A classroom of firsts

In an Indian desert town a remarkable group of students assemble in a classroom. I ask them a simple question.

"Put your hands up if you are the first woman in your family to attend college."

This picture was the answer.

Image copyright SONIA NARANG

Their professor is the first and only female to teach at the college, which was the first women's college in the town of Jaisalmer when it opened in 1998 - the MLS Government Girl's College.

Some of the girls here have even defied tradition to become the first women to drive in their neighbourhoods. A few of them cruised the streets on their scooters to get to class this morning.

Madam-ji, the teacher

At the front of the class, their tutor Rama Arora stands tall and speaks with confidence. She happens to be my aunt and her story is one of utter determination to transform her life through education.

Image copyright Sonia Narang
Image caption Ms Arora was the first woman in her family to make it to college

Like her students, Ms Arora was also the first woman in her family to make it to college, and then pursued her doctorate. And, she did that in secret, after an arranged marriage at the age of 20.

"I lived in a joint family, and my in-laws didn't think I should study after marriage," she says. "I had to make all the meals, do all the wash, and all the house cleaning." She also had to take care of her two young children.

Though she was inundated with housework, she never lost her urge to learn.

For six years, she quietly studied all night, while the rest of her family was asleep. "From 10 at night to six in the morning, I would do my PhD write-up work. I would only sleep one or one-and-a-half hours," Ms Arora says.

Image caption While a young mother Rama Arora worked secretly late into the night studying for her Phd

Ms Arora became a sociology professor more than 25 years ago in her hometown of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, where she also taught at a women's college.

Three-and-a-half years ago, my Aunt Rama, or Madam-ji, as she's known in town, rolled into Jaisalmer from the nearest city Jodhpur, five hours away by road, to teach here.

Sharvan, scooter-driving extrovert

Image copyright Sonia Narang
Image caption Sharvan wants to join the Indian army, if not then the police force

Sharvan Kanwer Ratnu is a scooter-driving, outspoken student in the front row, and she has big dreams for her future. She says she'll join the Indian Army and her plan B is the police force. "I want to do something good that people can remember me by," she says confidently.

Her mother is from a village outside Jaisalmer where girls do not go to school. But her parents moved into the town when she was a baby, and they supported her education.

"Every time I go to the village, I argue with them," she says. "I tell them to send the girls to school, but they reply 'why educate the girls? What will they go and do after that?' They think girls can't do anything."

But Sharvan and her sister want to prove them wrong.

"Our room is full of prizes, so everyone says, look at those girls, they're successful at everything, even housework."

Sharvan and her classmates - between the ages of 17 and 20 - view Ms Arora with reverence, but also as a friend, someone they can trust.

"With a woman professor, we can be open, we can tell her what's on our mind," she says. "We can't say to a Sir the same things we can discuss with Ma'am."

Maravo, the first girl in the village at college

Maravo Solanki is 18 years old and wants to follow in her father's footsteps by becoming a police officer.

When I told my family, 'I want to do everything by myself,' they understood I had started to change. I'm doing everything on my own now

Maravo Solanki

Her older sister was married at 14, and never got an education beyond primary school.

But, marriage isn't in Maravo's near future. She's an independent spirit who is the first woman in her entire village to attend college. "First, I couldn't go anywhere alone. My family wouldn't allow it," she says.

Now, she says proudly: "I'm the only girl who comes on my own to school from 12km (7.5 miles) away."

The girls who want to join the police

Image copyright Sonia Narang
Image caption The quiet students eventually open up for Ms Arora

Some of the shy students in the back listen attentively, but don't speak, so Ms Arora tells them not to fear talking in class.

Soon, the quiet students start to open up. One says it's wrong that families blame a girl if she's sexually harassed, and, in an unfair twist, it's the girl who loses her dignity.

They also get into a heated discussion about gender issues. One student tells the class about a male student who verbally harassed her repeatedly in high school, and she stood up to him.

The prevalence of crimes against women has prompted other students in this class to also aspire towards a career in the police force.

Ms Arora says she's seen her students transform before her eyes.

"Girls are getting bold, getting more confidence," she says. "Now, they tell their parents they don't want to get married early."

She knows first hand how education can improve women's lives, and she hopes to see more women becoming professors here in the years ahead.

"That would be the happiest moment for me," Ms Arora says.

Image copyright Sonia Narang