The invisible glass ceiling stopping women from gaining due recognition and rising to success in any field exists in most countries of the world. India is no exception, but in a country of over half a billion women there are additional barriers imposed on women by various social, economic, cultural and religious norms. Despite these restrictions many Indian women have managed to break through the barriers and make a name for themselves in their chosen field. In large measure this is due to their sustained self-confidence, persistence and patience, as well as having a supportive family, finding the right mentors at the right time and being able to seize opportunities when presented with one.
If asked to name Indian woman who were first to breach the stereotype role in their respective fields, the handful of names that come to mind include Indira Gandhi, India’s first woman prime minister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first woman president of UN General Assembly, Sarojini Naidu, first woman governor in independent India and a few more. Contemporary names could include India’s first woman police officer, Kiran Bedi, Indian born, US-based, late astronaut Kalpana Chawla, as well as sporting legends such as Asian boxing gold medalist Mary Kom and tennis star Sania Mirza.
But there are many lesser known Indian women who overcame great odds and broke down doors in their chosen profession, paving the way for other women to follow in their footsteps. Here are some Indian women whose names may not familiar, but who nevertheless stand right up there on the podium of first Indian women.
Bachendri Pal: Being the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1984, Bachendri Pal later led several expeditions with a team comprising of only women in Indo-Nepalese Women's Mount Everest Expedition, The Great Indian Women's Rafting Voyage and First Indian Women Trans-Himalayan Expedition.
Chetna Sinha: Founder of the first rural bank for women in India, Ms. Sinha, a farmer by profession, set up the bank in 1997 when women in Mhaswad, Maharashtra, burdened with droughts and shortages, wanted to save some of the money they earned. Despite 8 to 10 hours of daily electricity load shedding, the bank has managed to introduce both computerized and door-to-door banking, to cater to almost 200,000 women across nine districts in rural Maharashtra and Karnataka. Sinha’s advice to future generations is to always challenge the status quo. Her bank has also helped 6,000 women gain property ownership: truly ahead of its time.
Justice Fathima Beevi: The first female judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court of India, Justice M. Fathima Beevi was also the first Muslim woman to be appointed to any higher judiciary. She is also the first woman judge of a Supreme Court of a nation in India and Asia.
Harshini Kanhekar: India's first female firefighter, she earned her title nearly ten years ago. Ambitious from the start, Kanhekar applied to Nagpur's National Fire Service College (NFSC) little knowing that it was an all-male college. Yet Kanhekar was determined to overcome the initial obstacle. She was not prepared to accept that a girl cannot become a firefighter. She went on to become the first and only woman in the college to graduate, initially receiving skepticism; later winning immense admiration.
Homai Vyarawalla: Commonly known by her pseudonym ‘Dalda 13’ Ms. Vyarawalla was India's first woman photojournalist. First active in the late 1930s, she retired in the early 1970s and in 2011, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award of the Republic of India. In a career spanning more than three decades, she photographed many political and national leaders, including Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, and Indira Gandhi and their families while working as a press photographer. At the onset of the World War II, she started working on assignments for the Bombay-based The Illustrated Weekly of India magazine which over the years till 1970, published many of her black and white images, which later became iconic.
Priya Jhingan: In 1992, Priya Jhingan became cadet No.001 at the Officers Training Academy in Chennai and the first woman to join the Indian Army officer cadre. After 10 years of meritorious service when she retired as Major Priya Jhingan, the feisty officer noted that it was her single-mindedness that won her an entry into the Army. Soon after she finished her graduation, she wrote a letter to the then Chief of Army Staff, General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, requesting him to open the doors of the armed services to women.The General wrote back saying the Army was planning to induct women in a year or two. To bide her time, she studied law. When the full-page advertisement inviting women to join the Army appeared in 1992, she knew she would make it.
Surekha Yadav: Asia’s first female train driver, Ms. Yadav took the front seat in a busy Mumbai commuter train more than two decades ago, and has since inspired fifty other Indian women to take control of trains in the country. She is also an inspiration for women today because of her direct role in promoting female safety in public transport. After witnessing the daily eve-teasing and harassment of women, she was instrumental in the introduction of female only trains in four Indian cities. Easing the journey of thousands of women in the city, Yadav drove Mumbai’s first ‘Ladies Special’ train into the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai and in 2012 piloted the prestigious Deccan Queen Express from Mumbai to Pune.
Urvashi Butalia: Co-founder of India's first publishing house dedicated to promoting women’s right, Ms. Butalia set up Kali for Women in 1984 with the aim of making a dent in the way the world sees women. The publishing house and its current imprint Zubaan Books have certainly done this. They have provided a great platform for female writers in South Asia and raised awareness for important issues such as sexual abuse and the dowry system. She remains an inspiration to all Indian women, and was truly ahead of her time in both the professional and personal sense.