In Pakistan's first cadet college for females, girls dream of rising through the ranks to become the all-powerful army chief. But can one such institution for girls bring about gender equity in the country's male-dominated military?

In this picture taken on October 25, 2017, Affifa Alam, a Pakistani cadet, reads in a library at the Pakistan Army's first Girls Cadet College in Mardan.
In this picture taken on October 25, 2017, Affifa Alam, a Pakistani cadet, reads in a library at the Pakistan Army's first Girls Cadet College in Mardan. (AFP)

At a revolutionary school in Pakistan, Durkhanay Banuri dreams of becoming military chief, once a mission impossible for girls in a patriarchal country where the powerful army has a severe problem with gender equity.

Durkhanay, a 13-year-old student at Pakistan's first ever Girls' Cadet College, established earlier this year in the conservative northwest, brims with enthusiasm and confidence as she sketches out her life plan.

"I want to be the army chief," she tells. "Why not? When a woman can be prime minister, foreign minister and governor of the State Bank, she can also be chief of the army staff ... I will make it possible and you will see."

The dreams of many women in the region were once limited to merely leaving the house.

Durkhanay and her 70 classmates in Mardan, a town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province roughly 110 kilometres (70 miles) from Islamabad, are aiming much higher. The province has suffered over the years at the hands of the Taliban as well as an influx of refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan without the requisite support from the central government of Pakistan.

Cadet colleges in Pakistan, which are run by the government with officers from the military's education branch, strive to prepare bright male students for the armed forces and civil services.

Their graduates are usually given preference for selection to the army, which in Pakistan can mean their future is secured: they are likely to be granted land and will benefit from the best resources and training in the country.

As a result, such colleges play an outsized role in Pakistan's education system, which has been woefully underfunded for decades.

Where women are left behind

According to a 2016 government study, a staggering 24 million Pakistani children are out of school, with a larger share of girls staying home than boys -12.8 million compared to 11.2 million. In KP, the province which houses the girls cadet school, 52% girls of school going age are not receiving an education, compared to 21% boys.

Hundreds of boys study at the cadet colleges across the country.

But girls are still not allowed in these elite schools, with the special college at Mardan the one exception.

"Such colleges can help girls qualify to be part of the armed forces, foreign service, civil services or become engineers and doctors," said retired Brigadier Naureen Satti, underscoring their importance in the long fight for equality by Pakistan's women.

In starched khaki uniforms and red berets, Durkhanay and her classmates march the parade ground, stepping to the beat of a barking drill instructor, before racing to change into physical training and martial arts kits.

The all-powerful Pakistan Army

The military is widely seen as Pakistan's most powerful institution and has ruled the country for roughly half of its 70-year history. Under the current civilian government, it is believed to control defence and foreign policy.

Women, however, have largely been shut out – par for the course in a country routinely ranked among the world's most misogynistic, and where they have fought for their rights for decades.

Previously they were only allowed to serve in administrative posts. But military dictator Pervez Musharraf opened up the combat branches of the army, navy and air force to women beginning in 2003.

 'Game changer' 

The military would not disclose how many of its members – which a 2015 Credit Suisse report said number more than 700,000 active personnel – are currently women.

But a senior security official told on condition of anonymity that at least 4,000 are now believed to be serving in the armed forces.

He gave no further details, and it is unclear how far the women have managed to foray from their administrative past. Some have managed to become high profile role models,  including, notably, Ayesha Farooq, who in 2013 became Pakistan's first-ever female fighter pilot.

The Girls' Cadet College principal, retired brigadier Javid Sarwar, vowed his students would be prepared for whatever they wanted to do, "including the armed forces."

"I want these girls to avail their brilliance and fight injustices in society, and this is possible if they get a standard education," he said, adding that plans are to induct a second batch of 80 girls from all over Pakistan by March next year.

For $540 ( 57,000 rupees) each three-term semester, his students get room and board along with access to computers and the internet, a luxury for some Pakistani schools.

It is a "game changer" in a region where religious conservative norms see many women observe some form of purdah – confined to women's-only quarters at home – and "could only dream of coming out of their houses in the past", college vice principal Shama Javed says.

Durkhanay and her classmates are confident the college will give them a fighting chance in Pakistan.

Affifa Alam, who wants to follow Farooq's path and become an air force pilot, said the college represents a "big change." "This will help us (in) realising the dream of women's empowerment," she said.

Source: AFP