On the torrid noon of 6 March 2022, Narayanganj bound rail passengers were turning increasingly impatient at Kamalapur Railway Station as the local train did not arrive even after the departure time. As soon as the train entered the platform at 1:40pm, passengers sprinted to board the train and grab a seat.
But some fell behind in the race, stunned at seeing a woman in the driver's seat.
People were used to seeing male drivers taking them across the country, and rail was completely "a man's world". The driver, Salma Khatun, who joined the Bangladesh Railway in 2004, was a stark contrast to that perception.
After she joined, Salma was the lone female locomotive driver in Bangladesh until 2011. The Bangladesh Railway now has 19 female drivers.
On the eve of International Women's Day 2022, Salma shared her experience and thoughts with The Business Standard: more women will join the "challenging profession" in the future if the authorities address gender needs properly, she said.
None of the requirements involve any expensive scheme, but just a bit more sincerity and support like dedicated washrooms at stations.
Salma said, "We the female staff are performing our duties the same as our male counterparts. We share the same waiting room, restroom and same work schedule.
"Since locomotive engines do not have any toilets, sanitation is one of the major problems for female drivers. We cannot go to any open place like males."
Since her childhood, Salma has been different from others. She always enjoyed doing something exceptional and accomplishing the challenges, which eventually helped her become the first female rail driver.
Salma was pursuing her honours degree at Jagannath University in 2003, a time when her family faced tough times since her elder brother had just lost his job. Salma decided to contribute to her family.
She came across a railway job circular seeking assistant locomotive masters, and the requirements matched her qualifications. She applied for the post without giving it a second thought.
Among thousands of candidates for the written exam, there were just a few female candidates for the post. But none of the women passed the written exam except Salma. Three months later, Salma got the interview card and faced the viva board, and was appointed on 8 March 2004.
After joining, she could not continue her university studies due to extensive training in Chattogram. However, she did her BSS degree later and a post-graduation subsequently plus a BEd (Bachelor of Education) programme.
The unforgettable day of her life came on 18 February 2006 when she, as an assistant driver, carried 150 passengers from Laksham to Noakhali.
"On that day, many passengers could not believe their eyes seeing a woman driving the train," Salma chuckled.
From then on, her reputation started to spread as the lone female rail driver. So far, she has driven trains on different routes of the Bangladesh Railway.
In her long career, she has gathered numerous experiences and memories. She takes pride in having saved several people who stood on rail tracks to commit suicide. And her sorrow also comes from a similar issue – so many pedestrians whose recklessness cost them their lives.
"My horn honked, but failed in some cases to save the individuals who were lying on the line to end their lives or to avert crushing the car that just defied the no-crossing sign.
"You get only a few seconds to decide. It feels like you are caught between your duty and saving someone's life," she said.
Salma said her job is more challenging than that of any other profession.
"There are some professions where accomplishments require only 90% effort. But we have to give our 100% to reach one station from another safely. When I am in the driving seat, I must maintain both the safety of the passengers onboard and the public property [train] as a whole."
She said the gender-related challenges include a lack of transport by the authorities to pick up and drop off the staff to their homes.
"My husband sometimes gives me a lift to the station to join the morning shift that begins at 4am. But often I have to reach the station and return home at midnight on my own," she said.
Salma said the authorities should address the issues to encourage more women to join the profession and to empower them at the same time.
Salma now dreams of driving passengers on the maiden rail trip across the Padma Bridge, which is slated to open in late 2022.