Every year on March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day (IWD). It is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. As the world-renowned feminist, Gloria Steinem once said, “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist, nor any one organization, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.” Here is a list of Indian women who dared to be different and made India proud.
Kalpana Chawla – the first Indian-born woman who lived and died on a spaceflight
At an age when teenage girls play with dolls, Kalpana Chawla born on 17 March 1962 in Karnal Haryana developed a passion for flying. Such was the burning desire in her heart that she chose aerospace engineering as her career and acquired a Certificated Flight Instructor and Commercial Pilot’s license. She enjoyed flying aerobatics and tail-wheel aeroplanes. In due course, she was chosen to go on a spaceflight as a robotic arm operator on board Space Shuttle Columbia. Unfortunately, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere – 16 minutes before its scheduled landing. Kalpana Chawla was among the seven crew members who died in the incident. On 5 February 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced the government of India’s decision to rename the first of the series of meteorological series as Kalpana-1. Overnight Kalpana Chawla became a hero not just in India but all over the world. Asteroid 51826 was named Kalpana Chawla. The University of Texas, USA dedicated a Kalpana Chawla memorial at the Arlington College of Engineering displaying a flight suit, photographs and information about Chawla’s life.
Bachindri Pal the first Indian woman atop Mount Everest
On 23 May 1984, Bachindri Pal became the first Indian woman to successfully climb Mount Everest as a member of India’s first mixed-gender team. Born on 24 May 1954 in a Bhotiya family of Hansa Devi, and Kishan Pal in Nakuri village in Uttarakhand she encountered stiff opposition from her family when after her M.A. and B.Ed. from D.A.V. College, Dehradun decided to adopt mountaineering as a career instead of taking up a secure job as a schoolteacher. But she managed to win them over when she successfully led an all-woman team climb Mount Everest in 1985 as well as an all-woman rafting expedition down the Ganges (over 2,500 km) in 1994. She also went on to successfully lead an all-woman team on a 4,000-km long transit of the Himalayas, from Arunachal Pradesh to Siachen Glacier in 1997. She was awarded Padma Bhushan the third-highest civilian award by the Government of India in 2019. She was also awarded the Arjuna Award, Padma Shree and the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award.
Mary Kom – the only female to become World Amateur Boxing champion six times
Mary Kom from Manipur in North East India – nicknamed Magnificent Mary – is the only female to become World Amateur Boxing champion for a record six times, the only female boxer to have won a medal in each one of the first seven World Championships, and the only boxer (male or female) to win eight World Championship medals. Mary Kom became the first Indian woman boxer to win a Gold Medal in the Asian Games in 2014 in South Korea and is also the first Indian woman boxer to win gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Initially, Kom concealed her participation in boxing from her father an ex-wrestler who feared that this would damage her face and spoil her chances of marriage. However, when he learnt of Kom’s passion for boxing after seeing her photo in a newspaper he too started supporting her. The Government of Manipur conferred on her the title “Meethoi Leima” meaning great or exceptional lady at a glittering ceremony in Imphal in 2018. She was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, in 2020.
PT Usha – the Queen of Asian track and field
PT Usha fondly called ‘Golden Girl’ or ‘Payyoli Express’ is one of the most spectacular sprinters who dominated the Asian track-and-field events in the 80s, and early 90s winning 23 medals including 14 gold. Usha made her debut in the international arena when she became the youngest athlete to represent India at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. She bagged a silver medal in the 100m and the 200m at the 1982 New Delhi Asiad, followed by Gold at the Asian Track and Field Championship in Kuwait a year later when she set a new Asian record in the 400m. PT Usha was the first Indian woman athlete to reach the final of an Olympic event, at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. Though she lost the bronze medal in the 400 m hurdles by a fraction of a second, her timing of 55.42 seconds remains a national record to date. PT Usha won five gold medals at the Sixth Asian Track and Field Championship held at Jakarta in 1985 and went on to claim four gold medals and one silver medal at the 1986 Asian Games. Usha bagged a silver medal at the Hiroshima Asian Games in 1994. PT Usha is now actively involved in running the Usha School of Athletics (USHA) at Koyilandi, near Kozhikode. She was conferred the Padma Shri and Arjuna Award for her contribution to Indian sports. The 55-year-old Olympian was appointed Dean of Faculty for sports science and physical education by the Kannur University in 2020.
Lata Mangeshkar – the melody queen
Lata Mangeshkar, 92 is the eldest daughter of Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar a classical singer and theatre artist from Indore in present-day Madhya Pradesh. She was just five years old when her father introduced her to music and made her his musical plays. She is today quite simply, one of Bollywood’s most prolific playback singers who has leant her voice to actresses from Nargis to Preity Zinta in the nearly 80 years. Until 1991 the Guinness Book of World Records credited her to have recorded not less than 30,000 solo, duet, and chorus songs in 20 Indian languages between 1948 and 1987. Today though the exact number is disputed, the industry pundits speculate that the number might have reached 40,000! Like her, even her other siblings Meena, Asha, Usha, and Hridaynath are all are accomplished singers and musicians. Lata Mangeshkar has been conferred with India’s most prestigious awards like the Bharat Ratna (2001), Padma Bhushan (1969), Dada Sahib Phalke Award (1989) and Padma Vibhushan (1999) besides the “Lifetime Achievement Award” coinciding with the 60th year of Independence. The West Bengal government conferred her with the highest civilian honour – Banga Bibhushan, while the Maharashtra Government awarded her Maharashtra Ratna and the Maharashtra Bhushan awards.
