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India’s family of first women

We relegate her name to the answer of a question in a government exam but she is everywhere, slamming barriers until they crumble under the weight of sheer resolve

(Clockwise from left ) Rakhmabai Bhikaji; Kiran Bedi; Sushmita Sen; Leila Seth; and Neerja Bhanot.
(Clockwise from left ) Rakhmabai Bhikaji; Kiran Bedi; Sushmita Sen; Leila Seth; and Neerja Bhanot.

She’s everywhere, this hurdler who could teach you about the perfect momentum and gliding technique required to sail over any barrier that comes in her way. You may know her as Arundhati Roy, Sushmita Sen, Kalpana Chawla, Kiran Bedi and Arati Saha—the first woman from India to win the Booker prize, become Miss Universe, go to space, become a police officer and swim the English Channel, respectively.

We mostly relegate her name to the answer of a frequently asked question in a government exam, for example: “Who was the first Indian woman to reach Antarctica?"—Mahel Musa, apparently.

I wish our educationists would introduce children to this pioneer woman instead of spending their energies rewriting the identity and religion of the man who emerged victorious in a battle that was fought in the summer of 1576.

Google Arts and Culture, an app that acts as a cultural repository of works from more than a thousand museums across 70 countries, is doing its bit to correct this problem in India with partners such as feminist publisher Zubaan Books. The app features women like Rakhmabai Bhikaji, who studied medicine in London and came back in 1894 to become India’s first practising lady doctor.

Rakhmabai, who had to fight a court battle against her child marriage, also wrote letters to The Times Of India under the pseudonym “A Hindu Lady", questioning the status of women. “This wicked practice of child marriage has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and the things which I prize above all others—study and mental cultivation. Without the least fault of mine I am doomed to seclusion; every aspiration of mine to rise above my ignorant sisters is looked down upon with suspicion and is interpreted in the most uncharitable manner," she wrote.

Modern history is littered with references to this woman: Priya Jhingan, cadet 001 in the first batch of women to join the Indian Army in 1993. She wanted combat but more than two decades later, women are still not allowed entry into fighting positions in the Indian Army. Neerja Bhanot, the first woman to receive the Ashoka Chakra because she stood up to four heavily armed hijackers on a Pan American World Airways flight. She died saving the passengers. The late Leila Seth, the first woman chief justice in a high court, who helped amend the law to ensure daughters in Hindu families got equal rights in joint property. You can probably name half a dozen more who don’t feature here.

She is crazy determined, like Anshu Jamsenpa, the first woman to scale Mount Everest twice in five days. The 38-year-old mother of two has climbed this mountain five times in six years.

This woman whom we all love is clearly more sporty than most. Occasionally, she has the advantage of an interested parent. Vijayalakshmi Subbaraman, our first female grandmaster. Her dad was the only coach she ever had. Bula Chowdhury, the first woman to swim across the seven seas. Her father taught her to swim at the age of 2. Saina Nehwal, the first Indian woman to be ranked No.1 in badminton. Her parents played badminton regularly.

Sania Mirza, the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam title. She might never have pursued tennis if she had listened to the elders who repeatedly pointed out that all that outdoor activity would darken her skin and nobody would marry her. Rohini Khadilkar, the first woman to compete in the men’s chess championship in 1976. Her participation set in motion a series of events that forced the World Chess Federation president to rule that women cannot be barred from national and international championships. Weightlifter Karnam Malleswari, the first woman to win an Olympic medal, our only one at the 2000 Sydney Games. India mostly ignored her.

She also has a scientific temper. Like Tessy Thomas, the first woman to head a missile project in India. She named her son Tejas after the indigenous light combat aircraft, and once told The Times Of India that her fascination with rockets began with the Apollo moon missions when she was a schoolgirl. The Google Arts and Culture app also carries excerpts from Lilavati’s Daughters, a book of essays on India’s pioneer female scientists, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.

She’s still hard at it every day, this woman explorer, though you may or may not know her because her story is always buried in the inside pages of your daily newspaper. Just recently, Geetha Johri, Gujarat’s first woman police chief. Usha Kiran, Bastar’s first woman Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officer. Neelu Rohmetra, the first woman to head an Indian Institute of Management. You are right to wonder why it took so long for women to finally be accepted in these positions.

At one level it may seem relatively easy to be the first at something because so many spheres have remained out of bounds for women for as long as we can remember. Yet, slamming those old, rocky barriers until they finally crumble under the weight of sheer resolve takes a special kind of woman.

From Mumtaz Kazi, the first woman to drive a diesel engine train, to Chandrani Prasad Verma, the country’s first female mining engineer (even before the rules allowed it), this woman always has a great story. If only we were ready to listen.

My favourite is the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the first all-female infantry combat unit within Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), whose story is beautifully told by Vera Hildebrand in her book Women At War. The regiment’s commander and first recruit Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan, a “social butterfly" who left her medical practice and her lover to join the Azad Hind Fauj, told Hildebrand that Netaji chose the regiment’s name because he had read an article by an Englishman after the 1857 uprising. He said that “if there had been a thousand women like the Rani, we could never have conquered India."

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