In India, people will storm theatres to watch a biopic on the life of a legendary queen, who led a rebellion against the mighty British Empire and wielded swords ferociously on the battlefield. They will, however, squirm at the thought of their own daughters and sisters in uniform taking up arms and standing shoulder to shoulder with men at the border.
Even though many wings of the Indian Armed Forces have started inducting women in direct combat roles, their numbers are still dismal in comparison to their male counterparts. The stereotype that women are unfit and too fragile to take up combat roles still plague society.
In 2013, the Border Security Force opened its doors for women officers in supervisory combat roles.
Breaking through the glass ceiling, Tanu Shree Pareek emerged as the first woman combat officer in the forces’ 51-year existence in 2016. Hailing from Bikaner in Rajasthan, the lady Assistant Commandant is posted at Fazilka in Punjab. Braving the odds and the spine chilling weather, Tanu Shree stands tall guarding the country’s borders, as we sleep in the comforts of our home.
In an interview with YKA, the lady officer talks about her journey to become the first lady combatant of BSF, while also shedding some light on the challenges encountered by women in armed forces.
Akshara Bharat: How did you feel, when you first donned that uniform? Was it fate, or was it something that you had always aspired for?
Tanu Shree Pareek: I was in college when I joined NCC. The uniform not only gave me a sense of pride but also a sense of comfort which made me push my mental and physical limits. So, I decided to pursue a career in the defense forces.
Joining BSF wasn’t fate, but a choice. Having said that, becoming the 1st woman in a combat role of the world’s largest border guarding force could be fate, as I never planned it that way.
AB: Why did you opt for BSF? What was your family’s reaction, when you broke the news of your selection to them?
TP: I spoke with my father about this, when I qualified the written exam of Central Armed Police Force(CAPF) conducted by UPSC in 2013. He was a bit surprised as I informed him only after clearing the written stage of the exam. His immediate response was asking me to go ahead and qualify the physical test as well. Getting through the medical test was toughest as I had to reduce around six kgs in a span of three weeks.
The entire family was elated when I secured a rank in the final list. No one in the past seven generations of my family had made it to the forces. My selection into BSF was a breakthrough which was heartily welcomed by my family, especially my grandfather.
AB: Were you intimidated or thrilled, when you realized that you are the only women officer of your batch, and you will be undergoing a 52-week training in a campus with over 16,000 men? How was this experience like?
TP: I was the only female who got selected out of 110 candidates in 2013 by BSF through the combined examination of CAPF. Joining the force – that too being the first and the only female – wasn’t thrilling or strange, however, the question that loomed large in front of me at that time was, if I really wanted to go through the 52 weeks long arduous physical training.
I was raised in a gender-neutral environment, so I didn’t find it strange to be at a place where no other woman had been until then. However, the men around me, were a bit uncomfortable, as I was the only woman among the entire lot of BSF trainee officers.
AB: Has the responsibility of carrying the baton of first lady combat officer of BSF, ever weighed you down?
TP: I always believed in doing things to the best of my capacity. That’s why I secured the second position in my basic training. I was the parade commander of my passing out parade. It was the first time in the history of CAPF when a female officer led an entire male contingent.
Being the first woman in combat role of an elite force has bestowed me with the responsibility of representing the female fraternity in a male-dominated area, in order to prove that women are as competent as men. This role has never weighed me down but has honored me with a privilege to motivate and encourage other women and girls to aspire for and achieve their dreams.
AB: During the course of your training, were you treated any differently just because of your gender?
TP: I can proudly say that BSF is one of the most gender-neutral organizations/ forces of India. Since the first day of our training, we were allotted chest numbers as our respective identities. I chose number 13, and since then my identity for the entire course of training had been “Terah Number Sahab/ chest number 13”.
AB: All wings of Indian Armed Forces allow women in combat roles, except the Indian Army and Special Forces of India. Recently Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat was quoted as saying that most jawans come from villages and they may not accept a woman officer leading them. What’s your take on that? As the only lady officer in BSF, have you ever felt the brunt of inherent misogyny, while commanding your troops?
TP: I don’t want to comment on anyone’s take but the best part of CAPFs is that they are least skewed against the women in comparison to the Triforces ( Army / IAF/ Navy). There is equality in all aspects it’s salary, promotion, allowance, or length of the service.
According to my experience, while commanding the troops it’s your rank and your demeanor which guides the behavior or response of your subordinates towards you. If you are professional, positive and firm in your decisions, then your gender is insignificant.
AB: As a woman officer in a combat role, currently posted in Punjab border, have you ever felt any difficulty because of the administrative and infrastructural inefficiencies? When it comes to building up of administrative capacities, what immediate changes would you like to see?
TP: I have experienced difficulties not only as a woman but also as a commander on the field. Although, gradually the needs are being catered to, however, the process needs to gear up.
AB: Should Indian Govt come up with an elaborate policy on the induction of women in combat roles?
TP: Why not?! Actually, it’s already in the pipeline at least with respect to CAPFs. The Ministry Of Home Affairs has come up with certain guidelines. I believe gender-neutral forces/ originations are more humanistic and civilized. Women are part of the same society and contribute not only as much as men but even more when it comes to other social responsibilities. I feel that one’s full potential should be harnessed and life decisions must not be restrained by gender, especially the choice of profession.
AB: Indian Air Force had 13.09% and 8.5%, Indian Navy 6% and 2.8% women, and Indian Army 3,80% and 3% in December 2018 and December 2014 respectively. BSF also boasts of having 50,000 women personnel. Although the numbers have gone up, but are still low when compared to the overall strength of these forces, especially in combat roles. Do you think the cultural fabric of Indian society still does not subscribe to the idea of women in uniform taking up arms?
TP: Teaching, nursing, and medicine are professions deemed to be most suited for women by society, as they leave them with sufficient time to carry other socially defined responsibilities like taking care of the family, bringing up children etc. The social role of a mother and wife has always been given priority over the professional aspirations of a woman. Thus, many women end up leaving their jobs after getting married or having children. Until and unless this mindset changes and the professional capabilities and potential of a woman is given its due respect and credit, this issue will last long.
AB: Finally, what message would you like to give to the girls out there, who are aspiring for a career in armed forces?
TP: Firstly, my message is to the parents as they are the one who shape the children’s mind in the initial years-treat your children equally irrespective of gender. This will inculcate a sense of equality in them and will boost their confidence.
To every girl out there my message is,- always have faith in yourself and never doubt your capabilities. Your life choices guide your journey so keep the steering in your hand. If I can do what I dreamt of, certainly each one of you can achieve what you really aspire for with dedicated and determined efforts.