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.”
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.
Yet this is a bittersweet victory, as being a woman comes with difficulties outside of school and within it. Case in point: Bilal, a male cadet who will graduate with Nur and who did not give his last name, said he would never marry a female soldier. “I would prefer if she were interested in something else,” he said. “Someone has to look after the children.”
But Nur doesn’t mind such comments. Already past the national average age of marriage, she has no interest in becoming a housewife. She prefers the discipline of the army, and, she'll admit with a smile, she’s partial to the uniform.
Since the first class of women cadets enrolled in 2006, roughly 330 have graduated from the academy. But this is nothing compared to the thousands of male graduates. It can be uncomfortable being in the minority, Nur says, especially when men pervade the campus. “There’s always a level of insecurity,” she says.
Often, though, there is little time to think about comfort. The cadets must concern themselves, first and foremost, with national security. Pakistan was the target of more terrorist attacks in 2012 than any other country in the world, and the mountains surrounding the school are constantly monitored for terrorist activity. The academy sits in the heart of a conflict zone, just north of Abbottabad, where U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
In the past 67 years, since Pakistan’s partition from India in 1947, its military has grown into the country’s most powerful institution, and it receives generous grants of up to $2 billion from the United States each year. Today it is the seventh-largest military in the world.
Here, at the gateway to the Silk Road, the academy produces some of the nation’s best officers, many of whom have been hesitant to allow women into the club. When Musharraf opened the academy to women eight years ago, officers such as Lieutenant Colonel Usman Kayani were skeptical. “Our military was all male, and military training has always been for men,” he said. Yet few wanted to question Musharraf, then the country’s top-ranking general, and so women began to train, performing, for the most part, the same tasks as the men.
Four months into training, Nur’s batch of cadets has moved on to field exercises. Out in the plains of the Punjab, they dig trenches, plan defensive maneuvers, and keep an eye out for insurgents. Here, under the blazing September sun, where temperatures reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-afternoon, months of learning in the classroom are put to the test. Playing war games with tanks, fighter jets, and artillery fire, the women are the closest they will ever come to the battlefield.
In the field, it is Nur’s job to lead reconnaissance missions -- her award for excelling in the classroom. It is a delicate task, as many cadets resent that she has earned so much responsibility. But Nur knows when to be strict and when to ignore their pointed glares; above all, she won’t let anything get in the way of her graduating with distinction. So, she guides her classmates as they live in the trenches, forsaking sleep to analyze maps and devise battle plans.
One night, she leads a group of five cadets on a mission to assess the best plan for the next day’s attack. They navigate the fields in complete darkness, with only Nur’s map and binoculars as guides. Under her leadership, the team spots potential enemy posts and creates a feasible plan of attack.
“Wardah has the qualities to be a good leader,” says platoon commander Arooj Arif, who graduated from the military academy two years ago and now trains the new recruits. “She was very good from the start.”
After five days in the field, the cadets are back at the academy, readying themselves for graduation. Alongside her classmates, Nur receives her post-graduation assignment: She will work as an army engineer in Rawalpindi, a densely populated city in Punjab, where she will analyze thermal images from the battlefield. Unless the law changes, she’s done with combat.
THIS IS THE MOMENT
The day before graduation, October 11, 2013, is a tense one. In the dormitories, the women cadets pack their suitcases and exchange email addresses. Tomorrow, their parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins will join Pakistan’s visiting dignitaries and top military brass on the academy lawn. And Nur will find out whether the army chief will award her the Commandant’s Cane, the honor reserved for the year’s top female cadet. Three other prizes will be awarded, but this is the only one that will go to a woman.
“I won’t be able to sleep tonight,” Nur says, laying out her uniform. “When I was young, I would get up early to watch the ceremony on television. I never thought I’d one day be a part of it.”
Sleep or no, tomorrow arrives. The cadets run through the halls, their uniforms clean and crisp, their long hair pulled back into buns beneath their berets. They help each other with last-minute fixes: adjusting hair ties, straightening collars, tightening belts. All the while a crowd pours into the stands surrounding the drill square. This is it, the day the women have been working toward and the parade that many consider the most impressive in the country.
The women, dressed and ready, form a line outside their dormitories, where a staff sergeant waits to inspect them. Once cleared, the women march toward the drill square, comprising a small raft in a sea of male cadets. “When we march in, the first thing on our minds is, ‘this is the moment,’” Nur says. “Everybody’s excited, everybody’s anxious.