Aishwarya Rai – one of the most beautiful women in the world
One of the most popular celebrities in India Aishwarya Rai made people all over the world talk about Indian beauty and brains when she was crowned Miss World 1994. Born in a traditional south Indian family, Aishwarya wanted to be an architect but started modelling as a part-time job. But destiny had other things in store for her. She shot to the limelight because of ads for garden sari and Pepsi. Soon after she began receiving offers to act in film and made her acting debut in Tamil films like Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997), Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000) and Jeans (1998) – the most expensive film in those days. Her initial success in Tollywood opened the floodgates for her in the Hindi cinema and she used the opportunity to leave a left a lasting impression in the hearts and minds of the audience. Her films Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya (1997), Taal (1999), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Devdas (2002) were instant hits. Soon she won two Filmfare and rave reviews for her performances in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai (2000), Mohabbatein (2000) and Devdas (2002). She was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2009 and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France in 2012. She was featured on the covers of India Today and TIME Magazine, listed her among the “100 Most Influential People in the World “.
Sushmita Sen – the first Indian to win a Miss Universe Title in 1994
Born in a typical Bengali family living in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh Shusmita Sen was crowned Femina Miss India in 1994 and went on to become the first Indian woman to win Miss Universe 1994 at the age of 18. She has since then worked in several Hindi films like Biwi No.1 (1999), Sirf Tum (1999), Filhaal (2002), Aankhen (2002), Main Hoon Na (2004), and Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya (2005). She was offered a role in the James Bond movie GoldenEye (1995) but she declined it for unknown reasons.
Amrita Sher-Gil – one of the greatest women artists and pioneer in modern Indian art
Amrita Sher-Gil a Hungarian-Indian painter gained recognition at the age of 19, for her oil painting titled Young Girls (1932). She has since influenced generations of Indian artists with her depiction of the plight of women in India and abroad. The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures. Most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and at the Lahore Museum. The department of Post named a postage stamp on her painting ‘Hill Women’ and a road in Delhi was named Amrita Shergil Marg after her. In 2006 her painting ‘village scene’ fetched Rs 6.9 crores at an auction in New Delhi – the highest amount ever paid for a painting in India. In 2018, another of her paintings “The Little Girl in Blue” was auctioned at a Sotheby’s auction in Mumbai for a record-breaking 18.69 crores. Amrita Sher-Gil’s life story was the inspiration behind the Urdu play -Tumhari Amrita.
Kiran Bedi – the first female IPS officer
Born 9 June 1949 Kiran Bedi –nick named ‘Kinni’ the second child of Prakash Lal Peshawaria a businessman who started as a lecturer in political science at Khalsa College for Women in Amritsar. She also earned a law degree from the University of Delhi and a PhD from IIT Delhi’s Department of Social Sciences before joining the Indian Police Service as the first and only woman in a batch of 80 men. She was allocated the union territory cadre (now called Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram-Union Territories or AGMUT cadre) earned the epitaph ‘Crane Bedi’ for strictly implementing the traffic laws as the DCP (Traffic) in Delhi and won the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry for taking on a sword-wielding Nirankari with a lathi in 1979. Her detractors dubbed her as a publicity seeker or ‘Danda Bedi’ for taking the law in her hand for defending the law. In course of her 35-year-old career she served in various capacities in Delhi, Goa, Chandigarh and Mizoram as well as Tihar Jail before taking voluntary retirement as Director-General, Bureau of Police Research and Development. After retirement, she was recently the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry from 28 May 2016 to 16 February 2021.
Shahnaz Husain- the evergreen Queen of Herbal beauty care movement
Shahnaz Husain the founder, chairperson & managing director of The Shahnaz Husain Group needs no introduction anywhere in India or overseas. She is a ‘living legend’ who has promoted ‘Ayurveda’ and transformed the herbal beauty segment. Her world-class skincare and beauty products enjoy colossal popularity all over the globe. Harvard University introduced a Case Study on her business model in its curriculum. She was invited by the Harvard Business School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Oxford University and London School of Economics for establishing an international brand without commercial advertising. She won Success Magazine’s “World’s Greatest Woman Entrepreneur” award in 1996 and awarded Padma Shri by the Government of India In 2006. She has also walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival and spoken at the House of Lords and House of Commons in the British Parliament. She was awarded the “Outstanding Ayurvedic Innovation Award” at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. “Beauty care will never go out of fashion,” she says.