Sky Is Not The Limit For These Magnificent Women at ISRO In The Mars Mission

Posted: May 30, 2019

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Minnie Vaid’s book Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines – ISRO’s Mission to Mars tells the story of ISRO women scientists.

When I first watched Hidden Figures – a movie about three women who spearheaded change with their exemplary work at NASA, my first thought was it would be so cool to have something like this in India.

I remembered those pictures of celebrating women that had circulated right after the Mangalyaan launch, way back in 2014.

This was a new beginning, I hoped. Women being at the front and centre of a technological and engineering advancement. This would once and for all shred the stereotype that women are inept at operating anything that requires more than two pencil-sized batteries to work.

But then this was the stuff of dreams, I figured – a once in a lifetime occurrence. Besides, the sexist men would never let women be at the front and centre of anything, I reasoned. It’s a tall order, I told myself, and forgot all about it.

‘If only real life were that simple.’

Couldn’t agree with the author more. I had been telling myself the same thing.

Until this book landed in my hands

Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines – ISRO’s Mission to Mars is the book that tells you the story of these remarkable women who had already achieved this tall order. Not only that, they had done it despite far greater obstacles and social challenges than imaginable.

The book opens with narrating a TV ad of a popular laptop brand – Santo’s dream of becoming an astronaut. The ad is everything my vision was after watching Hidden Figures – dreamy, unreal, and full of unachievable hopes.

The statistics about the challenges that female scientists have encountered over the years are startling. Most of what this book says in the beginning (social factors, gendered roles, lack of a support system at work and at home) may well be common knowledge. Men are (as a result of these obvious biases and special privileges) considered to be ‘born leaders’.

‘Those women who consciously choose and work hard at building successful careers in science are considered trailblazers for a new generation of girls, for whom gender will be irrelevant someday.’

While this line from the prologue may be true, the big question still remains – what, if at all, is being done to remove these biases and gendered restrictions for the average woman?

Not just the Mars Mission…

Coming back to the tremendous achievement by the magnificent women, the book is evidence of the insurmountable odds these women have faced and yet emerged victorious. How extraordinary it is for them to have achieved what they did is evident in this line that elucidates the big challenge –

‘A ‘simple’ description of the Mars mission provided by scientists who worked on it goes like this – ‘It is like shooting from a moving platform (earth, moving at a sped of 107,000 km per hour around the sun) at a moving target (Mars, moving at a speed of 86,870 km per hour), the distance between them changing with time.’

The book talks about not just the sacrifices and achievements of these women, but also how critical their work is and how it impacts us in our daily lives – like working in the area of satellite data for fishermen, disaster management, telemedicine in villages, tele-education, weather cycles etc – are aimed at improving the quality of life of the common man. I can’t help but remember the recent Cyclone Fani and the timely alerts that the governments of affected states received and acted upon to minimise loss of life.

Working at ISRO, yet being Indian women

These are after all, Indian women, and face many of the same challenges all of us face in a patriarchal society, but there are also spots of sunshine that shine brightly.

Their confessions and revelations don’t come lightly and each woman says something that resonates strongly – some of these hard-hitting but painful reflections of the patriarchal society we live in.

‘A man can get away with being only a technologically good scientist. A woman has to be a full square – everything has to be good.’ – Arundhati Misra

‘People don’t like educated women since they tend to make their own decisions.’ – Shahana Khaleel

Even in accepting that they were treated no different from their male colleagues, the women in ISRO were expected to balance home and family life on their own. They were expected to be equally committed to their jobs, even if it meant long hours and irregular timings. They managed admirably. And yet, these women were fortunate for they had tremendous support from family, colleagues, and bosses. But how many of the women can boast of a similar support system? As I read the book, these questions were becoming more pressing.

Fortunately, Vaid astute journalistic instincts pick up on this reluctance and she says it upfront in her no-nonsense style.

‘The only hint at the gender imbalance faced by them lies in their unconscious use of expressions such as ‘adjustment’, ‘working harder to balance roles’ or for painstakingly crediting their families and husbands for their ‘understanding and support’.’

It is disappointing to note how women are caught in the middle of this dichotomy and yet are portrayed as if it is them who are unwilling to put in their all. For women to boast about being able to manage all fronts of a professional and personal life is not something to be proud of. This bias or rather, ignorance of our own internalised misogyny has to be stopped.

I was glad to see the author asking the same questions I wanted to.

Santo’s dream isn’t a dream anymore. Because of these magnificent women and their unstinted efforts, it is a reality. Because of how they are educating and inspiring others, future Santos will see bigger dreams and achieve them too. And, as the young girls who had visited URSC, Bengaluru promised – they would follow their dreams even if they didn’t yet know what they were.

Thank you, Minnie Vaid, for bringing the stories of these wonder women to us – for inspiring us through them and for giving us hope of a better world.

Image source: YouTube

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Piyusha is a sometime sane reader, part-time crazy writer and full-time wacky alien.

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