International Women's Day

Celebrating Women's Achievements


This Tuesday (March 8) is International women's day (IWD). First, some brief historical note. The first IWD was observed on March 19, 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland, pursuant to a decision taken at Copenhagen the previous year by The Socialist International to establish an international day for Women, to honour the movement for women's rights and to assist in achieving universal suffrage for women. No date was specified in the Copenhagen declaration. Since then, IWD was observed on last Sunday of February each year until 1917. In Russia where Julian calendar was used, the last Sunday of February 1917 fell on March 8 according to Gregorian calendar. Russian women chose that day to strike for "bread and peace". Their strike contributed among other factors, to the fall of Czar four days later. Since that time IWD began to be observed on March 8 every year. The date was made official in 1921 for universal observance as International Women's day all over the world at the suggestion of the Bulgarian delegates at the 1921 Socialist International meeting. On the eve of this IWD, I just wish to mention the accomplishments of some international women in areas that were (and still is to a great extent) exclusively male dominated, that should be a source of inspiration to women of Bangla. Although much of the lack of substantial achievement of Bangla women in many areas that are exclusive to men is due to hostile social attitude, part of the reason is also that many women themselves have been conditioned by ingrained social attitude to believe that its not proper for women to go into those professions. Its good to see that against all the odds (specially due to religious conservatism), women are still making headway. The very fact I have to cite women's achievement to prove that they are not inherently less capable points to the problem of the ingrained stereotype that persists. In a way one could argue it is the burden of those who think women are inferior to back up their claim rather than the reverse. True, but it is also true that by citing these achievements may serve as eye openers for some who choose keep their eyes closed and not budge from their ingrained view of women's inferiority unless provoked by these eye opening facts.

Let me cite some inspiring historical facts on women's ability and then move on to more recent ones.

Women have displayed martial bravery no less impressive then men. In our own subcontinent we have read the story of Lakkhi (Laxmi) Bai, the queen of Jhansi (in Madhya Pradesh). She resisted the invasion of Lord Dalhousie's British army, and led a rebel army against him, making the supreme sacrifice in the battle (in 1858). In our own Bangla/Bengal we read about the bravery of Pritilota Waddadar (1911-1932), Surja Sen's able companion rebel against the colonial British. Not many know that she also earned a BA degree with distinction from Calcutta University in 1932 and was appointed the headmistress of Nanda Kanan school in Chittagong at the young age of 22. Most know about her famous attack of the European Club in Pahartoli (Chittagong) on September 4, 1932. She committed suicide by cyanide poisoning during that attack.


Much earlier, The Zenata Berber tribe, led by the woman Kahina (prophetess) in North Africa defeated the Muslim Army led by General Hassan Ibn Naaman during Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik Ibn Merwan in 695 AD. I am sure there are many more historical facts about women's bravery.

Now to modern time. It was a great first for Bangla women to join the army around the time of last year's IWD. They are yet to join as sailors and airmen (may be a new word airperson should be coined) in navy and air force respectively. We had Yasmeen, a female captain of DC-10 in Bangladesh Biman (probably the first/only in Asia at that time (in the mid 80's). Unfortunately her career was cut short due to political reasons prematurely. It is also unfortunate that the two female pilots who were going to become Yasmeen's successor were both killed in accidents while as co-pilots or in training as pilots. We know of another female Biman airbus pilot in the making, Tania Reza. I am not sure if there is any other women in flying crew anymore in Biman. I don't think we yet have a female captain/co-captain of a merchant or naval ship, a female helicopter, transport or fighter pilot yet. Someone may correct me if I am wrong. Do we have any woman bus/ truck/train/launch drivers in Bangladesh yet? I don't think so. We know in the West and possibly in Asia (certainly there are women bus conductors in Bangkok) there are women in all those professions. In the context of Bangladesh, the name of Papiya must be mentioned. She was the first (Seems like the last) to dare to try to earn a living by pulling a Rickshaw in Dhaka city. She carried male passengers too, not just female. Her story was covered by Daily Star reporter Shehab Ahmed under the title "Tale of a Courageous Girl" , probably around 1997-8, I am not sure about the date. I managed to scan the report and saved it in my web site ( ). One can look at it at:



Anyway, let me mention some international naris who have achieved great success in such male-exclusive domains, who may provide a source of inspirations to Bangla women.

