Trains always fascinated little Umme Salma Siddiqa. She erupted in euphoria whenever she heard the whistle near her home in Chittagong city.
While growing up, she used to believe that all trains were automated and they did not need drivers. But as she grew up she learnt that was not the case with the trains she saw every day.
She wanted to drive trains and joined Bangladesh Railway in 2011.
Now, she is trying to become a train driver, a profession absolutely dominated by males. Bangladesh Railways currently has 12 female assistant loco masters (ALMs), but no fully-fledged female loco masters.
Three more women have cleared the ALM recruitment tests held in November, said BR sources. Tangail's Salma Khan was the first Bangladeshi woman to become an ALM in 2004.
Siddiqa's main job is to assist train drivers and her current experience of an assistant will help her become a train driver in the future. Her job responsibilities include observing the railway signals and position of tracks while the loco master drives the train.
An ALM needs at least 10 years' experience to become a loco master, said Harun-ar-Rashid, chief mechanical engineer of BR (East Zone).
When the British introduced the railway in the subcontinent, coal-fired steam engines used to power the trains. Driving trains was then deemed too physically strenuous a job for women and they were not even considered. Over the years, the mind-set had changed and so did the locomotives.
Md Tafazzal Hossain, former director general of BR, said it was very encouraging that Bangladeshi women, though in a small number, were entering the profession and competing with men.
“These girls are a shining example of the ability of women. They can do anything,” he said.
Siddiqa assists the loco master of the Chittagong University commuter train that operates between the university and the port city.
“I enjoy my job very much as it's quite adventurous,” she told The Daily Star, thanking her family for supporting her throughout the “way”.
But, not all of the female ALMs had it so easy.
ALM Kulshum Akhter, who studied mathematics from Eden Mohila College in Dhaka, said she faced many hurdles while discharging her duties. “Many onlookers pass offensive comments seeing a girl inside the locomotive,” she said.
Women constitute half of the total population and they are equally in need of jobs, said Kulshum, adding that such attitudes towards women have to change.
Women in many cases were not considered fit to be train drivers mainly for existing social and traditional inhibitions, she added.
Another female ALM, wishing anonymity, said because of safety concerns only a few women were taking up the job.
“It's the duty of the government to ensure women's safety everywhere,” she added.