Being a female herpetologist in India
What kind of a person would you be by the time you are thirty years old?
Like most children in India, I thought I had my roadmap to life ready. After finishing school, I would join a medical college and then go on to become a psychiatrist. I would dream of tending to the mental health of my clients and addressing their troubles. I had seen my uncle do this. It felt like he was giving them back their control. I wanted to do the same.
But life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans, and predictably, after 12th grade, I couldn’t go to medical college as had been my dream since almost 4th grade, but enrolled in a program in Environment Science. I’ll admit that it was entirely my fault: I didn’t really study as seriously as I should have in my 11th and 12th grades as all Indian students were supposed to, despite all college admissions depending on the grades you attain in 12th grade.
During my Bachelor’s degree, I started volunteering for a local NGO heavily involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals, especially snakes and crocodiles. I am a city kid and was (un)privileged to live in a concrete city. Yet, the place I grew up had exceptionally ample biodiversity and quite often snakes get into people’s homes. Apart from that, in the monsoons, the Vishwamitri, teeming with crocodiles, overflows and often the crocs enter the houses of people living on the banks of the river in search of shelter.
The NGO was run by a lady. Incidentally, her name is pretty similar to mine- Snehal. I was completely new to this world of animals. As a kid, I was always very fond of animals and my parents often found me with puppies, kittens, lambs or playing with the cows in the neighbourhood. (The stereotype of cows roaming in the streets of India is true, by the way). But I was completely new to the world of wild animals and after a few months there, I realised I was meant to do this!
Snehal was fairly well known, but whenever Sneha turned up to rescue snakes or even crocodiles, she would receive stares and awed murmurs. Folks obviously appreciate my effort but they are simply awestruck to see a girl catching snakes and crocodiles. They would admire me for following in the footsteps of Snehal. Motivated and very determined, I went on to do my Master’s in Wildlife Biology, focusing mainly on herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.
Alas, the world outside that city was very different.
In India, all popular herpetologists are men. Even though many women became and have gone on to become successful wildlife biologists and ecologists, there were hardly any female herpetologists of note. I got to attend a few National conferences but still, I would meet only a handful of women herpetologists as compared to men. The herpetology workshops and programs were mostly run by men and the most resourceful persons were -- surprise, surprise -- men.
Since I was the only girl in my Master’s program, to say that it was challenging would be an understatement. My college was located in a rural village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where I lived in the college hostel. There were separate hostels for boys and girls, each situated inside the college campus. According to the college and hostel rules, girls weren’t allowed to go out of the college campus. They weren’t allowed mobile phones. There were dress codes for women in the college as well as in the hostel. There would be restrictions on everything for girls while the boys had no such ‘rules or regulations’. This unfair treatment kept stinging me and yet the hostel was the cheapest option and I was a poor student. The boys of my class would go out on night surveys for herps while I would have to be locked in my hostel by 6 PM. To go out of the college campus, as a girl, I would require a gate pass signed by a hostel warden which would give me 2 hours of ‘freedom’ to go out of the campus while, you guessed it right, boys had no such pass because they were always free. Free to go wherever they want and whenever they want. I would still roam around on the campus looking for snakes, lizards, and frogs and that would attract stares and comments. This didn’t deter me. Because I was determined that a herpetologist is what I want to be. In fact, I was the happiest when I worked in Kerala in the southern Western Ghats for my Master's thesis. For those who do not know, southern Western Ghats is heaven for herps! Actually, it's a heaven for animals and plants in general. My field site was adorned with loads and loads of herps and nobody can tell me otherwise.
I have worked in various sites in India and I can say that in many places, it is still difficult being a female herpetologist. The Indian society has yet to acknowledge that women too can go out in the wild to study snakes. While people do get impressed by what I do, many of them tell my parents that this kind of job is not ‘lady-like’ and a girl like me would have a problem finding a good husband. I was born in the late ’80s, so according to Indian society, I am emphatically off of the ‘marriage-market’. I laugh and thank my lucky stars because it was a good fate that my parents are entirely supportive of all my choices.
Supposedly, an ideal Indian girl gets married in her early or mid-twenties and has one or two kids by the time they are my age. I was an ideal Indian girl kid growing up but then defied everyone’s expectations by choosing a field extremely different to work in, not marrying and, to the shock of my relatives and extended family, declaring I never plan to have any children (probably a few dogs, cats, a few turtles may be and other such)! Being the first person of my family to take such a path, I have often had to endure ridicule from my relatives. I come from an orthodox family where women in my family get married in their early 20's, and here I was going all out and deciding to have a career in a profession that didn’t match any of the mainstream professions that were expected of me.
Over the years, my hard work and dedication have changed the outlook of many of my relatives and they have learnt to appreciate the importance of my passion to study wildlife science and work for their conservation. Many of my younger cousins take interest in the work I do and I often take them for nature trails. This encourages me to continue working in this field and eventually motivate younger students, especially women to join the field and let them realise that a field like herpetology isn't just for men. I grew up in a poor household where my sister and I had to let go of many of our childhood desires because of the financial status of my family. Both my parents worked to make ends meet and I have been the guardian of my sister eight years younger to me throughout mine and her childhood. But my parents have never forced me to get into something simply to earn money.
Today, when most of my friends are ‘well-settled’ in terms of having a house of their own, a big family or a shiny new car, I am satisfied with the knowledge that I am making a difference. I am one of the few herpetologists of the country who focuses mainly on freshwater turtles and tortoises, a group of reptiles that are overlooked in India. Along with my friend, I have co-founded an initiative called the 'Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India' (FTTI). FTTI began as a citizen science user group. It took off when we started a Facebook page for it and started posting educational content, mostly talking about differences between turtles and tortoises, identification and other similar educational resources which surprisingly didn’t exist much! While there was an enormous amount of content on marine turtles, there was almost negligible content for their freshwater and terrestrial cousins. In a short span of eight months, we have already received more than a dozen internship requests and countless volunteering requests, mostly from women! Having gone through tough circumstances in the field as a woman, facing challenges such as casual sexism, a lack of toilets in the field stations, and areas where safety isn’t taken very seriously, I am dedicated to improving these conditions for women in conservation.
I thought I knew what I would’ve become when I was 10 years old. Somewhere along the way, I just decided to chuck my roadmap to the bin and go somewhere very few have ever explored. At least, I’m heading closer towards where I really want to go.