In 2009, Captain. Dilip Donde undertook the first Indian solo circumnavigation on board INSV Mhadei. In 2013, Commander Abhilash Tomy circumnavigated the world non-stop by sea. In 2016, Indian Navy’s Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi led an all-women crew to Mauritius. And now, a group of Navy officers are all set repeat the female crew initiative in a seven month long expedition in Indian built carrier INSV-Tarini. Best part, unlike its 2016 counterpart, this expedition won’t be restricted to one destination. The officers on board will circumnavigate the globe.
The expedition, starting from Goa, would stop-over at ports in Fremantle, Australia; Lyttleton, New Zealand; Port Stanley, the Falklands; and Cape town, South Africa. According to a report, it will be led by Lt. Cdr Vartika Joshi (Rishikesh), with Lieutenant Commander Pratibha Jamwal from Himachal Pradesh, Lieutenant Commander Swathi P from Andhra Pradesh, Lieutenant Aishwarya Boddapati from Telangana, Lieutenant Sh Vijaya Devi from Manipur and Lieutenant Payal Gupta (Uttarakhand) in its crew. Through the course of the expedition, the crew would collate and update meteorological data for analysis by research and development organisations and would monitor marine pollution at high sea. But primarily, this mission is being touted as an “adventurous expedition” to “empower” women and cement their participation in the armed forced. It aims to show that women are capable of handling high-risk situations and dangerous circumstances.
While the idea sounds promising, we can’t help but think about how this sounds like yet another elaborate public relations campaign by the government to promote its Nari Shakti scheme. Last week, the Indian army declared that it plans to recruit 800 women in its military police ranks last week. It also comes at a conspicuous time of the appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as the defence minister, who inaugurated the expedition. The sudden outburst of ‘female power’ moves has us wary about the intentions behind the motives. Is the military genuinely waking up to female participation in the armed forces or is this yet another token representation of women being celebrated now? Retired Naval Officer Sandhya Suri had once said that sexism in the Navy starts early and starts by exceptionalising the presence of female officers. You know, the not-so-subtle difference in addressing someone as a ‘lady officer’ rather than just ‘officer’? Yes, that.
While expeditions are great for collating information, centering an all-female crew’s expedition around adventure feels like yet another means of exceptionalise these officers as ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’, when the truth is that they, like their male counterparts, are just doing their jobs. While we’re all for women in armed forces being recognised for their efforts, we’d ideally like this to not sound like a look-look-female-empowerment trail.