Lady Cadet Wardah Noor, a slim 24-year-old Pakistani with deep-set eyes and an erect bearing, has pinned all her hopes on becoming a soldier.
"I found my civilian life to be slow moving and unsatisfying," she told me one evening in September after a full day of class and training exercises at the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy (PMA). Raised in a middle-class home, Wardah had already earned a college degree in computer science but found little opportunity in her small village in Pakistan's Punjab province, where horse-driven carts were still the primary mode of transportation. She craved discipline and structure. She wanted, she realised, to join the army.
LC Wardah was one of 32 women, ages 23 to 27, who comprised the PMA's 2013 lady cadet class. The Academy is located in the town of Kakul, just a few miles from the Abbottabad compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALs in 2011. It's Pakistan's answer to West Point; it's just as hard to gain entry, and those who do, go on to lead young soldiers into battle.
Gaining admission to the academy is highly competitive. Once enrolled, male cadets spend two years of rigorous physical training and the study of war craft. Female cadets at the PMA, however, receive only six months' training and then are assigned duties that don't involve direct combat, serving as members of the medical and engineering corps, or analysing tactics and logistics or even training future officers.
"I want to be a part of protecting my country from the terrorists, and protect our borders," LC Wardah explained. "We have both external threats as well as internal threats."
Pakistan's military is the country's most stable and powerful institution. It has waged four wars against India, staged three successful military coups, guided the country back to civilian rule, and, since 9/11, received $17.2 billion in US military aid. However, despite having the seventh-largest military in the world as measured by the number of active-duty personnel, inhospitable parts of the country like the mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly known as the Northwest Frontier province) remain under Taliban control – and remnants of al Qaeda still lurk near the permeable Afghan border.
The cadets line up on the rifle range for weapons-handling instruction.
Due to the country's geopolitical significance, Pakistan is an essential first line of defence in the global war on terror. And, remarkably, it has become a venue of progressive change and inspiration for females serving in the armed forces around the globe. In Pakistan, a country where women are afforded little in the way of education and career opportunities, the army has slowly integrated so-called lady cadets into its ranks following General Pervez Musharraf's inauguration in 2006.
Like in many countries throughout the Middle East, women in Pakistan don't have it so easy. According to a 2011 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, gender experts ranked Pakistan as the third-worst place in the world for women, just behind Afghanistan and Congo. Honour killings are still rampant, the report states, and 90 percent of Pakistani women face domestic violence at home. The Pakistani NGO Shirkat Gha reported earlier this year that half of Pakistani women are married before the age of 18, and in its 2012 report on Pakistan, UNICEF claimed that there's "considerable inequality when it comes to employment for women and men."
In 2012, the attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai, a teenager who is an advocate for girls' education, trained a bloodstained magnifying glass on the generation of Pakistani girls and women who are fighting for change. Even now for most women in Pakistan, a career in such a traditionally male-dominated field like soldiering is still a remote prospect. It's also a tough slog, regardless of gender.
From the moment the lady cadets wake at 4AM until they go to sleep at midnight, or later, their day is a cavalcade of challenges. Physical training starts at 6:30 AM, followed by breakfast, then classroom lessons on defence, attack positions and public speaking, then back again for drill and saluting practice.
"This schedule is intentional to train them to cope in stressful environments," Platoon Commander Captain Arooj Arif, the no-nonsense leader of the lady cadets, told me. When I first met her, she was eight months' pregnant but still commanding her charges.
The training of every class of cadets culminates in four days of field exercises at a location far from the academy that I am unable to name for security reasons. I travelled with LC Wardah and the rest of her cadet class – a disciplined, ambitious group of young Pakistani women from nearly every part of the country – to their field exercises, where their resolve to become warriors would face its toughest test.
Lady Cadet Kiran writes down defensive plans and attack positions during class at the Pakistan Military Academy.
During the exercises, the cadets practiced combat maneuvers in the blazing postmonsoon heat and slept four to a tent on folding cots. I asked Major Chengaiz Zafar, who is in his first year training lady cadets, why the army trains women in these conditions, even if they'll never see combat. "Because they need to know how things work in the field when they are dealing with operations that directly affect what is happening to soldiers in conflict regions in the country," he explained, adding, "They will be a part of the effort to help fight terrorism in the country." Major Chengaiz graduated from PMA, too, near the top of his class.
LC Wardah was given the role of section commander for the exercises. During a morning briefing at base camp on the fourth and last day, she laid out the plans for the mock attack she and her fellow cadets would wage. They needed to divide into the three squads and move through tilled farmland and cornfields until they arrived at the faux enemy lines. From there they would perform a three-pronged pincer move on their mock adversary.
