One fine day in January of 1964, Khaleda Shahriar Kabir (Dora), Manowara Begum and Shirin Sultana (Chumki), decided that they would study engineering at the most prominent engineering school of East Pakistan – the East Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology. The university would be later renamed Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) after the Liberation War of 1971.
Professor Dr MA Rashid, the founding vice-chancellor of Buet and a lifelong faculty member of Buet's Civil Engineering Department, was strictly against admitting women to the university.
"The Buet authorities did not grant us admission to any of the university's engineering disciplines. They feared that we would receive the then-conservative society's backlash. The authorities wanted to protect us from that," Dora said.
"We asked the Buet administration to show us if the constitution bars women from studying engineering in Buet. We asked them to let us sit for the entrance examination because we knew that we were capable of passing the test," she explained.
The administration did not budge. However, Dora was adamant about her decision. She, along with Manowara and Chumki were fixated on enrolling themselves at Buet.
"Chumki and I met while we were higher secondary school students at Eden Mohila College. Manowara was a student of Holy Cross College, and she contacted us after she learned of our plan to be admitted to Buet," Dora said.
The trio's endurance and determination finally prevailed, and Dr Rashid gave in to their persistence. However, this did not come without conditions. Dr Rashid allowed them to take the entrance examination but the three women were not allowed to study Civil Engineering due to the extensive amount of field work and surveys they would be required to do.
"The society back then was like this. We could not do much about it other than slowly raise the barriers and eventually eradicate them," said Dora.
"We ended up agreeing to Dr Rashid's conditions. The three of us enrolled in Buet and with that we started off the first semester of the first year as engineering students," she added.
"Back then, students were not required to enrol in a specific department. Rather, we studied general engineering subjects the first year. The second year was when we were required to finalise our disciplines."
Hailing from a family of civil engineers, Dora had a lifelong dream to become one herself. However, Dr Rashid had allowed them admission in Buet on a condition which barred them from studying this discipline.
As the first year came to an end, Dora and Chumki started off their second year by choosing to study electrical engineering. Manowara was left behind as she failed a course and had to retake the first semester.
"We were not enjoying our subject at all. We got into Buet so we could study civil engineering, but luck was not favouring us."
"Although we were barred from studying civil engineering, we knew this was the discipline we wanted to study. And that is when I knew I had to do something about it," Dora said.
Dora and Chumki decided to go to the administration again. This time, they tried to talk the authorities into allowing them to study civil engineering.
"Chumki and I went to Dr Rashid again and we told him that we wanted to study civil engineering. Like our first conversation, he refused it."
The brave-hearted duo demanded Dr Rashid tell them what factors disqualified them from studying civil engineering. "He told us that the workload would be too much on us as we are women. The field work and a month-long residential semester at Savar to conduct surveys would require our parents' permissions, and he was concerned our families would not allow us to attend those," Dora explained.
"Both Chumki's and my family permitted us to attend the semester away from home without question. When we told Dr Rashid about this, he did not have any other option than to let us study civil engineering," Dora said, proudly.
While Dora and Chumki studied civil engineering, Manowara chose to study chemical engineering. With this, the trio of Dora, Manowara and Chumki became the first female engineering students of Buet.
In no time at all, they became campus superstars. People lined up to see them in the classrooms and when they left the university premises after class, they were stopped on their way for brief chats with enthusiasts.
"All the attention we got after enrolling in civil engineering was, at times, too much for us to take. Manowara fell behind two years because of all the distraction. Neither of us could study properly. Strangers would knock on our doors and ask to see us – as if we were some sort of supernatural beings," said Dora.
Buet had no dormitories to accommodate female students back then. "The administration of Buet asked the administration of Dhaka University if they could accommodate two of Buet's students in their Rokeya Hall. The dormitory rooms were allocated to Manowara and Chumki."
When asked about the old Buet of the 1960's, Dora found herself cruising through memory lane and said, "Buet back then was a piece of paradise for us. There was no ragging, no taunting or teasing, and the few female students were treated with great respect. The place was filled with harmony. Buet is still one of the best institutions in the country, but much has changed since I graduated."
After a few seconds of pause and a deep sigh, Dora said, "During those days, we walked back home at night from the campus and never felt unsafe. Untoward incidents were a myth to us. But girls today cannot do that anymore due to safety issues. My daughter was a student of Buet as well, but I never felt safe enough to let her go to the campus unattended."
An old photo of the trio has been circulating in the social media recently claiming the trailblazers had sued Buet to secure their admission and become the first female students. Dora however states that they never filed a lawsuit against Buet.
"The news that spread regarding the lawsuit is untrue. We never filed a case against Buet because we did not need to. We were confident and determined that we could change the authorities' decision by talking to them logically. And we did," she said.
After Dora and Chumki graduated from Buet in 1968, with Manowara graduating in 1970, many women were motivated to apply to the premier engineering university. The trio's achievement in breaking the barriers helped all the other women who entered Buet after 1968 put their desires into action and do what was right.
The trio's powerful story of perseverance, determination and confidence gave many female Buet students a motivational boost, and while they were not Buet's first female students, they were the university's first female engineering students. Buet's Department of Architecture was already accommodating female students before 1964.
Dora served as the additional director general of the Water Development Board (WDB). She served the government body for 34 years before retiring as one of the executive members of the board's Retired Engineers' Association.
Chumki worked as a public health engineer for two years after graduating from Buet. She left for Canada after marrying in 1970. The couple relocated to the US after a few years. Chumki currently resides in New Jersey, in the US, with her family.
Manowara was a mischievous, daring and intelligent woman. She studied chemical engineering at Buet and joined the Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation (BCIC) after graduating in 1970. She served the BCIS for 32 years as a high-ranking engineer before passing away in 2002 due to complications arising from diabetes. Her husband was a chartered accountant who went missing during the coup d'état launched by Bangladesh's mid-ranking army officers in 1975.