From darkness to light

Diwali is a festival of lights. Lights dispel darkness—around us and within us. CHANGING TOMORROW brings to you THREE stories of light in people’s lives.

First visually impaired IAS

“We should never be defeated, and never give up,” said Pranjal Patil, the young woman who is India’s first visually challenged woman IAS officer. She lost her vision at the age of six but that did not deter her from appearing for the civil services exam, one of country’s toughest and most coveted examination.

She cracked the CSE, conducted by the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC) and sometimes referred to as UPSC, in her first attempt in 2016. She secured a rank of 773. Ironically, and was refused a job in the Indian Railway Accounts Service on the grounds that she was blind.

The woman from Ulhasnagar, Maharashtra, took the exam again the next year to improve her rank. In 2017, she secured 124th rank and was selected for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). As her first posting, Patil was posted as assistant collector in Ernakulam, Kerala, in 2018. This grabbed headlines.

On October 14 this year, she took over as the sub-collector in Thiruvananthapuram in the presence of District Collector K Gopalakrishnan and staff at the District Collectorate. Biju Prabhakar, special secretary of the social justice department, who was present during the event, termed her assumption of office as an auspicious moment for the district of Thiruvananthapuram. Earlier, the district collector handed her a bouquet.

Patil’s friends remember her as an extremely determined and hard-working student in her college days. “Pranjal was extremely determined. It was a big deal for some of us to even reach an early lecture in college, but Pranjal would make her way on time,” M Saraswathy, her classmate from college, was quoted by a newspaper as saying.

“She actively participated in all discussions at our political science class in St Xavier’s in Mumbai. And we both studied on the same campus – she at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and I at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Even there I saw the same determination, no hand-holding attitude,” Saraswathy added in the newspaper report.

Patil told The Indian Express about her loss of vision. “I had high powered glasses since I was a child, and then I lost sight in both my eyes in quick succession,” she said. “Despite that, I was carrying on with my daily activities as usual, and because I was young, it didn’t impact me as such,” the IAS officer added.

She studied at the Kamala Mehta Dadar School for the blind in Mumbai. Being a Marathi medium school, she faced a challenge here but worked hard to overcome these challenges. She then went on to do her graduation in political science at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai where a well-established support system in the form of the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged helped her.

She did not take any coaching for the UPSC exam as she thought it would put unnecessary pressure on her. She solved mock papers and attended discussions.

Her posting is highly motivating for the blind community in Kerala, which is thrilled to have her serve in the state. “She waited for a second attempt to come out in flying colours. This shows that nothing is impossible and the extent to which a person can achieve their dreams if they have the will and determination,” said Husna Ameen, a blind computer trainer in Thiruvananthapuram.

Azadi in Iran

More than 3,000 Iranian women crammed into a special section of a Tehran stadium to watch a World Cup qualifier against Cambodia, after they were allowed to buy match tickets for the first time in four decades. The Azadi stadium opened its doors to women after 40-year exile—women have been banned from matches since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the international governing body of association football, and human rights campaigners have been asking the Iranian Football Association to let women into games. The pressure increased after Sahar Khodayari, 29, set her on fire outside a stadium last month. She killed herself when she learnt that she might face six months in jail for trying to sneak into a match, reportedly disguised as a man.

Until the death of Khodayari, FIFA and the Iranian FA were getting away with dragging their feet on opening the stadiums of Iran to women. The world governing body looked the other way for decades as its rules on discrimination and human rights were broken in the West Asian country.

According to reports in international media, FIFA president Gianni Infantinowrote letters to the Iranian FA, most recently in June, requesting clear timeline and assurances that women wanting to attend the qualifiers would be able to do so. This was after March 2018 when 35 women were arrested outside the stadium inside which Infantino was hosting the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis.

The tickets for the women-only block in the 78,000-seat stadium were released on October 3 and they sold out within minutes. Amnesty International said women attending this single event seemed more of a “cynical publicity stunt”, but those who were inside the stadium on October 10 posted pictures of their prized purchases on social media, celebrating the moment: they were watching football match for first time in decades. Authorities had quadrupled the number of tickets on sale. Those lucky enough to get tickets included a sports reporter who said she was shaking with excitement.

Ironically, while Azadi reverberated with cheering women, though they accounted for less than 5% of seats, the male stands were mostly empty. The women’s section was packed with women draped in, or waving, the national flag, some wearing face paint and wigs in Iran’s red, white and green.

Last October, around 100 “handpicked” Iranian women entered Azadi for a friendly against Bolivia. But a day later, the prosecutor general warned there would be no repeat, saying it would “lead to sin”.

The decision in Iran coincides with women enjoying new freedoms in Saudi Arabia. The ruling monarchy recently lifted restrictions on females travelling alone. The authorities announced in August this year that women “can be granted passports and travel abroad without the consent of their male guardians” and “can also register a birth, marriage or divorce”.

For decades, Saudi women have been unable to make major decisions without the permission of a male “wali” – an official guardian, typically a father, brother, uncle or husband – in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called “the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country”.

First All-Woman Spacewalk

Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir complete the first all-woman spacewalk on October 18. This was the 221st spacewalk in support of the International Space Station’s maintenance and assembly, fourth for Koch and first for Meir.

Spacewalk is a roughly six-hour crawl on the exterior of the space station to install new batteries. The first woman to do a spacewalk was Svetlana Savitskaya, who achieved this feat in 1984. After that, women have participated in 42 spacewalks. Of the 15 women who have done spacewalks, 14 have been NASA astronauts. But this is the first time that two women carried out spacewalk.

The first such mission was planned in March but had to be cancelled because there weren’t enough spacesuits available on the station for both of them. The space agency had only one medium-sized suit. Because of the spacesuit flub, the historic mission was aborted. Traditionally male-dominated NASA’s failure to be adequately prepared was denounced in some quarters but the US space agency

Earlier this month, NASA unveiled two new spacesuits tailored for future moonwalking astronauts. One suit of orange fabric will be worn by astronauts when inside the spacecraft, NASA announced. The new suits come as a much-needed upgrade to NASA’s astronaut wardrobe.

The spacewalk, which officially began once both astronauts switched to battery power in their spacesuits, was guided by veteran NASA astronaut and capsule communicator (CAPCOM) Stephanie Wilson on the ground and fellow astronauts Luca Parmitano and Andrew Morgan located on the space station.

The station relies on solar power but is out of direct sunlight for much of its orbit and therefore needs batteries, and the battery charge/discharge unit (BCDU) regulate the amount of charge that goes into them.

Koch and Meir replaced a faulty BCDU during the spacewalk. They joined the NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013. Their astronaut class, nicknamed the ‘Eight Balls’ had the highest percentage of women of any group of astronaut candidates to date.

During the historic spacewalk, the two astronauts received a call from the White House. While speaking to US President Donald Trump, Meir said: “We hope that we can provide an inspiration to everybody, not only women, but to everybody that has a dream, that has a big dream, and who is willing to work hard … this is my first flight and my very first spacewalk, so it is a pretty incredible feeling I’m sure you can all imagine, and it’s one I will never forget.”

President Trump congratulated the astronauts.

As to why two women have not completed a spacewalk before Ken Bowersox, the acting administrator for NASA’s human exploration division and a former astronaut, said that “there are some physical reasons that make it harder sometimes for women to do spacewalks. It’s a little bit like playing in the NBA, you know I’m too short to play in the NBA and sometimes physical characteristics make a difference in certain activities, and spacewalks are one of those areas where just how your body is built in space, it makes a difference in how well you can work the suit.”

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