Marching on

Published September 1, 2013

Although women have been part of Pakistan’s armed forces since the country’s inception, they were mainly recruited in areas related to technical, logistics and operations departments. Their participation in active duty combat forces is a quite recent development.

This, however, had little to do with lack of initiative since the concept of combat training for women was introduced as early as the 1940s, by none other than Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan. Unfortunately, the programme was aborted at a very early stage.

During the Indo-Pak war in 1948, Begum Ra’ana initiated women’s voluntary service to support medical and logistics for the Pakistan armed forces. Pursuing with her vision, in 1949 she set up the Pakistan Women Naval Reserve and Women National Guard where a few combat courses were taught. Interestingly, the First Lady was the General Officer Commanding and chief controller of both, and ranked as a brigadier.

However, other than a few sporadic incidents, women in general have been barred from combat duty. One such occasion was the 1971 Indo-Pak war, where due to increasing need for ground forces, women were allowed to actively participate in the land battles. Fortunately, of late, women in the armed forces have marched forward and are fast becoming an important part of the active force.

The year 2002 proved to be an important milestone when Shahida Malik became the first woman major-general — making Pakistan the only country in the Islamic world to promote a woman to this level — as well as the first general officer commanding the Pakistan Army Medical Corps. She was also the first Pakistani woman to have been promoted to two-star rank. Another notable figure is Major-General Shahida Badshah, who was the first female colonel-commandant of the Army Medical College.

When Pakistan Air Force (PAF) began a combat programme to train women as fighter pilots in 2003, the way forward became clearer. Three years later, the first batch was awarded flying badges and in 2006, these women yet again created history when, for the first time, four of them were inducted in PAF as fighter pilots.

Armed forces were saluted once again, when in July 2013 the country’s first group of female paratroopers completed their training and Captain Sadia became the first woman officer to jump from an MI-17 helicopter. This had come on the heels of laurels awarded to Flt Lt Ayesha Farooq who became Pakistan’s first female war-ready pilot.

They may have been late entrants in the field, but today, a considerable number of women are opting for the armed forces. There are still many ‘firsts’ to happen, and fortunately there are just as many aiming to make their mark. —Sa’adia Reza

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