Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
“For whatever reason, I didn’t succumb to the stereotype that science wasn’t for girls. I got encouragement from my parents. I never ran into a teacher or a counsellor who told me that science was for boys. A lot of my friends did.”
–Sally Ride (first American woman in space)
Born to a family of academics, I was good in studies and a naughty child. There were certain things I loved, for example, I loved to dance, I loved to read and I also loved Maths and Literature equally.
But certain things I disliked, for example coaching classes, tuitions. As a little girl, I was home tutored by my mother who in spite of being a professor in Philosophy taught me Science, Maths, Literature and also told me all Philosophers were great Mathematicians, to name a few Archimedes, Pythagoras, Plato. I loved Pythagoras Theorems and in no time could solve the equations while my friends struggled. A student of ICSE board, we were introduced to Physics, Chemistry and Biology at age eleven.
My schooling was in a convent and it was co-ed. I was in standard eight when I got 92/100 in Physics with my school friend, a boy who is now a Vice President in the corporate sector, said, “You are a master in mugging business, you have mugged up the sums and that’s the only reason you got this number”. We all know equations cannot be mugged, they need to be understood and only then you can solve them. Back home I cried to my parents who gave me words of courage saying I should ignore such remarks, he too is a teen and he is also learning same way like me.
In standard Nine, I received 99/100 in Maths-II and 72/100 in English and I got a remark from my classmates, “Better concentrate on literature, you are good in Bengali, why study Maths, and then your parents are from Arts, so science is not for you”. I passed my ICSE tenth standard with flying colours and I didn’t feel the need to share my results, I was busy in my own world of dance, books and reading. But it was those boys who came to my home asking about my percentage. Out of rage, I didn’t reveal my score.
Those days, in the 90’s, it was a general trend that you either need to be an engineer or a doctor else you are not needed in this universe. So I was no exception either. Given to my love for literature, I refused to follow my passion and settled for science. I switched to CBSE board since our school didn’t have ISC, the upgraded version of ICSE, and went to a different school.
Those days, in the 90’s, it was a general trend that you either need to be an engineer or a doctor else you are not needed in this universe.
To my shock, the same boys with whom I grew up started ignoring me, I couldn’t figure out the reason. I faced taunts “Your Maths is weak, statistics is hard, Kirchhoff’s voltage law needs to be understood…”, though I paid no heed, it had an impact on my mind. Then came the herculean battle of Joint Entrance Examination, Medical Entrance Tests and IIT. Given my rebellious nature, I refuse to sit for IIT and I hated coaching classes.
Menfolk appreciated my decision by saying “Don’t settle for engineering, better be a doctor; girls are meant to be teachers and doctors; but engineering, please stay away”. But I again proved them wrong, I got much better scores in engineering than my medical scores. And then again, as a rude shock for the masculine science sector, I settled for mechanical engineering and ignored dental surgery which was also offered to me. My parents supported my decision but little did I know that the ordeal was just beginning.
I got admission in the National Institute of Technology and was the only woman among 60 men. On the first day, I faced relentless ragging from my seniors as to why I chose mechanical engineering. The ragging was not for a day, it continued for the entire first year and each day I faced the same harassment and they would pressurise me to date them which I refused.
There were numerous love letters I received from those same seniors who ragged me. I remembered my parent’s words “Do not compromise on you, never at any cost”. I got taunted, “This is not your area, better go for a different field; you are wasting your time”, “Don’t worry she will be kicked off very soon, she cannot fight with us, Mechanical Engineering, good joke, she is out of her mind”.
I bore their sexist remarks “Wear your clothes properly, you are here not to impress us”, while I only wore salwar kameez with dupatta. Not to forget that I barely had any support from women as well, “Careful, you took a wrong decision, soon you will realize your mistake, and this stream is only for men and not you.”
I broke the taboo in the first semester itself: I was the class topper. “It was her looks and features which impressed the professors, she knows nothing of Cantilever, Internal combustion engine, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning, Throttle valves, just ask her if she knows the purpose of Compressor in a Refrigerator, she will not have an answer, fool, keeps impressing people” was the comment being circulated about me.
