She's an Eagle When She Flies
(This was first published in Deccan Herald)
On International Women’s Day 2017, the spotlight is on women’s progress. New initiatives are being launched to help forge a better world, where men and women will be truly equal. This annual focus on women has indeed triggered awareness and positive action. Organisations and individuals as well as governments, have been making sustained efforts to help women achieve their full potential.
Disparities and injustices entrenched since the dawn of civilisation cannot vanish overnight. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report tracks the intensity of gender disparities and the progress made. The 2016 Report covering 144 countries in the crucial sectors of health, education, economy and politics, predicts that the gender gap will not be fully bridged until 2186. We are unlikely to see complete equality for half of the human race within our own lifetimes.
However, the progress is impressive. Complex intellectual realms are welcoming more women, and they are shining with unparalleled brilliance. Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani became in 2014 the first woman and the first Iranian to be awarded a Fields Medal for “her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.” The Fields Medal, awarded once in four years, is widely regarded as the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
Women today are flying higher, and the sky is no longer the limit. In November 1997, India born Kalpana Chawla shattered barriers to fly into space aboard the US space shuttle Columbia. A decade later, Sunita Williams became the second woman of Indian origin to conquer space when she flew aboard the US shuttle Discovery. Today, Canada-born with Mumbai roots Shawna Pandya is shortlisted after gruelling selections to fly with eight other astronauts in space missions planned by 2018.
Closer home, ISRO’s women scientists have helped build India’s spectacular Mars Orbiter or Mangalyaan project. Rocket science is part of the day’s work for ISRO’s Minal Sampath, Anuradha T K, Ritu Karidhal, Moumita Dutta, Nandini Harinath, Kriti Faujdar and N Valarmathi. These dedicated women teamed up with their male colleagues to set ISRO’s world record by launching an amazing 104 satellites in one shot. Breaking gender stereotypes, these wonder-women earned the applause of every Indian.
India’s women are rising to the highest echelons of the corporate world. State Bank of India is among the elite seven Indian corporates to rank among the world’s leading Fortune 500 companies. This gigantic Indian multinational is headed by a woman, Chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya. She is listed as the 4th most powerful woman in Asia Pacific by 'Fortune' and as the 30th most powerful woman in the world by 'Forbes'.
Indian women are taking centre stage in the world of sports. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Sakshi Malik fought heroically for a bronze medal in wrestling. P V Sindhu earned a brilliant badminton silver. Dipa Karmakar won the nation’s heart by finishing 4th, missing a medal by a whisker. She became the first Indian female gymnast, and the first Indian in 52 years, to compete in the Olympics. Wrestler Vinesh Phogat stormed valiantly into the quarterfinals, but missed a medal because of an injury.
To appreciate the changes in our own neighbourhood, I spoke to talented and motivated Bangalore women from diverse professions and experience levels. Rashmi Misra is founder and chairperson of VIDYA, an NGO providing quality education and uplifting boys and girls from the poorest sections of society. Founded 32 years ago, VIDYA has seen 3.5 lakh people pass through and benefit from its systems. VIDYA currently has around 45,000 young beneficiaries enrolled in its 57 projects spread over five states.
Annabelle Manwaring, Pro Vice Chairman, Delhi Public School Whitefield and Delhi Pubic School Mysore Road, has guided a stream of promising young girls and boys emerging from her schools.
Prof. Sahana Das, Head, Dept. of Communication Studies, Mount Carmel College, has mentored numerous brilliant young women to follow their dreams.
Madhulika Dant, VP and Head – Corporate Search, Daedalus Consulting, deftly matches a growing stream of highly qualified professionals with suitable jobs.
Megha More, Co-Founder and COO, Trueweight, balances the challenges of building a start-up while mothering a lively toddler.
With a fresh masters degree in International Relations from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore, Shibani Mehta is currently working at the Military Affairs Centre of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi. Like many of today’s girls, Shibani received full family support to go abroad, and enter a career of her choice.
