a worker is less important than her possible role as a mother or homemaker is rooted in systemic patriarchy. A man who comes home after an all-night shift is not expected to segue seamlessly into domestic duties without adequate rest, nor judged for neglecting his family. It should be no different for women. The only way to ensure that is by removing barriers in law and in attitudes to women working at night, so that it becomes a normal option.
Sometimes, the quiet normalcy of a work rota with a woman’s name listed next to the shift society expects a man to handle, advances gender parity in a non-demonstrative way; it makes equality routine, humdrum. It’s time we democratise labour and help women step out without fear.
For me, the graveyard shift, though bodily punishing, was an immensely liberating experience. For many women who have never been allowed to step out of their homes unaccompanied in the late hours, it’s an exquisite taste of freedom. It did wonders for my confidence. For the first time in my life I believed the world does not shut its door to me at 8 PM. And while it takes some getting used to, I would like all women to have the choice.