Cameraperson: Ribhu Chaterjee
Video Editor: Prajjwal Kumar
The first time former Indian Army major Simi Basheer stepped onto the airstrip on her first day as a flight coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Central African Republic, she was met with stares and giggles from the men all around her.
"There was this kind of curiosity that came on everyone's face – that after all the male flight coordinators they have seen, the big burly men, they are seeing this thin, tall, lean Indian woman marching on, trying to tell them what to do, and trying to determine their manifest."Simi Basheer to The Quint
But for Basheer, this experience was neither new nor surprising.
In her decade-long affiliation with the army prior to joining the MSF South Asia, during which she also worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo on a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission, she had already realised that as a woman, sometimes you had to prove yourself once, twice, or thrice on the field.
From Kochi To Congo: When the Army Took Her Places
Basheer wanting to join the army right after her graduation came as a surprise to her parents. Growing up in Kerala's Kochi, in a family that had no links to any defence institutions, Basheer somehow felt the need to do something for her country – something big.
She recalls how her mother went on a hunger strike when she told her she wanted to join the army. Her father, on the other hand, was supportive. But in the end, both of them were proud to see her getting commissioned into the Indian Army in 2002, into the Corps of Signals as a Lieutenant.
It was during her five tenures with the army that Basheer went on to serve in different parts of the country. In her final years, she was also selected to be a Military Observer for a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission that took her to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa.
'Army Slowly Opened Up to Women...'
The 10 years that Basheer spent with the army was also the time that the institution was beginning to 'accept' women in leadership roles.
The army was experimenting with whether women could be 'accepted' into senior management positions by the troops. Questions that would often come up includes:
'How far can you develop women?' 'Where all can you deploy women?' 'Does the acceptance level by the troops change or not when women are deployed on the front line?'
But Basheer noticed a happy change, with the army slowly opening up to women.
"One major change that I saw was the army slowly opening up. They started giving senior leadership positions to women or at least considering women for these roles."Simi Basheer to The Quint
What also happened with these changes, Basheer explains, is that the army began facilitating senior trainings for women, too – helping them compete better in the selection processes.
Another change that happened was the army supporting women's tenures in such a way that they would be open to these new courses, says Basheer.
She goes on to say:
"Some of the areas where we thought women should not be deployed for certain reasons – no, women can be deployed. And the organisation is now in a position to support, be it a man or a woman, to function in that area."
But after serving five tenures across high-security regions in India, Basheer made a compromise and decided to leave the army in 2012 because she realised she couldn't put her career on hold till the permanent commission was granted to women in the army.
That, she says, was her biggest challenge in the army – not being out on the field for 10 years.
That was also when she decided to join Médecins Sans Frontières, where she rose through the ranks – from a supply logistician and a flight coordinator to now being the Director of HR & Facilities for South Asia.
Need for Women Mentors
Through her years on the field, Basheer has realised the importance of having more and more women mentors and colleagues, especially in jobs as challenging as the ones she has had. In her role as the Director, HR & Facilities, MSF South Asia, Basheer is continuing to set an example.
Basheer says she has been lucky enough to have women colleagues who have supported her at work and otherwise, both in the army and the MSF, something she has known never to take for granted.
"Knowing the practical tips and tricks from a woman officer really helped me. And I would say, when you know the organisation is still transitioning into how to pull you up to that pedestal where everyone is already functioning, to see women, who have already done their 10 years of meritorious service, that's really motivating. When you are really alone in the field, where there are 100-200 men around you, the sight of a woman is really nice."Simi Basheer to The Quint
Basheer says this also as someone who has had to manage both work and home side by side. She emphasises how besides support from seniors at work, family support is imperative.
There were trips she says she could not have taken, if there wasn't someone at home looking after her family.
Still a Long Way To Go
Having worked in peace areas and conflict zones alike, in a space largely dominated by men, Basheer has come to realise that acceptance for women at work is still a work in progress.
She understands that it is a double-edged sword for women, who have sacrificed a lot to be where they are, but have also been conditioned to contain their dreams to make way for those of their family.
On the field, acceptance levels of people sometimes vary.
"Sometimes, you are greeted wholeheartedly as a woman, sometimes, there is a step back when you have to prove yourself – once, twice, thrice."Simi Basheer to The Quint
But, she adds, that just by virtue of being born as a woman, "we are empowered because we are battling every single day in different shapes, forms, sizes, and intensities against everything that conditions women."
"Do not let the sacrifices of generations of women go to waste," is her piece of advise to young women in the country.