The most admired women are those who are the first to break into traditional male domains and chart a new path that other women can follow. Gender stereotypes have not changed much over time. The belief that little girls dream of winning beauty pageants, while little boys dream of growing up to be a part of suitably macho career options, like firefighters or train drivers, still exists. However, here are five awesome women who subvert these kind of stereotypes on their head and are amazing role models for both little boys and girls.
The first train driver – Surekha Yadav
Indian Railways, Asia’s largest rail network and one of the biggest employers in the world, got the first woman train driver on its employee rolls as late as 1989. Surekha Yadav joined as assistant driver and went on to drive the first ‘Ladies Special’ local train for Central Railways when it was first introduced by then Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee in 2000. On the International Women’s Day in 2011, she was chosen to drive the popular Deccan Queen express from Pune to Mumbai. This unassuming mother of two did not realise she would be making history when she applied for the job. Today there are more than 50 female loco pilots and assistant drivers in Indian Railways.
The first Olympian – Karnam Malleswari
Affectionately called ‘the iron girl of Andhra Pradesh’, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari made the nation proud when she won the bronze medal at the Sydney Olympic in 2000. Being the first Indian woman ever to win an Olympic medal, she has a place of pride in the country’s sports history. During her career spanning a decade, Karnam has also won 11 gold and three silver medals. Most importantly, she proved that Indian women can excel in tough sports like weightlifting. Hopefully, we will be seeing other women following in her footsteps in the upcoming Rio Olympics.
The first to cross the Gobi desert – Sucheta Kadethankar
Endurance and adventure sports are generally not seen as women’s forte. But Sucheta Kadethankar is stuff that legends are made of. Pune-based Sucheta is the first Indian woman to have walked across the Gobi desert in Mongolia, a distance of 1,600 kilometres. She was a part of a 13-member team from nine countries in the 2011 Gobi Desert expedition led by desert explorer Ripley Davenport. Seven women from different nationalities had been chosen for the trek but only three made it to the final 13, of which Sucheta was the only Indian. She trained for six months before the expedition by walking every day from her office and back, a distance of 24 kilometres, carrying a heavy backpack.
This female Indiana Jones is passionate about trekking, mountaineering, cycling, and river crossing too. Sucheta had trekked to the Mount Everest Base Camp in 2008. She has also won the ‘India Adventure Race Enduro 3’ award, which involves cycling a distance of 180 kilometres and trekking over 80 kilometres including crossing a river.
The first IPS officer – Kiran Bedi
Kiran Bedi might have been in the news recently due to her social activism and political career. But this former tennis player initially came into the limelight for becoming the first woman IPS officer of India, earning her scores of fans and spawning dozens of movies based on her. In 1972, when Kiran joined her police training at the National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, she was the only woman in a batch of 80 men. She caught the eye of the nation during the 1975 Republic Day parade when she led the all-male contingent of the Delhi Police.
From tackling violent Akali-Nirankari Sikh riots in New Delhi, to encouraging citizens to interact with the beat constables in their areas for reducing crimes to towing away a wrongly parked vehicle of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s office, Kiran Bedi was always larger than life persona. Nicknamed Crane Bedi following the towing incident, Kiran was fearless and earned the ire of several high and mighty detractors due to which she was frequently transferred. Not one to be cowed, she took to each of her assignments with sincerity and enthusiasm.
When Kiran was posted as Inspector General at Tihar jail, she decided to turn it into a model prison. She introduced several reforms and many classes and programmes for the inmates, including those on education, meditation, yoga besides cultural activities. In recognition of her efforts to humanise the Tihar jail, she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1994.
The first firefighter – Harshini Kanhekar
When Harshini Kanhekar applied for admission to the fire engineering course at the National Fire Service College in Nagpur, she did not know she would be the first ever female firefighter of India and the only woman in her batch. The situation was so new for her college faculty that there was no medical test criteria for females and no hostel facility either. Undaunted, Harshini sought special permission to join the course as a day scholar. She completed her course in 2005 and joined Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) as a Fire and Security Officer.
From handling heavy equipments to driving the huge fire truck, Harshini loves everything about her job. She feels there are no male or female centric jobs. Though Harshini was initially discouraged by almost everybody from opting for this field and her parents were very concerned, she was just thrilled that she got a chance to make history while doing a job she loves. Today, her parents are proud of her and she is an inspiration for thousands of young women.
These five women prove that strength of the mind matters much more than physique. Especially noteworthy is the fact that once each of them made up their mind about their chosen field, they received tremendous support from their colleagues and the larger community. Courage is often taking that first step, daring to venture on an untrodden path. Once you set off, who knows, the road might turn out to be easy after all.