Silent Heroes

Someone was asking me about International Women’s Day today, and wasn’t it cool that I was contributing, in some obscure way, by being a female engineer?

I know what he was trying to say, but it did make me feel guilty, for a few reasons. For one, I’m not really a huge advocate — publicly — for women in engineering, though I’d love to be. I simply haven’t made enough of an effort.

The bigger reason for the guilt is that I’ve achieved whatever little I have because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants. Metaphorically speaking.

People tell me sometimes that I must have been brave, leaving my family at 19 to live, study and work in another country. In the age of the internet and college forums, that’s not brave. What is brave is what my mother did. She married a man she didn’t know, to move to another country that she’d barely heard of, away from her family for the first time in her life. I can barely comprehend what she did and what she gave up to be a completely different person — mother, wife, daughter-in-law.

Her mother — my maternal grandmother —  is extraordinary. She raised seven children with my grandfather, and then when he passed, continued to run the house and stay in touch with all her grandchildren, all while remaining in excellent health. What astonishes me the most about her is her adaptability. She does have some very specific ideas about what’s proper when it comes to religion, but culturally, she’s been remarkably open to modern ideas, especially when applied to her grandchildren.

My paternal grandmother grew up in a caste-restricted village, with its own obscure cultural norms and rules. She wanted to go to school, she told me, but her father was aghast at the idea of a girl child wandering outside the home. So her mother would sneak her out of the back door and hope she got back home before anyone noticed. My grandfather left for Singapore soon after she had her second child — my dad — and then got her to come over to Singapore, a country full of people who were so different from her they may as well have been alien. But she coped, learned Malay, and brought up three children.

The women of my family are brave, but they weren’t — they couldn’t be — free of the expectations that drove them to do those brave things.

So I dream of the kind of world where going to school is something girls take for granted. Hell, I dream of a world where women can make whatever choice they want without having it be measured against a whole gamut of societal expectations and “what would your husband think of that?”-type responses.

We have a lot more to do, but we’ve come so far in some ways.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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