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Beacons of success: The life and challenges of female army officers

  • Published at 12:49 am March 8th, 2019
Lt Col Farhana Afrin and Lt Col Sofia Zerin
Lt Col Farhana Afrin, left, and Lt Col Sofia Zerin Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

To mark International Women’s Day, set to be observed across the globe today, the Dhaka Tribune's Afrose Jahan Chaity contacted two female army officers, to learn of the challenges and hurdles they face in one of the most competitive and demanding careers in Bangladesh

Lt Col Sofia Zerin Tamanna Rahman, commanding officer of the 10th Signal Battalion, was trained under the 47th BMA (Bangladesh Military Academy) Long Course, and Lt Col Farhana Afrin, Artillery, Commanding Officer, Support Wing, Army Aviation Group, Dhaka Cantonment, was trained under the 48th BMA Long Course.

What kind of challenges did you face when training to become army officers?

Lt Col Sofia Zerin: We faced many kinds of challenges while training at the Bangladesh Military Academy, as we were the first batch of female recruits. We were the only women in an army of men.

Tell us about the road to becoming a Bangladesh Army officer.

Lt Col Sofia Zerin: Our venture into the Bangladesh Army began with our training at the Bangladesh Military Academy. We stood shoulder to shoulder with our male counterparts, and underwent a strict army training regimen. 

We are proud to say that the female recruits handled the training with great success. After two grueling years, we were assigned to our individual units and the challenges increased in scope. 

We had chosen our career in a male dominated sector. Our superior officers and fellow soldiers were all men. The units we were assigned to had only one or two female officers. However, we persevered and kept moving forward.

We were the first batch, and through our struggles, we showed the way to success for younger generations of women. We gave our best and made a serious effort to become successful. 

Because of our efforts, more and more women are now considering a career in the Bangladesh Army. We are not done, and we will keep moving forward despite the challenges we face.

Lt Col Farhana Afrin: My father inspired me a lot when it came to applying to the army. He encouraged me to give a try. 

In our journey to become army officers, we faced hurdles at every step of the way. However, this is true for every professional, regardless of their gender. 

At the very beginning of the training, I thought I would not able to do it. At that moment, I just focused on completing the training and seeing where it ends. 

I saw my course mates, both male and female, working hard. I learned to put in my best effort from them.

How did you tackle issues regarding family and personal life?

Lt Col Sofia Zerin: I did not face any challenges from my family, as my father also served as an army official. Both my parents rooted for me, giving me the confidence to seek a career in the Bangladesh Army.

In my opinion, the grueling army training regimen was the only challenge worth mentioning. Most of the female students back then were not involved in sports and athletics. 

As a fresh recruit, none of us had the stamina for hard labour and training. During training, we followed instructions such as running a mile within seven minutes, or running for 16 miles without rest or break.

After receiving commission as an officer, I was the only woman in my unit. We had to take care of any issues ourselves, as it was difficult for any female officer to contact her superior officer for every matter.

However, it has become much easier for female army personnel, as we can help them out and provide them with any necessary assistance. We did not have any female superior officers to assist us back in the day.

Lt Col Farhana Afrin: My story is a little different, as I come from a civilian background. My father, who had served as the inspector general of prisons, wanted me to achieve my dreams, but he never thought I would choose a career in Bangladesh Army.

However, he became enthusiastic immediately after the army’s announcement that they would be recruiting female personnel. My father helped me with every aspect of my career, from helping me to fill out forms, to giving me moral support.

My course mates and colleagues supported me during training as well as in my professional career as an army officer. After getting married, my husband, who is also an army officer, wholeheartedly supported me. Without this support, we would not have made it this far.

What do you think about women’s contribution to moving Bangladesh forward?

Lt Col Sofia Zerin: Women are no longer falling behind their male counterparts in professional sectors. Women are moving ahead in every organization across the country.

Only time will tell what is ahead for female professionals in Bangladesh.

How do you feel about becoming two of the first female officers in Bangladesh Army?

Lt Col Sofia Zerin: We had mixed feelings. There were feelings of optimism and concerns. As the first batch of female recruits, we were worried about how we fare would in the army. Would it be easier or more difficult for us?

Our male counterparts had the option of asking for tips from their seniors. But we could not do that, as we could not find any female senior personnel in the army at that time. We had to jump in blind.

We were concerned about how successful we were in the training phase, but were elated after being promoted to commissioned officers. 

Our parents attended the ceremony, and we were happy to have made them proud. 

You are now role models for many young women seeking careers in the army. What advice do you have for them?

Lt Col Sofia Zerin: I want to tell them never to underestimate themselves. They have the power and skill to join Bangladesh Army and tackle all the challenges this career has to offer.

Lt Col Farhana Afrin: The advice I want to give the younger generation is to gain the support of their families and peers, and success will follow.

Many women complain that despite having opportunities for a successful professional career, they are expected to prioritize family life. What is your take on this issue?

Lt Col Farhana Afrin: There is no alternative to family support for female professionals. The challenges that we faced would have been much harder to overcome without the support of our families.

Support from colleagues and superiors is also important. 

Do you ever faced allegations of getting additional support just because you are female? 

Lt Col Farhana Afrin: Our professional atmosphere is quite different from other sectors. There is no scope of gaining additional support just because we are women. The support that we received was strictly professional, there were no additional benefits.

Regardless of gender, all army personnel have to carry out orders and assignments. There is no scope for getting additional privileges. The system works flawlessly, because of the seamless contributions from both male and female personnel.

Successes depends on the whole unit, not individuals. However, if I decide to help out a female junior officer in need, I consider it assistance, not additional support or benefits. 

Lt Col Sofia Zerin: Anyone can fall sick at anytime. But we have to work on that by cooperating as colleagues. This is not additional support or extra benefit.  

All three of you met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. What was the experience like?

Lt Col Sofia Zerinand Lt Col Farhana Afrin: The prime minister was enthusiastic about our success. She praised us for being the first female officers of Bangladesh Army. 

Describing her efforts to boost the number of female officers in the army, Sheikh Hasina expressed her happiness over our accomplishments.

The prime minister told us that she had firm belief in our capabilities. We vowed to march forward and continue to uphold her dream.

The love and support that we have received in our journey will continue to inspire us in the coming years.

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