Meet Mumtaz Kazi, Asia’s First Woman Railway Driver
The story of Mumtaz Kazi has much to do with the heady charm of speed. And much more. The lure of speeding trains has always been infectious to children. And many dream of being in the driver’s seat when they grow up. So did Mumtaz, as she told a Marathi channel, “In my childhood we used to live in railway quarters. A few feet from our home lay the tracks, on which fast-track trains used to whizz by. I was deeply attracted to the vision of those speeding train.”
Conversely, very few of us actually pursue and fulfil our childhood dreams, most which fall by the wayside of life’s unpoetic realities. this is where Ms. Kazi, in a stunning run of grit and gumption, has sped ahead of others. Indeed, she is an exception in many senses. She is Asia’s first woman locomotive driver. It should be noted, she is also the first woman to become the driver of diesel train-engines. Huge achievements by all means.
A Female’s Journey on Tracks Laid for Men
Yet to one’s mind the story of Mumtaz Kazi is not just about these achievements alone. Her story is primarily the story of beating the obvious, the taken-for-granted, the age-old system, a system in which male-chauvinism runs deep. Since April 16, 1853, when India’s first passenger train chugged out of Mumbai’s Bori Bunder station for a 34 Km journey to Thane, Indian Railways have largely been a male affair. Top to bottom. Out of 40 Railway Ministers so far, only two have been women. According to 2018 media reports, quoting Railway Ministry’s data, the number of male employees in the department are 13 times more than female ones. But then this not just in the Railways, it is a reflection of the larger Indian society.
Things, however, are changing. Women are breaking barriers in every field. And Indian Muslim women’s decisive strides forward in this regard are personified in Mumtaz Kazi. She was born in 1971, to a traditional Muslim family, and as is visible from her appearance, she herself is a devout Muslim, and carefully sports a Hijab. Mumtaz acknowledges her father Allarakhu Ismail Kathwala’s active contribution to her career in the Railways, where he was himself a ‘Trunk Superintendent’. She graduated in 1989 and in 1991 joined the Railways as an Assistant Driver for diesel-run mail-train rakes. It was her father who had brought her an application form to the post of “motorman”. The name of the post is suggestive enough of what a man’s world she was hoping to break into. “No, at that time there were no female motormen!” she confirms in her interview. Ladies could, however, apply for certain categories of jobs. She became an Assistant Driver.
Mumtaz hasn’t looked back since. In 1995 the Limca Book of Records recognized her as the first female locomotive driver in Asia. She of course had an example to follow. In 1988 Surekha Yadav had become India’s first female train driver. But it was the rarest of rare examples to emulate, yet Ms. Kazi never wavered. She received the Railway General Manager Award in 2015. Within two years she had another dazzling feather on her cap: the government of India’s prestigious Nari Shakti Purashkar (Women’s Power Award), which recognises rare achievements of Indian women. It may be more than symbolic that Mumtaz Kazi now ‘pilots’ trains in the extremely difficult congested route, India’s first rail-route, between Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj station and Thane! One can imagine, each time a signalman waves his green flag to her on the way, two unsaid words fly out of it: “Salut Madame”!
(Written by: Nilanjan Hajra, Author and Translator)