The toughest, riskiest job for any human in terms of skill and knowledge is known to be commanding a space shuttle. Commander Eileen Collins has demonstrated that she can do that (And to think that I feel scared every time I get aboard an airplane!). The intellectually toughest field to excel is in superstring theory of theoretical physics. This field holds the promise for the ultimate theory of everything. Even noble Laureate physicist Weinberg is intimidated by its formidable mathematical complexity. And here we have young Eva Silverstein, an authority on Superstring theory, besides other women like Lisa Randall (See an interview with Lisa Randall at: ) and Shyamoli Chaudhuri (Asst Prof of Physics, Penn State University, at least until 2001. See her page at: 

 ). Before Superstring theory was developed, Theoretical High Energy Physics was considered to be the intellectually most challenging field. And there we had Chinese female Nobel laureate Wu. One of the toughest physically challenging job is that of an astronaut. Besides so many American women astronauts, we had Indian born Kalpana Chawla, who lost her life prematurely in the tragic Columbia disaster. She was not only a Nasa astronaut scoring 252 orbits around the earth, but a PhD as well. Shannon Lucid, another women astronaut with a PhD had the record for being longest in space. Then we have Jennifer Harris, the mission manager for Sojourner Pathfinder ( Robot landing on Mars).

On 18th May 1953, American Jacqueline Cochran, aboard an F-86 Sabre jet, became the first woman to break the sound barrier. Today an F-86 may be a dinosaur, but it was the state of the art fighter in the 40's and early 50's.

I always feel a sense of awe every time I fly on a Boeing-747 airplane. I wonder how challenging it must be to be in command of such a behemoth of a plane. Commanding a 747 jumbo jet seems to be a picnic for Susan Darcy, the first women to become a full-fledged captain of a 747 in 1989. She also was the first woman to become a full captain of the most sophisticated and computerized Boeing-777 in 1995. Darcy was also the lead pilot on the final Boeing 777-200 to enter flight testing. Earlier to this, she also achieved captain status on the Boeing 737 in 1987 and 757/767 in 1989. Darcy is cross-trained as an instructor on the 737, 757, 767, 747-400 and 777 airplanes. She has done flight instruction as well as flight testing in the United States, Europe and Asia. Now how many men pilots can claim such impressive series of accomplishments? (On a different note, Darcy is very attractive looking, debunking the popular adage, often said humorously, but sometimes seriously, that the smartest women are the least attractive looking!)

Out of about 131 cruise ships 3 are captained by women (Data from year 2000, from a program on cruise ships on Discovery channel). Although revealing a glaring gender disparity, the very fact that such large and sophisticated cruise ships ARE being manned (rather womanned!) by females testifies to the fact that no area is outside of women's capability.

Here's an inspiring historical anecdote of Amalie Noether (Physics savvy folks should know about Noether's theorem, one of the most profound theorems in Physics, with deep philosophical implications). The anecdote is taken from p-572, "Superstrings and other things" by Carlos Calle.

Amalie Noether, got her PhD with Summa Cum Lauda from all male university of Erlangen in 1907. She was not accepted at the university of Gottingen to work on Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Professor Hilbert, the lone contrarian among the faculty, however allowed her to lecture in his class arguing that why should gender be an argument against admission?. We are a university, not a bathing establishment, he argued!. She was finally admitted as an instructor in 1919.

Another women scientist Barbara McClintock discovered transposons ("Jumping gene") in corn in the 40's, but got the recognition and Nobel prize for it in 1983 when she was 81! She got her PhD from Cornell in 1927 but remained unemployed for many years due to gender discrimination. Finally she got employed in Cold Springs Harbour Laboratories and scientists finally recognized the importance of her work in the 40's.

