Independent India turns 75 this year and no celebration would be complete without honouring the women whose work and passion takes the nation to greater heights every day. This series is News18’s salute to the women who have broken barriers to elevate India economically, socially and politically. Today, we celebrate India’s first maritime pilot Reshma Nilofer, Captain Archana Jha and India’s first woman aviation firefighter Taniya Sanyal

Be it water or air, there is no space an inspired woman can’t conquer.

While Titanic pushed feisty souls, India’s first maritime pilot Reshma Nilofer and Captain Archana Jha, to take to the sea, the desire to see the skies up close led Taniya Sanyal to become India’s first woman aviation firefighter.

Quick question: What could be the first topic of discussion between two women at sea and a journalist during their first meet?

Toilets.

HANDLING HOOGHLY SHIPS & ALPHA MALES’ EGOS

Nilofer is one of the few maritime pilots in the world. Posted in Haldia, her job is to guide ships along the dangerous waters of the Hooghly River. This means days and long hours at sea, with little or, at times, no access to basic facilities such as toilets, as this profession was not initially equipped to handle women.

“Often, ships are not equipped to deal with women. They have had no women on-board before, so no provision for clean loos or hygiene has been made. We had to fend for ourselves.”

Reshma suggests that even today, at work, many male colleagues “can’t handle her”, reluctant as they are to take orders from a woman.

“I face condescending attitude at work. Like the other day, I saw this ‘Alpha Male’ attitude from a colleague. I had a stressful time working with him. I have been working for over a decade and it’s sad that I have still not been able to change the attitude of men. There are still very few men who are getting used to the idea of taking a command from a woman. This colleague refused to take instructions from me. I called out his behavior and told him he needs to listen to me. He wanted me to shut up and told me to calm down.”

EYES ON OIL TANKERS AS KIN SLIP IN COMMENTS

Jha, now posted in Mumbai as a marine auditor, agrees, but also adds that initially even women were surprised to see her. Hailing from Patna, Bihar, Jha says her family was the most surprised to hear of her posting.

“One of my uncles called up the DG Shipping and asked him whether girls were even allowed at sea. I also wanted to work and improve the standard of living at home. On a trip, we were three girls and the men kept wondering what we would do on an oil tanker. In the morning, they would say we were going on an oil tanker and then suddenly it was changed to a passenger ship. After a lot of hesitation, they finally let us board an oil tanker.”

The challenge comes as much from society as the workplace.

Nilofer says her relatives ask her whether she wants to settle down. “I have no answer to that. I am a divorcee and my husband had problems with the nature of my work. Many relatives and some women at work would say, “She has joined, but let’s see how long she can do it?” They would wonder if and how I would work after having kids. After my divorce, many said it was expected.”

Nilofer says, “After I joined, I saw that there were hardly any women around me, but that did not stop me. There comes a time when you start doubting yourself because those around you tend to put you in a box. But then you overcome it and believe that you can do it. It all boils down to acceptance. I am always made to feel that I am a woman both in a good and a bad way. Some are very welcoming, but some are still getting used to it. I have matured in this job. I used to be tactless, but now I am more tactful. I have to be more diplomatic and patient at work.”

FIGHTING FIRES AND PATRIARCHY

Attached to the Airport Authority of India (AAI), for Kolkata-based Sanyal, making the cut was a rigorous physical and mental exercise. “I wanted to do something out of the box. After MSc, I was in a dilemma. I saw this advertisement. It felt like something I wanted to do. I didn’t even know what an aviation firefighter did. So I applied.”

Working for long hours, a fighter’s job is to provide rescue, first aid services and assistance to the aircraft, passengers and crew. “It’s a field that no one was aware of,” says Taniya, adding her family dabbles in dance and music. “While my parents were encouraging, it is only when I entered the training area that I realised that I was the only woman there.”

While Sanyal is a sports enthusiast, she found the physical training tough. “It was painful at times, but I never thought of giving up. I knew I had to prove myself not just for me, but for other women. I owed it to them. I was representing my gender. If other women watch me, they will feel that if I can do it, so can they.”

Sanyal says she got no special treatment at the centre or work. “I never felt that I was special or at a disadvantage because I was a woman. I communicated with all, but, at times, I did sense some people reluctant to take orders from me because of my gender.”

While abroad, the number of firefighting women is high, in India, it is a job very few women dare to take up. “Things are changing here. What saddens me is women still face sexual harassment in 2022. Fighting the mental barrier is more challenging than physical.”

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