"The best thing about my job is that I have the power to protect people. But it can be frustrating, when you have drunk men and women boasting loudly of their personal connections."
Shalu Singh, 35, is telling me about her job as a female bouncer in Delhi, India's second biggest city. Turns out your basic club drunk is just as irritating whether you're in a downtown Delhi bar or a Vegas superclub.
Singh is one of the thousands of Indian women who have broken into the male-dominated industry, leading the Times of India to proclaim female bouncers as "the 'in' thing at high-profile weddings, concerts and private events." It's a phenomenon all the more unusual given the country's recent troubled history of women's rights.
Singh became a bouncer after she retired from the reserve police force and her children were old enough to be put in school. She juggles parenting and work with the support of her extended family. "My in-laws help a lot, taking care of the kids when I've been working late nights and taking them to school, for example."
She is employed by Delhi-based security company Denetim Services, which specializes in servicing the growing demand for female bouncers in the city's burgeoning nightlife scene.
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"Five years ago if you'd asked me if I was ready to employ female bouncers," Denetim founder Anubhav Khiwani tells me over the phone, "I would have laughed at you!" As India moves away from traditional conservative values, one of Khiwani's biggest sources of revenue has been supplying female bouncers to bars, clubs, and even private functions across the city and its surrounding areas.
"There are two things you need to understand about Indian culture," Khiwani explains. "Men allowing their wives to work, after they've had kids—this is unheard of! The feminist movement would be very happy to hear of this I'm sure. Delhi is not the same as it was. We're dynamically shifting here so fast, I can't even tell you."
Anu Gulati, 34, agrees that Indian culture has become more accommodating of working women. "My family is very supportive of me working as a bouncer. The kids are really independent and they help me manage. I've not really encountered any social stigma. In fact, people tend to respect this sort of job."
Another bouncer, 26-year-old Jyoti Kumari, points out that the situation may be different ouside of urban metropolises like Delhi: "Whilst my parents were supportive, and all my friends in the city are female bouncers, [I still experience] some resistance at the village level."
The roots of this social change are financial. In Delhi, female bouncers earn around 30,000 rupees a month (approximately $450), which works out as an average wage in the city. But while their pay is on par with male bouncers, they receive slightly more than men for working events: Around an extra 500 rupees, or $7.50.
Khiwani paints a picture for me of the type of women he employs. "They are not lower class, they're well dressed. They have small houses, just one bedroom. But—now this is very important—they have to be married."
While cultural attitudes towards women working have improved in recent years, the thought of an unmarried woman working as security in Delhi's clubs and bars would still be unthinkable, even for the most liberal people. "We look for ex-servicewomen with experience. A height of around five foot six and above—Indian women are not very tall. They need to be a little stouter and heavier than usual. A middle-aged, basic looking, decent married woman."
Greater social acceptance of women drinking alcohol is driving the demand for female bouncers. As Khiwani explains, "The roots are in the emancipation of women in Indian society. Look at the bars; you'll see crowds there like anywhere else in the world. You won't just see Indian men gazing at two foreign women. You'll see groups! Women drinking, men drinking."
I receive calls from parents saying their daughter runs away at night with their friends, so they want to hire a female bouncer to protect her at night.
Khiwani's business grows with every girl who gets wasted in a Delhi bar and passes out in a toilet cubicle. As male bouncers can't touch women (not even if they're falling-down-drunk), bars have to hire female security. From a bouncer's perspective, drunk women are often harder to handle. "They can be difficult!" Kumari says. "Especially when they're falling down without any people with them. I never handle drunk men though; they're always managed by male bouncers."
But it's not just Delhi party girls who are driving this growing industry. An increasing number of middle class families are looking to hire female bouncers to manage their unruly offspring.
"I receive calls from parents saying their daughter runs away at night with their friends, so they want to hire a female bouncer to protect her at night," Khiwani says. "And I just received a call from an Indian-American woman who wants a bouncer for her elderly parents here in Delhi. Parents asking for bouncers for their daughters; daughters asking for bouncers for their parents. Look at the circle of life! It's neverending!"
Female bouncers are also in heavy demand at weddings, though unhappy families are also good business. "I get requests for providing bouncers at divorce settlements. The husband is worried the wife might bring somebody, and the wife is worried the husband might bring somebody, and the situation might escalate. So you're starting a marriage with bouncers, and you're ending a marriage with bouncers. Can you imagine what is happening in this country?"
Khiwani pauses for breath. "I provide female bouncers for gyms now, because they tell me there are female catfights in the gym and they need my bouncers to control them. They fight for space, or the gym equipment. They go crazy! It's worst between twelve and two, when the unmarried women go to the gym. They look at each other jealously and make their opinions on each other and decide to fight or whatnot."
Catfights aside, Khiwani is optimistic about the future for his female bouncers. "Delhi's a mad city, in a mad country, so the future's bright for me. I want to keep giving quality security and giving quality work. Because the money, and the madness, is increasing."