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India places far behind many other parts of the world in terms of its treatment of women.
It wouldn’t be a reach to state that many women lag behind their male counterparts on the Subcontinent, especially with regard to their access to education, food and land, and overall upward mobility.
Just a few years ago, the public sector in India reported a male-to-female employment ratio of almost 9 to 1, while women hold just 14.4% of seats in Parliament, according to equality watchdog UN Women. India places far behind many other parts of the world in terms of its treatment of women. Rwanda, the fourth-poorest country on earth, has more female representation in politics than India does, for instance.
It’s a dire situation but one that makes the stories of the women that do break out all the more inspiring.
These tales of success almost invariably focus on people in STEM fields, like doctors and engineers, which does little to elevate women outside that very select club of highly-educated individuals. Many of the foundations of modern society are built elsewhere though, in areas like entertainment, justice, politics, and even transport. That’s not to disparage those women who found success in STEM though. People like Kamala Sohonie (first scientific Ph.D.) and gynecologist Dr. Indira Hinduja earned their own place in history.
Shila Dawre’s story, when reduced to its basic elements, does not sound that special. She drives a rickshaw auto. Her experiences getting into such a male-dominated field highlights the social bias that women experience even when providing for themselves. Dawre was the first-ever female auto driver when she started out in 1988 with a Tempo Matador vehicle. Considering that the first female sea captain wouldn’t set sail until 24 years later (Radhika Menon, in 2012), Dawre’s early start is surprising.
Vehicles have provided careers for other women too. The first Indian woman to gain an aviation license was Sarla Thakral while Bhawana Kanth holds the honor of becoming the first female fighter pilot when she qualified in 2019. The late astronaut Kalpana Chawla took this to its logical extreme when she visited space in 1997 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. The first Indian woman ever to do so, Chawla spent 372 hours orbiting the planet. Sadly, she would later die in the 2003 Columbia explosion.
While rummy is always popular in India, the global appeal of poker has created opportunities for female players to get involved too. In fact, people like Vanessa Selbst, Kathy Liebert, and Annette Obrestad have done much to popularise the hobby among women. In India, though, those names look like Nikita Luther, Maria Kirloskar, and Deepanshi Tomar, all of whom are current pros on the poker circuit. Luther, in particular, has enjoyed a lot of success as a player, winning a bracelet at The World Series of Poker.
Poker is not the exclusive club it used to be courtesy of smartphones and broadband internet. A mobile company such as Jio advertises data packages of up to 3GB a day, which has enabled entertainment companies to produce virtual tables that can be played on the go. Live casino, in which visitors can play with a real person, is now a fixture of Betway’s casino site, among others, but the original table game continues to inspire.
Fans of movies might be interested in the recent exploits of superstar Minissha Lamba, who has reportedly dropped acting to concentrate on playing poker.
Perhaps inevitably, justice is a common thread running through the lives of women who broke down barriers at home or at work. The first female police officer (Kiran Bedi) preceded Fathima Beevi, the first female Supreme Court Judge in 1989, by seventeen years, joining the police force in 1972.
The military set the precedent for women in positions of power, though, by appointing Punita Arora the Lieutenant-General of the Indian army and, later, the navy. She had originally joined up way back in 1962.
It’s worth remembering that many of the jobs on this list are male-centric but none more so than the military. There are just 6,807 women in the Indian army compared to 1.2m men. However, there are precious few in the navy or the air force – at least, none below officer rank – as there are restrictions on how women can serve. It’s worth noting that the same medical school that Punita Arora attended has produced all three of India’s high-ranking female generals, namely, Pune’s Armed Forces Medical College.
Sport should be one of the most accessible things in the world, but, still, women face barriers to participation, especially regarding pay. This is common in all countries, though. In England, for instance, home of one of the most developed football pyramids in Europe, the difference between male and female wages can be in the millions of pounds per year. Fortunately, as in India, this rarely stops women from playing sports at the top level.
Boxer ‘Magnificent’ Mary Kom is an especially important individual. She’s won the World Amateur Boxing championship five times, despite resistance to her trade in her homeland. Tennis player Sania Mirza and cricketer Mithali Raj are just two more athletes that have blazed a trail for women in India.
It’s unfortunate that female achievements have to be celebrated as exceptions to the rule in India. However, as detailed above, women do have the capability to crack even the most male-orientated industries, from auto driving to operating a space shuttle’s mechanical arm.
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