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Women in white

September 01, 2013

Seafarers have always been men, in all eras and cultures — be it as merchants, explorers, pirates or defenders. Is it the sea or the isolation at sea that makes it unwise for men and women to work in close proximity for days and months? Whatever it is, breaking the glass ceiling in the navy is not the done thing, except for a few countries, such as the US, where females are on board naval vessels working in different, traditionally male, domains.

Thus, understandably, women in Pakistan Navy have no combat roles to play. They are inducted in supporting roles in departments deemed more suitable for the fairer sex, such as education, medical, public relations, information technology, law and logistics. When inducted in the Short Service Commission course, they may not have the same career paths as their male counterparts but these ladies undergo the same kind of nine-month intensive training at the Naval Academy, which they undertake along with men. They are required to flex a few muscles while undergoing tough physical training that includes running, sprint, rope climbing, rope skipping, horse riding and swimming. Sailing and handling small arms are also part of their training now.

In addition, they also participate in practical leadership exercises, sports and co-curricular activities to further enhance their skills and strength, making them more suitable for playing their roles, though supporting ones, in the armed forces. Short Service Commission is of five years that can be extended/converted into permanent commission.

The first batch of females was inducted in August 1997, which comprised six females who specialised as pharmacists, dieticians, public relations officers and statisticians, while the latest batch of commissioned officers to pass out on June 30, 2013, had 10 women. But much before these women joined Pakistan Navy through proper induction in a course, many female officers have donned the white uniform whenever their services have been required, to be part of the traditionally more female-friendly corps — education and medical. The largest number of females in Pakistan Navy are inducted in the education department, followed by medical, where many are graduates of Army Medical College, Rawalpindi.

Women in Pakistan Navy have attained the ranks of captain (which is equivalent to the rank of a full colonel in the army) and most of the high-ranking officers are part of the medical corps. Cadet Beenish Zaidi, on receiving the Commandant Gold Medal when passing out from the Naval Academy, has proved that, like in the other branches of the armed forces, women have also stood out during their training period in the navy.

While recent years have shown much progress for women in the other two branches of the armed forces, with women proving their mettle as paratroopers and fighter pilots, they will not be taking to the sea in the foreseeable future as defenders of our sea frontiers. Keeping them safely on land, serving supporting roles and finding their own niche in clearly defined areas of work is all that the navy can promise its female officers.

But who can blame them for this discrimination? It isn’t that they don’t have faith in the capabilities of their female officers — they just don’t have faith in their male officers. (Isn’t this true of all males in our society, a feminist may ask!) Until male attitudes and views change — probably when hell freezes over — this cannot change.