In the last 30 years, women in India have come a long way. So much has changed – this is largely due to the actions of a few inspiring women who didn’t let anything hold them back. Today we celebrate five such women who were, and still are, ahead of their times.
Harshini Kanhekar, India’s first firefighter woman
Harshini earned the title of India's first female firefighter nearly ten years ago. Ambitious from the start, Kanhekar applied to Nagpur's National Fire Service College (NFSC) fresh from university. Little did she know that this was an all-male college. Yet Kanhekar was determined to overcome the initial obstacle. She wasn't prepared to hear 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. Her advice to all women is truly ahead of its time: 'to break all barriers and create history for the nation.'
Priya Jhingan, first woman in Indian Army
Priya Jhingan was the first woman to join the Indian Army. An aspiring police officer and later a law graduate, Jhingan’s dream was to join the army. In 1992, she wrote a letter to the Army Chief himself, asking him to let women in. A year later, he did, and Jhingan and the other 24 new female recruits began their journey. From this point onwards, they were referred to as 'Sirs' and thrown into the same bathrooms, swimming pools and training regimes as the men. At a time when sexual inequality was still highly prevalent in the working and domestic spheres, Jhingan's ambition to promote equality in the armed forces was certainly ahead of its time.
Surekha Yadav, Asia’s first female train driver
Surekha Yadav was India's and Asia's first female passenger train driver. She took the front seat in a busy Mumbai commuter train eleven years ago, and has since inspired fifty other Indian women to take control of trains in the country. Yadav 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, Yadav was instrumental in the introduction of female only trains in four Indian cities last year. Easing the journey of thousands of women in the city, Yadav drove Mumbai’s first “Ladies Special” train into the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai. She says her mother always said, "A girl child shouldn’t necessarily learn to cook. Studying is more important. You need to be bold." It is this never-failing courage that made Yadav truly ahead of her time.
Chetna Sinha, founder, first rural bank for women in India
Chetna Sinha, a farmer by profession, set up the first rural bank for women in India in 1997. Burdened with droughts and shortages, the women in Mhaswad, Maharashtra, wanted to save some of the money they earned, but there wasn’t a single secure place for it. When Sinha presented her idea to the Reserve Bank of India, they rejected it, on the grounds that “women were largely illiterate and incapable”. However, the women of her village did not take no for an answer. After three months of training in reading and writing, they returned to the Reserve Bank, shocking the men with their determination.
Despite 8 to 10 hours of load shedding almost daily, the bank has managed to introduce both computerised and door-to-door banking – to cater to almost two lakh 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 6000 women gain property ownership: truly ahead of its time.
Urvashi Butalia, co-founder, India's first publishing house for women
Urvashi Butalia was one of the founders of India's first publishing house dedicated to promoting women's rights. In 1984, when Butalia set up Kali For Women, her aim was daring: to 'somehow make 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. Butalia never married and never had children. Her response to everyone who has questioned her for being under the ‘curse of childlessness’ is that she has had ‘a happy, contented, fulfilled life.’ Butalia remains an inspiration to all Indian women, and was truly ahead of her time in both the professional and personal sense.
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