By 10AM, the heat was already searing on the plains and the air was thick with humidity. After LC Wardah's briefing, the cadets returned to their positions – trenches dug at various locations throughout the fields. They would wait there all day until it was time to strike out. With little cover from the burning sun, the idea of becoming a soldier in an army that will for the foreseeable future be pinned between the Taliban and al Qaeda didn't seem like an enjoyable prospect to me.
"These battle exercises help us understand what it's like to face the real thing. I wish we could go and fight," said LC Kiran Javed Khan, a 27-year-old who had trouble meeting the weight requirement for cadets when she first joined the academy. She needed to lose two kilograms. "I ended up losing four," she told me.
"Hurry up, get yourselves ready and into formation!" LC Wardah yelled. The cadets prepared for combat in their trenches. A heavy rain began to fall on the once-scorching landscape, delaying their attack, but just before dusk, orders came from Major Chengaiz that it was time to strike. The lady cadets, hair pulled tight into low buns underneath olive berets, began trekking through the wet fields, each holding a German-made G3 rifle.
For most of these women, military service is the only opportunity they have to leave their villages and start an independent life.
Twenty-three-year-old LC Meimouna Mahruck remembered sitting in a room with 150 other applicants from her village in Swabi, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, wondering if she would make the cut. With pride she told me, "I am the first woman from my entire village to have joined the army."
To gain acceptance to the PMA, women applicants must go through a series of written exams, physical tests and a final interview before being selected for one of the few highly sought- after seats. They have to compete for the 40 available spaces, compared with the approximately 2,100 spaces allotted for men.
"In time military commanders will increase the number of female cadets. They have since the program started and the standards, especially the physical training, gets tougher each year," Captain Arif, who graduated the academy in 2010, told me. "At first they didn't know how much the women could do and what they were capable of. Next year they are planning to introduce horse riding and swimming as part of the cadets' physical training."
The cadets charged through the mud and fired on their faux enemy. Afterward, the cadets returned to camp and waited for dinner. It had been a long day spent in searing heat and torrential rains. In the cool evening air, the cadets shivered.
It was their last day and the promise of a warm shower back at the Academy and the relative comfort of a routine of drills, marches, and course work on the manicured grounds of the PMA lifted the lady cadets' spirits.
Lady Cadet Zarnigar, after hitting her target during the weapons- handling exercises
Many people I spoke with held the surprising assumption that someday women will fight alongside men on the front lines in Pakistan, a proposition that is still contentious in many other countries around the world. Only a handful of nations are without restrictions on allowing female soldiers into combat. And nations like the US have faced serious issues with sexual assault in mixed-gender platoons.
Perhaps some of the bullishness about mixed-gendered combat I heard was feigned propaganda and bluster – not the actual mood on the ground. Some male cadets did express that the six-month period of training – in contrast to the two years men spend at the academy – is insufficient for combat, which might be a fair assessment. But that quarrel could also be a cover for belief that women can't, in any circumstance, be ready for battle no matter how much training they receive. While no one I spoke with wanted to be on the record as having said that, this was a common sentiment I overheard among some of the gentlemen officers. And even if women were trained for two years and green-lit for battle, there would still be hurdles to overcome, like chipping away at the edifice of gender norms about the role of women in wartime.
After returning to the PMA grounds near Abbottabad, the cadets resumed their normal battery of training. They marched into a large field where they were separated into four groups and taught how to handle and fire weapons, finishing in the early evening hours and hurried back to their quarters as dark storm clouds came over the mountains.
LC Mehnaz Younas, a 23-year-old from Kashmir province, washed up, tied a long white scarf around her head and unrolled a prayer rug to begin her recitations. Clouds billowed across the Himalayan ranges. When she was finished, she quickly joined the others as they headed into the canteen for dinner.
Inside the spacious hall, the women occupied only three tables while male cadets filled the rest of the mess – their booming voices filling the room. In stark contrast, the women sat quietly and ate the small portions of food they served themselves. They were exhausted and finished their meal, barely saying a word. In bed by midnight, they would wake up at 4AM to start the day all over again.
Being allowed into the boys club – if they are truly allowed – won't be easy for these women. Cultural mores against the comingling of sexes prohibit them from socialising with their male colleagues and forming allies who could help them get promoted.
In a country where the most that is expected of a woman is to marry and have children, these lady cadets were quickly marching toward a life of independence propelled by an inner motivation that is beginning to take hold of an entire generation of Pakistani women.
"I push myself toward things," LC Wardah told me on my last day at the academy. "If I want something, I will do my best to achieve that goal, whatever it is."
Watch LC Wardah and her comrades in action in a new documentary, coming soon.