Lt. Swathi, Lt. Cdr. Vartika Joshi and Lt. Aishwarya

Sea of Change

“The good thing is that the sea or the boat doesn’t know if you’re a man or a woman. It will treat you the same way.”

-Lieutenant Commander Pratibha Jamwal, Indian Naval Architect

It is a proud moment for India as the first all-women crew of the Indian Navy prepares to circumnavigate the globe breaking another male bastion on its way to providing equal opportunities to men and women. The team will embark on this journey in the month of August this year aboard the Indian Navy Sailing Vessel Mhadei. Up until 1992, women were accepted only in medical and paramedical roles in the Armed Forces. Post this, for the first time women could enter the Naval forces on Short Service Commissions. 16 years later the Supreme Court of India slammed the Navy and Defense for gender discrimination and took a stand in favour of allowing women to take up Permanent Commissions post completion of their shorter stints. Today, women are allowed to take up Permanent Commissions though only in the Law, Education and Naval Architecture cadre divisions of the Navy. At present, women still constitute a mere 2.8 per cent of the Naval personnel.

Lt. Swathi, Lt. Cdr. Vartika Joshi and Lt. Aishwarya
From Left to Right – Lt. Swathi, Lt. Cdr. Vartika Joshi and Lt. Aishwarya

Like in any other sector, change cannot be brought through high handed talks on gender equality and requires systemic change through a modification in the attitude of decision makers and an inclusivity of all genders in decision making. The FAQ section on the nausena-bharti page reads- “…life on board ships is very tough and puts different kind of stress and strain on an individual. As of now, the existing design of ships do not offer necessary facilities for women to live onboard for long durations and contribute in war fighting effort.” This suggests that women are not even taken into account during planning, during the creation of infrastructure, which goes on to be used as an excuse to keep them out.

Once inducted into the navy, life on board for a woman sees a new set of challenges. As retired Naval officer SandhyaSuri recalls, it started with something as basic as being addressed as “Officer” instead of “Lady Officer”. To be considered as a regular uniformed military personnel rather than a woman as somebody different was something she had to deal with every single day. And yet, she stood her ground and battled on.

It is in this light that we see INSV Mhadei, a blazing flame of hope bursting forth into thus unscoured territory. Captained by Lt Commander Vartika Joshi with crew members including Lt Commander PratibhaJamwal, Lt Aishwarya Boddapati, Lt Patarapalli Swathi, Lt Vijaya Devi and Lt Payal Gupta, the team creates history by going on to seize opportunities where there were none.

Change has been slow, but it has come about nevertheless. Today the navy is finalizing its policy of inducting women on board warships built to include women. Such creation of gender-inclusive spaces is what would go on to become the yardstick by which we measure progress.

As our first all-women crew sets off on this quest, we hope that more women make inroads into thus far untrammeled male territories and continue to remind us to keep on dreaming.