[Year in Review 2021] 10 stories of women who won our hearts
Even during a raging pandemic, women have been in the forefront - pivoting, persisting, achieving, and surmounting new challenges with strength and resilience.
Coping with multi-tasking duties, adjusting to the new normal of an unforeseeable work-from-home scenario, homeschooling children, and handling diverse projects – they have proved they can do anything, even if the circumstances are adverse.
Over the past year, we built the narrative around strong women, whose heartwarming stories have inspired our readers. They have shown us, and these stories a lot of love.
Here’s our list of the top inspiring stories of women in 2021.
Yogita Raghuvanshi, India’s first woman truck driver
When Yogita Raghuvanshi’s husband passed away 16 years ago, she decided to give up law to become a truck driver. She understood that driving trucks meant instant wages and greater stability as opposed to earning a pittance being a junior to a lawyer.
With the support of her children, Yashik and Yashwi, Yogita began her journey as a truck driver with a trip from Bhopal to Ahmedabad.
She told HerStory, “It was new for me, but I was prepared for it. I trusted my instincts and my confidence. I didn’t even know the roads or which road leads to which highway. I kept asking people for directions and moving ahead towards my destination.”
Yogita loves what she does, but sometimes shuttling between cities can come with its own set of problems. “Nobody believes that I drive trucks – whether then or now. They assume that I am the driver’s woman. Mechanics on the highway, men at dhabas and elsewhere leer at me, but when they see me at the wheel, their look changes dramatically. But none of this bothers me; it never did,” she added.
For Captain Aarohi Pandit, the sky is not the limit
Captain Aarohi Pandit is no stranger to breaking records. So far, the 23-year-old has been the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean solo in a light sports aircraft, and launched the world’s first all-women team to circumnavigate the Earth in a LSA.
On October 15 this year, Aarohi touched down in her plane Mahi VT NBF, a Pipistrel Sinus weighing only 330 kg, at Juhu, India's first civil airport.
Her flight from the Bhuj runaway was historic in many ways. She was re-enacting India's first commercial flight flown by JRD Tata in 1932 and paying tribute to the women of Madhapar who had rebuilt the Bhuj runway within 72 hours during the India-Pakistan war. Aarohi had to navigate the plane without GPS, autopilot, or computerised equipment, always flying 7,000 feet above mean sea level.
Speaking to HerStory on her historic achievement, Aarohi said, "It was 36 degrees Celsius outside, and I was afraid the engine would heat up. The other challenge was air traffic, but I am grateful to the ATC, who accommodated my flight so that it could land on time. It was a bit difficult, but in the end, it was worth it.”
Powering India’s space race
Uma Maheshwari, Saraniya P, and Arushi Choudhary lead the engineering and design teams at, a spacetech startup that aims to ‘bring space within everyone’s reach’.
Uma Maheshwari single-handedly led the world’s first single piece 3D-printed rocket engine firing.
“Agnilet is unique because it’s one piece of hardware, completely 3D printed, as a single component, in one run on the 3D printer,” she told HerStory.
Saraniya leads vehicle design at Agnikul – coordinating operations across an extremely diverse team base with conflicting needs – like the very nature of how rocket design works.
She manages hundreds of system designs, tracks and monitors their interfaces, and is very methodical in her effort in motivating the team to keep pushing the vehicle to be lighter and more efficient.
Aarushi leads all the avionics systems engineering work at Agnikul. This is a challenging task because Agnibaan's avionics architecture is unique. Freezing this involved a lot of background work with multiple complex trade-offs across a wide range of parameters within both, the avionics design crew and other teams.
Together, these young women have started a journey that will culminate in “a world outside ours”.
The ex-Indian Army officer acing the supply chain game at Flipkart
After starting her journey in the Army’s supply chain department looking after functions in Kargil, Drass, and Siachen, Captain Jyoti Bisht joinedas an Operations Manager at one of its extensive facilities in West Bengal.
She is responsible for ensuring the customers’ shipments are processed, packed, and shipped in the fastest manner possible. Jyoti supervises a team of 140 at Flipkart’s fulfilment centre.
In an interview with HerStory, Jyoti said, “The pandemic has thrown up a lot of challenges for ecommerce companies. My job is to ensure prompt delivery and excellent customer service. We do this by monitoring and ensuring adherence to our operating plan and operating metrics. Besides overseeing operations, I am responsible for formulating people policies and building a diverse team,” Jyoti says.
Another Phogat sister makes waves
After her sisters Geeta and Babita Phogat became household names, their sister Ritu is now waving waves of her own. Ritu Phogat is an Indian mixed martial artist under ONE Championship. She also is a 2016 Commonwealth Wrestling champion, and won gold for India in 2016.
Wrestling got her to love MMA. While wrestling, she would often think about other forms of martial arts – wrestling, boxing, kick-boxing, and Wushu – comparing one with another and researching about sportspersons.
Ritu aims to become the top global MMA player from India.
She said, “Every one of us can overcome challenges if we focus on our goals and not worry about what others think. If you are on the right path, they will all eventually join and support you in your journey. Be patient and be focused and you will see the magic. Believe in yourself first for the world to believe in you!”