These women see growing awareness and social support for women to realise their potential. Madhulika Dant’s professional career began three decades ago. “Having given up my career with the Tatas to bring up my children, I can see that husbands today are more supportive at home, in the kitchen and parenting. Equal importance is given to both careers.” Megha More agrees. After marriage, she went to the US to join her husband, but a formal job did not satisfy her. She wanted to give her best to an enterprise she could call her own. She and her husband agreed that he would remain in the US, while she went to a new city and founded her enterprise along with a friend. He wanted her to be happy, and to follow her dreams. He joined her two years later, when both were sure of their choice to return to India. By then, Trueweight was flourishing with around eighty people on board. Having a child was also a joint decision, and they share the duties and joys of parenting their lively three year old. “Today’s men are becoming naturally more supportive, and are active partners at home,” Megha says. “Improved support systems such as good daycare facilities, helps women make better life choices.”
“While we used our education for financial stability and social identity, my students aspire to be free,” says Sahana Das. “While my generation balanced home and career, the girls today include their individual passion into their profession.” Sahana is proud of her students like Vaishali Dinakaran, who was passionate about racing as a sport. Today she is a leading writer on Formula One racing. “Another very bright but restless girl said she liked to walk. And she walked… Across the Himalayas! Today Shikha Tripathy has written for Planet earth and Nat Geo and is a travel blogger who organises treks and runs an eco-friendly resort in Uttarakhand.”
“The negative attitude towards marriage and family is changing, and there is less gender rivalry among adolescents,” says Annabelle Manwaring. “Girls today no longer feel that marriage and family will curb them. Youngsters don’t feel that some careers are inferior or better than others. Whether they opt to be homemakers, chefs, entrepreneurs or artists, they want to choose their destinies and give their very best. They see themselves less as boys or girls, and more as seekers of knowledge and self-fulfilment.”
Shibani Mehta is inspired by a Minister sharing how “her gender played little role in her rise to power. She never used her gender as either a crutch or a privilege. That is something we need to consciously and constantly remind ourselves,” Shibani says. “I find these reminders everywhere. A young mother, my boss juggles vaccination appointments and review meetings while fulfilling the commitments of a senior research scholar. I admire my landlady, who at 78 plays golf and drives her own car. Women are each other’s best inspiration.”
2016 saw steady advances in gender parity. The CRPF sent a path-breaking team of 135 women commandos to tackle Naxalite insurgents in the forests of Jharkhand. More Indian women are donning uniforms to fly military planes, and actively serve in our armed forces. Policewomen are visible everywhere, and women Indian Police Service officers are no longer rare. More women are making their mark in the prestigious Civil Services.
The highly demanding field of medicine has a growing number of Indian women doctors. Karnataka’s elite Bangalore Medical College (BMCRI) alone has produced several young women Plastic Surgeons and Orthopaedic Surgeons in recent years, proving that women can take on the most skill and knowledge intensive challenges.
Indian girls next door are conquering new bastions. Surekha Yadav steered a Mumbai local train in 1988 to become India’s first woman train driver. In 2011, she became Asia's first woman to drive a major passenger train, the celebrated Deccan Queen. Other women are following her footsteps. On the streets of our major cities, it isn’t unheard of to encounter capable, business-like women auto drivers, bus drivers and bus conductors.
“There’s gradual and positive sea-change,” adds Annabelle Manwaring. This optimism is trickling to the most deprived women, feels Rashmi Misra. In rural Haryana where girls rarely go to school, Rashmi has helped ghungat smothered mothers emerge confidently from VIDYA centres knowing English and driving. Her underprivileged youngsters have excelled in Board exams and computers. In one of her schools in Delhi, 100 kids scored IQ of over 120. “Given facilities and exposure, these children are capable of anything, she says. Boys are learning to treat their sisters equally. Not looking down at each other as rivals, they are becoming friends. These girls as well as boys have the capacity for crystal clear thinking, and are shining in the national robotics championships, Maths Olympiads and Mock UN.
The dedicated efforts of countless women spanning several generations, is building up this change. As a young girl in Delhi, I was fortunate to be inspired by trailblazers in women’s education. Smt. Kamala Sengupta, retired Principal of Delhi’s Lady Irwin School, and Prof. Bina Dasgupta retired Principal of Indraprastha College, shared their experiences with me. In the early Twentieth Century, a few such remarkable Bengali women ventured into northern India leaving their homes in undivided Bengal. Armed with impressive degrees from distant Dhaka University, they helped start schools and colleges for girls in Delhi, where nothing existed. On International Women’s Day, let us celebrate this spirit of women who led the way, those striving for excellence today, and for future generations.