Part of The Best of 2014

Meet Pakistan's Lady Cadets

The Trials and Triumphs of Women in Pakistan's Military Academy

A female police cadet in Karachi, December 16, 2013.
A female police cadet in Karachi, December 16, 2013. (Athar Hussain / Courtesy Reuters)

Wardah Nur never imagined that she would become a soldier. And, until ten years ago, she couldn’t have.

Yet here she was, in the cool air of the Himalayan foothills, among sergeants shouting orders and cadets falling quickly into formation. They pivot, turn, and march. Only four weeks into training, though, they struggle to stay in step.

Nur belongs to a small, elite group -- the 2013 “lady cadets,” as they are called -- the latest batch of women to train at the Pakistan Military Academy since it began accepting them in 2006 during General Pervez Musharraf’s presidency. Hundreds of women vie for a spot each year, although only 32 seats are open to them. There are 2,000 seats at the academy for men. And, although men can enroll after high school, women must first earn a bachelor’s degree and speak fluent English. The differences don’t end there: Once enrolled, male cadets spend two years training for the battlefield, whereas female recruits train for just six months and are forbidden from direct combat. Instead, they graduate mostly to army support jobs in engineering, IT, or communications. 

Still, the female cadets say, even this is progress. 

Nur, a slim and serious 24-year-old with a degree in electrical engineering from Pakistan’s National University of Sciences and Technology, traveled nearly 300 miles to train here in Kakul, some 4,000 feet above the valley. “This opportunity was not handed to me,” she says. “I had to compete for it.”

Wardah Nur trains at the Pakistan Military Academy, June 2013. (Courtesy Aeyliya Husain)

Nur came to the academy by way of Mandi Bahauddin, a small and old-fashioned town in the central province of Punjab, where horse-driven carts still outnumber cars, and where girls have no place to continue their education past high school. When Nur was 16 years old, her father moved the family to Rawalpindi, a larger city near Islamabad, where she could stay in school. Her plight was not unusual: Of all countries in the world, Pakistan has the second-largest number of children without access to schools -- 5.4 million -- which includes 75 percent of primary-school-age girls. Most women have trouble finding jobs, and many are pushed into becoming teachers or housewives.

By joining the military, Nur and the other female cadets have guaranteed themselves employment for at least the next seven years, the required term of service.

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