'The same charm that draws men to the armed forces also draws women. It is love for the nation and honour and pride in donning the uniform,' says Lieutenant Colonel Sofiya Qureshi, the first woman to lead the Indian Army in a 18-nation military exercise that concludes in Pune on Women's Day.
When Lieutenant Colonel Sofiya Qureshi led the Indian Army's contingent at the Force 18 military exercises that included 18 other countries, she became the first woman officer in India to do so.
The week-long military exercise which includes training in humanitarian mine action and peacekeeping operations concludes in Pune on Women's Day.
Commissioned in the Signals Corp in 1999, Lieutenant Colonel Qureshi has served in different places in India and abroad. She has also been involved in counter insurgency areas in signal regiments.
A native of Vadodara, Gujarat, she was in the second batch of woman officers inducted in the hard field posting to the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a military observer.
"During the 2006 presidential election in DRC, I worked in coordination with the electoral and gender department and could reach down to women at all levels of society in the decision making process." Lieutenant Colonel Qureshi, sparing some time from her busy schedule for an email interaction, told Rediff.com, adding, "I was also actively involved in reunion of displaced children."
There are some other 'firsts' to the officer's credit:
She was the first woman officer to be nominated as an instructor for training women on Civil Military Coordination in South Africa by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
She was also nominated as the first woman instructor along with the UN Training Team for imparting training to the Cambodian army and police on UN aspects where she was awarded the Certificate of Excellence by the Cambodian army.
"A UN mission is a multidimensional and multi-complex mission which is physically and politically most challenging. The line between peacekeeping and war fighting is difficult to trace. Other challenges are sexual violence and lack of coordination sometimes between the UN bodies," says Lieutenant Colonel Qureshi, who is married to an army officer.
"Each country has its own way of operating and as a military observer no weapon is to be carried even for self defence," she adds.
The officer has been associated with the Centre for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations in New Delhi since 2010 and has played a vital role in training national and international observers or staff officers.
She shares her experiences about life in the army with Archana Masih/Rediff.com
How have things in the Indian Army changed since you joined more than 15 years ago?
The Indian Army has got more modernised and became technically savvy. In addition to this, women ; have been provided with more opportunities to join different corps of the Indian Army.
What draws women to the armed forces?
It is the same charm what draws the men. It is the love for the nation and honour and pride in donning the uniform.
What is it to be away from home and family while serving under the UN flag in a conflict zone?
Yes, of course, we miss our family back home, but duty comes first and we are trained by the Indian Army for this.
What have been your experiences while serving in the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the DRC?
It was a great experience working with the multinational armies as a military observer and it gave me satisfaction especially in dealing with protection of women and children from violence.
I was also instrumental in creating a Civil Military Coordination Structure in the western part of Congo.
I was awarded with Force Commander appreciation for dedication and devotion towards my duties.
I have been to South Africa and Cambodia as a UN instructor for training military observers as well as contingents
What preparation did you undergo to command the Indian contingent at Force 18?
Under the guidance of ex director and as part of a panel of instructors, I have undergone refresher cadre prior to the course. Based on my experience as an instructor in India as well as in abroad, I have contributed in formalising the training aspects.
Are there women soldiers from other ASEAN countries participating in this exercise?
Yes. There are six women participating both in humanitarian mine action as well as in peacekeeping operation training.
How have the experiences been at Force 18? How rigorous is a military training exercise? What are some of the learnings for young officers from such exercises?
It was a wonderful experience to work with multinational armies and it's an opportunity to learn their way of tactics especially when getting deployed in a UN mission.
Military training is always meant to be rigorous however conducive an environment is created to learn from each others experience and create more cooperation and inter-operability in sustaining peace.
It is an excellent platform for a young officer to learn.
What does this exercise include?
This exercise includes training in Humanitarian Mine Action and Peacekeeping operations. Patrol training, class room activities, brainstorming and lecture cum demonstration have been incorporated.
Emphasis is given more on role play during the exercise by simulating the UN environment.
How do you balance children/family and home as a working woman?
I am lucky to have a supportive and loving family to carry out my duties diligently.
Can you share some examples of how you have been a source of inspiration to young girls?
I have participated in Operation Sadhbhavna in the Kashmir Valley to motivate young girls to join the army. I have also delivered lectures in school and colleges organised by the army to create awareness about women's role in the army.