Flying the longest commercial flight in the world
In February 2021, Air India commander Zoya Aggarwal and her all-woman cockpit crew scripted history by operating the world’s longest commercial flight that crossed the North Pole at 34,000 feet in the sky. Taking off from San Francisco with 250 passengers on board, the crew of four women captains in the cockpit had the world tracking their every movement in the sky and landed at Bengaluru
Fond of stargazing as a child, when Zoya expressed her desire to become a pilot, she said her mother started to cry.
She said in an interview, “My mother always wanted me to get married, have children, and look after the family and that's where the buck stopped. However, I was not one of those conventional girls or one to stop dreaming because the society around me told me not to do so,” she says.
In April 2004, she cleared the entrance exams and landed one of the 10 vacancies for pilots at Air India – among an applicant pool of 3,000.
She also led the Government of India’s Vande Bharat Mission in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that brought back over 14,000 Indians who were stranded abroad.
Running from Manali to Leh – and entering the Guinness Book of World Records
On October 1, Sufiya Khan completed a 480 km run from Manali to Leh, becoming the first female runner to do so and enter the Guinness Book of World Records.
She completed the Himalayan Ultra run expedition in 156 hours, passing through one of the world’s most challenging and highest highways, climbing up five major passes with extreme weather conditions, with temperatures dropping as low as minus five degrees.
Previously, she completed the distance from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and traversed the Golden Quadrilateral – a network of highways that connects the four major metros in four directions, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai.
Wading through mountains of dust brought on by construction and running through snowfall, Sufiya’s oxygen saturation level dropped to 56, and she fainted during one stretch. Undeterred, she continued the run after resting for a few hours.
She believes running is a good way to spread a message.
She told HerStory: “I was keen to explore the country by pushing my limits. I did not run to compete or break any records. I wanted to test my abilities with every challenge, and spread the message of hope, oneness, equality, peace, and humanity to as many people as I could.”
Fighting stereotypes with the Spice Girls
Sisters Usha, Poonam, Neelam, Nikki, Kavita, Ritu, and Priya run, with four stores across the city of Jodhpur. They offer a wide range of grounded and ungrounded spices, tea and tea spices, spices for curries, as well as Christmas gift packs.
After their father, Mohanlal passed away, their mother Bhagwanti had to fight his family for her rights to run his spices store. They called her ‘shameless’ for thinking of sitting in the market, and also taking her daughters along. She did what she had to, and took over the reins of the business.
Today, her daughters have taken MV Spices to great heights.
Besides retail stores, the company caters to foreign customers through its website with a price range of $3 to $20 for 250 gms of spices.
Over the years, many tourists who have visited the store have become repeat customers placing orders online from their home country. With about 30 orders per month, they have a team of 12 people apart from their family members working for them.
Fighting adversity and becoming a para-shooter
In December 2012, a crowd at New Delhi Railways Station pushed Pooja Agarwal on to the railway track where she was run over by a train.
She lost three limbs in a trilateral amputation and was left with the use of only her right hand.
Slowly, Pooja learnt to use her right hand to do small tasks.
Her marriage was over, and all she was left with was her determination to not let fate come in the way of her dreams and ambitions. She began studying for competitive exams from the hospital bed and continued to do so even after she was discharged.
Soon, her hard work paid off when she joined Bank of Allahabad (now Indian Bank after a merger) at its Gujranwala town branch in June 2014. When her friend and mentor Pragya suggested she try some sport, she visited the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre and witnessed many disabled people playing different sports. She chose shooting, and has not looked back since then.
She won the nationals in 2016 and also succeeded at the Bangkok Championships, qualified for the Asian Games and World Championships, and won a bronze at the Croatia World Cup. Her recent win was in 2021 at the World Cup in Lima, Peru, where she won two team silver medals. Pooja has also started her own YouTube channel, Pooja Agarrwal PCreations, where she posts hacks on how to do small tasks as a disabled person.
Throwing gender stereotypes out of the court with tennis icon Sania Mirza
Six-time Grand Slam champion and former World No. 1 in tennis doubles and an icon for Indian women, Sania Mirza is not afraid of speaking her mind.
As a tennis player on the circuit for almost 18 years now, she believes that women continue to battle biases and stereotypes in the sport.
She told HerStory in an exclusive interview, “Though I do believe things are getting better, what we have to address and accept is that we are living in a man’s world more than in an equal world. Stereotypes and biases exist in every profession and not just in sport. You need to speak up for yourself and command the respect you deserve. I have been taught that as long as I am doing the right thing, I need to speak up.”
Sania believes pop culture is a huge influencer in changing mindsets, especially among the younger generation.
To all the young women out there who are keen on following an unconventional career, she has some pertinent words of advice.
““Believe in yourself. As young women believe in your path and trust yourself. Don’t bother whether it has been done before or not – as long as you put your mind to it, you are going to succeed, despite the challenges in your path,” Sania says.
Edited by Teja Lele