Also Read: Is Science Free From Gender Bias?
I was in the third year when Professor Bimalendu Chakraborty was assigned to tutor the subjects Thermal Power and Production Engineering. He was in charge of the Vocational Training and Campus Recruitment. He always showed extra affection towards me and I thought maybe he appreciated me as a good student.
One afternoon, he called me to his cabin. I was out with some of my classmates but rushed to his cabin thinking it might be related to academics. To my horror, the moment I entered, he closed the door and locked it. Before I could realize what was happening, he was already clutching me. He pressed his ugly lips to me, the smell of tobacco was repulsive, he removed my dupatta, whispered in my ears “I will make you the best, you just need to come to me every day at three in the afternoon”.
I struggled to free myself from his clutches but his fists were too strong, his hands moved all over me and I could no longer deal with it and then deep within, I got my strength, I remembered what I read in the books “Hit the balls, that is the weak point of the men”. I did that, I kicked him right in his balls with all strength; he howled in pain and fell flat on the ground. I pulled myself together and then ran.
I returned home and narrated the story. My father wanted to expose that man, but my mother stopped him saying “He is too powerful, it can affect my career”. To a certain extent it did, I got the lowest grade in the internal paper review in Thermal Power and Production Engineering, but those marks were compensated by the External paper marks where I got the highest score. So there he failed.
Before I forget, I still topped the list in each semester and this man again denied me a seat for Vocational Training, he threw away my application only to be picked up by our department HOD who assigned me training at the Rourkela Steel Plant. There too, I was the only woman visiting the various mills, subject to constant curious glances. My only focus were studies and nothing else.
I emerged a First Class Gold Medalist, but that invited more remarks from classmates, “It was her looks which impressed the professors, she knows nothing of engineering”. It was President Abdul Kalam who handed over that medal to my mother as I was unavailable, having started working with a firm in a different city. I still remember that remark from my own senior females, “She will hardly get any marks, that field is for men, she chose a wrong path”. Oh yes, I chose a wrong path only to prove how wrong you all are.
I emerged a First Class Gold Medalist, but that invited more remarks, “It was her looks which impressed the professors, she knows nothing of engineering”.
There were several interviews I faced where they wanted only male candidates, irrespective of the fact I succeeded the initial phase of written interview, second phase of group discussion and final round of face to face interaction only to be said “We care for your safety, we would wish to hire a man, do you know to drive? How will you handle alone?”
There were interviewers who were more interested in gossip rather than asking technical questions and I had no choice but to stop the interview in between. Yet those same people who acted nasty with me, now want to connect through social media. I am no more interested.
I have forgiven everyone but I haven’t forgotten the mental trauma I faced. At work, things were better, but that remark remained “You will need to tour, and that too alone, we need results, by the way, what made you choose this area? Why didn’t you settle for another field, you know more feminine, like electrical, computer”. I wanted to say I loved automobiles, IC engines, jet propulsion but I refrained and kept working quietly.
But they appreciated my work, I shouldn’t be biased, I received incentives, best employee award, promotions, and increments but there was one more thing too. My own married boss wanted me to be his secret lover which I denied, so that particular year I was refused increment, promotion and faced alienation.
It’s time females need to speak up and stand against this gender bias. The masculine science sector has to make place for women. A woman is equally talented and history has proved it time and again. I am not a Nobel Prize winner or someone whom the world talks about, but I am a storyteller unapologetic narrating my own harassment, my abuse, but I have a mission behind the storytelling.
Gender equality is not a woman’s issue, it is a human issue and it affects us all. Real freedom can only be achieved once women have freedom from oppression. We have power within us, just that the world needs to see our wisdom, our intellect, our courage and how we change the world. Science is one of the major contributors through which that change can happen, which we women have proved it earlier and can prove it even today.
Author Note: This is my story and identities remain unchanged.
Featured Image Credit: Science Blogs