At a high-end wedding at one of Delhi’s hotels, Tanisha stays close to the bride. Dressed in a heavily embroidered lehenga choli, she looks like a bridesmaid. But for her darting eyes that keep track of the bride’s movements, she’d be like any other member of the wedding party.
But Tanisha (not her real name) is neither a bridesmaid nor a friend. She is an undercover bodyguard or a private security officer, employed by a security agency to protect the affluent bride.
Say bodyguard, and you think of a well-built, crew cut man with watchful eyes. But now more and more women are working as personal bodyguards and private security personnel.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai mayhem of November 26, there has been a growing demand for women guards, along with the rush for employing men who guard men and premises. “Pre 26/11, we would get an average of four calls for women bodyguards a week. In the week that followed, we got 80-90 calls,” says Deepak Monga, deputy general manager, marketing and corporate communications, Topsgrup, a Mumbai security agency. Till the other day, only three per cent of those asking for guards wanted women. Since that fateful week, the demand for women bodyguards has gone up to 30 per cent, adds Monga.
Topsgrup’s growth chart has shown a significant rise in women bodyguards over the last two years, when they numbered about 10. Today it has 65 women bodyguards across the country, with more than 30 in Mumbai alone. “Over the next six months, the figure is likely to double,” adds Monga.
As security gets beefed up at home and in the public arena, men and women security guards are being hired at the drop of a hat. But the Mumbai attacks have also created a new kind of demand — for personal women bodyguards. The hotel and station attacks demonstrate that women are no safer than men. So wives and children of top executives at multinational companies want women bodyguards to protect them. Among the others making a similar demand are top-level managements of hotels and Bollywood and television actresses.
Most women celebrities prefer bodyguards of their own sex, reasons Major (retd) Sharmishta Debnath, general manager (HR), 24-Secure, Delhi. Actress Karishma Kapoor, for instance, had asked Debnath for a woman bodyguard while on a visit to Delhi.
Families with young daughters also prefer women bodyguards, adds Kanishka Sharma, a martial arts specialist in Delhi. Early next year, Sharma plans to launch a security firm with a special emphasis on women bodyguards, whom he plans to train in cooking, household and other jobs as well to enable them to function well in disguise.
The women who serve as bodyguards are usually disguised as nannies or assistants to deflect attention from themselves. “But our bodyguards will not run errands,” says Monga.
It’s not just Mumbai that seeks women bodyguards. Delhi is not far behind either. “With an increased need for frisking, what with so many hoax bomb threats, the idea of women guards is becoming more acceptable,” says Rupal Sinha, managing director, G4S, a leading security firm in Delhi. Over the last year, the number of women guards in the firm more than doubled to 250, she adds.
There has also been a demand for women bodyguards in Goa, where crime has been on the rise. Most of those making the demand are women from other states who go to Goa to strike land deals, says Ronald Pinto, proprietor, Constant Security Services, which has been providing security cover at the International Film Festival of India for the last four years. “These women seek protection as they carry large amounts of money,” Pinto says.
Monga says the women bodyguards hired by Topsgrup enjoy their role. “They love being in a man’s world,” he says. The remuneration for a woman guard could be anything between Rs 20,000 and Rs 40,000 for an eight-hour shift and a 26-working day month, says Monga.
Some argue that a trained woman can sometimes make for a better bodyguard than her male counterpart. “Women are mentally stronger than men and have excellent nurturing skills. If they work on the physical form and are street smart, they can make the perfect bodyguard,” says Kiddy Kaul, a Delhi-based trainer in krav maga, an Israel unarmed combat art.
“A woman guard who has passed the 10th standard would be preferable to a male guard with similar qualifications,” argues Debnath. “Women guards are less threatening and are much in demand at malls and hospitals.”
Not everybody agrees. “Women are physiologically weaker than men,” says television actor Ronit Roy, who runs a security agency for an upper crust clientele. Even his female clients, he claims, do not ask for female bodyguards. “It’s a tough job — our male bodyguards have to work 12-14 hour shifts, plus travel,” he says, justifying why he doesn’t employ women.
Mumbai’s joint commissioner of police K.L. Prasad believes the sex of a bodyguard is irrelevant. “It doesn’t matter if a bodyguard is male or female — as long as they are well-trained,” he says.
And therein lies the problem. Many, such as Captain (Retd) Jaipreet Joshi, an exponent and trainer of martial arts in Delhi, believe that security personnel recruited through private agencies — men or women — are not adequately trained. Some of the men are there “by virtue of their size and muscle,” he says. “A woman guard would need good communication skills, a better IQ and of course, her wits about her,” he adds.
But women security guards, says Topsgrup’s vice president Pradeep Chak, are given “primitive training” in martial arts. So while Shubangi Ladke, a Tops security guard in Mumbai, recently helped douse a fire in the international school she’s posted at, she would have to depend on her wits if faced with an armed attack.
Yet there is more to guarding somebody than just keeping an eye out for unforeseen events. “A bodyguard must also understand her client well — her movements, friends and the frequency of their visits. Equally important is to make a survey of the hospitals and police stations on the client’s route,” says Sharma.
Patriarchy, however, rules in the kingdom of guards as well. Women guards end up playing second fiddle to the men. If trouble broke out at the wedding, Tanisha, for example, wouldn’t have to draw out a gun — she would simply need to inform one of the male bodyguards around her about it.“Only a small number of our women guards are trained in martial arts,” says Sinha. Even if she is accompanying the wives of foreign visitors, there will be male bodyguards with her, she adds.
At Topsgrup, if a woman bodyguard perceives danger to her client, she simply has to speed dial the number of her emergency control room in Mumbai — which in turn intimates personnel in the branch nearest to her. While she is trained in combat techniques — for a fortnight on recruitment and on the job training every quarter — she is not handed a gun, like some of her male counterparts. “The need for women bodyguards to be given arms has not yet arisen,” says Monga.
Women, clearly, are going great guns. But the finger on the trigger is still male.