By Naomi Kundu and Ishita Jain
The hurdles these women faced, the innumerable times they were told ‘no’ and the amount of heartache they have endured to stay true to themselves is the message we want to communicate to girls and boys alike. Stressing on the fundamental equality of men and women from a young age, while also emphasising the importance of knowing yourself is where true progress for the future of our society can be achieved. There will be a time when we do not have to talk exclusively of women’s stories, but we are still working hard to see that day. Until then, an inspiring story remains an inspiring story.
Who hasn’t thought of floating among the stars, being completely suspended in space? Kalpana’s story is a turning point for so many young women who saw a face they could relate to taking the plunge. Dreaming of doing so since she was a little girl, her dream job at NASA gave her the opportunity to venture into space not only once, but twice. It was truly gut-wrenching for millions when her shuttle exploded on her second journey. Kalpana left behind a whole lot of scope for women to pursue this scary, unique and fascinating profession.
Janaki lived her life intrinsically entwined with nature, living day to day caring for them like family while being simultaneously fascinated with its complexity. She studied Botany–the scientific study of plants, and travelled all over the world looking for unique, medicinal plants to help cure illnesses. She even discovered a way to make sugarcane grown in India’s fields sweeter! Herbariums are filled with plants all named after her, and the government of India even created the E.K. Janaki Ammal National Award to encourage young students to study the environment and how to take care of it. We love her for her dedication and perseverance doing what she loved.
What is truly innocent, sweet and authentic about Surekha Yadav’s story is in the way she approached life. From pulling objects apart as a little girl–wanting desperately to know how they worked, to taking this interest forward by studying electrical engineering, Surekha gave no thought to what people thought of it. Her impulsive decision to take the examination for the Indian Railways scored her the opportunity to be a train driver! She spent months assisting drivers until she was finally given a train of her own to ‘man’. She never once thought she was less capable because she was a woman, despite comments she received through the process. There are now thousands of women who have followed her example and entered the realm of driving these mammoth machines!
Bachendri’s story stands as an example of how going against your family’s wishes can be hard but important from time to time. Raised surrounded by the Himalayas towering around her hometown, she intended to climb it one day, and focused on becoming a professional mountain climber. Her family was not pleased with this decision, as they wanted her to pursue a more structured career path. Moreover, she received a lot of discouragement for being a girl trying to take on such a physically challenging path. This only fuelled her passion and she was selected to be part of an expedition to the top of Mount Everest. She braved being buried in snow, fierce icy winds and even losing sensation in her toes. She was one of the few who finally made it to the top, creating history in being the first Indian woman to reach the summit. She went on to coach young girls to pursue their dreams of doing the same!
Mary was not the first to be told all her life that sports was for boys. She was surrounded by the mentality that women were nurturers; fragile and emotional beings who held the household together. While she saw the importance of it, she was an energetic child who loved to expend it playing and brawling with everything now and then. She joined a boxing school and practiced secretly for months until her achievements revealed her in the daily newspaper. Her father was livid, reprimanding her for putting her face at risk of being ruined for when she would have to find a husband. But not only did she find a sweet, supportive man to marry, she went on to being the first woman to win an Olympic medal for boxing. She even became a mother to two children while accomplishing more and more. She soon began her own boxing school for young girls to realise their dreams of being just like her. She always maintains that if she can do it, anyone can.
(The book The Girl who went to the Stars and Other Extraordinary Lives, published by Puffin, explores 50 stories of exemplary women and their professional journey from being a child to adulthood.)