Let me mention some more women that come to mind in professions that are not so exclusively male anymore but still are not too women friendly either. For one thing, this list proves that despite the proverbial glass ceiling that women face, the fact remains that women have succeeded in climbing up the corporate ladder by sheer dint of their competence. The glass ceiling is not unbreakable. The list below is by no means exhaustive, and the positions mentioned below are either current or were held at one time, either way it suffices to make the point.


* Anne Lauvergeon: Chairman of Areva, France, world's largest nuclear power company,under whose management Areva boasted a record profit in 2003.

* Xie Qihua: Chairman and President of China's largest steel maker

* Kate Swann: CEO, W.H. Smith, Britains'largest staioner and bookseller.

* Clara Furse: CEO of London Stock Exchange, Europe's biggest stock market

* Val Gooding: CEO of BUPA, Britain's largest private medical insurer.

* Sly Bailey: CEO of Trinity Mirror, Britain's largest newspaper group.

* Maria Ramos: CEO, Transnet, South Africa's largest transporation company, owning 95% of South African Airways.

* Sawako Noma: President and CEO, Kodamsha, Japan's largest publisher.

* Chua Sock Kung: CFO of Singapore Telecom.

* Musharaf Hai: Chairman, Unilever Pakistan

* Ludmita Petranova: Chairman and CEO of CEPS, Czech Republic's state owned electric transmission grid

* Wanda Rapaczynski: President of Agora, Poland, which is Central Europe's largest print and radio media company

US: (In rando order)

Meg Whitman: President and CEO of Ebay Carly Fiorina: Ex Chairperson and CEO of Hewlett Packard. Andrea Jung: Chairman and CEO of Avon Anne Mulcahy: Chmn and CEO of Xerox Sallie Krawcheck: CFO, Citigroup Judy McGrath: Chmn and CEO, MTV/Viacom Indra Nooyi: Pres. and CEO, Pepsico Uma Chowdhry: VP, Central R&D, Dupont (Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences) Anne Moore: Pres and CEO, Time Inc Pat Russo: Chmn and CEO, Lucent Technologies Christine Poon: WorldWide Chair, Medicine and Nutritionals, Johnson and Johnson Doreen Toben: EVP and CFO, Verizon Anne Sweeny: President of Disney-ABC television Amy Pascal: Chmn of Sony Motion Picture Group Sherry Lansing: Paramount Motion Picture Group/Viacom Stacy Snyder: Chmn of Universal Pictures Heidi Miller: CEO of Treasury and Securities Services of J.P Morgan Chase Mary Sammons: Pres. and CEO RiteAid Janet Robinson: EVP of NY Times (supposed to become CEO this year) Susan Ivey: Pres. and CEO of Reynolds America Brenda Barnes: President of Sara Lee Jenny Ming: President Old Navy/Gap Betsy Bernard: Ex President AT& T Shirley Tilghman: President of Princeton Susan Hockfield: President of MIT Julie Gerberding: CDC Director (12/03) Mae Jemison, M.D: First African-American woman in space Ellen Ochoa, Ph.D : first Hispanic woman to fly in space. Chiaki Mukai, M.D, Ph.D: first Japanese woman to fly in space

Marian Anderson (1902-?): Black female contralto. Won first prize in a 1925 competition appearing with the NY philharmonic orchestra. Made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera House (First black). Won the Presidential award for freedom in 1963.

I urge members from Bangladesh, India and other countries to mention more examples if they are aware of. I look forward to the day when we will have women bosses in the work place, besides men, who will be seen as a boss just like their male counterparts, commanding respect and fear, and not as women, just like the male bosses are seen as bosses, not as men. I also look forward to the day when women in Bangladesh can drive buses and autorickshaws, if they choose to, without having to fear facing ridicule or harassment. Most of all I look forward to that day when IWD will lose its relevance and will only have a historical value, to reflect on the past and celebrate the victory.

- Aparthib