In a historic moment for Pakistan, Lieutenant General Nigar Johar became the first female colonel commandant of the Army Medical Corps (AMC). As portrayed in the recent telefilm about her life, “Aik Hai Nigar”, Lt Gen Nigar has long been a pioneer within Pakistan Army. She was the first female officer in Pakistan to command an army hospital, become a lieutenant general (3-star rank), and be the Surgeon General of the Pakistan Army.
Many outside of the Pakistani context may be thinking that this is about time. However, female seniority in Pakistan predates some developed countries. The first female officer of Pakistan to achieve general officer rank was Shahida Malik in 2002 when she was promoted to Major General (2-star rank). The British Army, in contrast, did not appoint its first female major general until 2015. To date, no British woman has become a Lieutenant General. However, this year saw the first female officer, Major General Sharon Nesmith, command at the 2-star level as General Officer Commanding of the Army Recruiting and Initial Training Command.
The continuing success of Lt Gen Nigar presents three major opportunities for Pakistan. Firstly, her seniority allows her to be a positive role model for girls, which could help lift the limits that girls place on themselves and make them realise their gender is not an obstacle in achieving their aspirations. Lt Gen Nigar is not just a role model, but she is what Maria Olsson and Sarah E. Martiny describe as a “gender-counterstereotypical role model,” who “is an individual who engages in a role that is antithetical to gender stereotypes”. In a review of how these counterstereotypical role models can influence the gender stereotypes and career choices held by girls and women. Olsson and Martiny emphasise how our perceptions of gender roles are shaped from an early age through our family, education and the media.
Lt Gen Nigar is not just a role model, but she is what Maria Olsson and Sarah E. Martiny describe as a “gender-counterstereotypical role model,” who “is an individual who engages in a role that is antithetical to gender stereotypes”.
The gender role that women belong in the home and men at work remains fairly pervasive in Pakistan, at least among men. A survey by Minardi et al found that though 69 per cent of women thought they could do the same jobs as men, while 43 per cent of men thought that women ought not to work outside of the house. In an Inter-Services Public Relations video, Lt Gen Johar described how generally, girls are only encouraged into traditional roles within the family and, for a woman to be recognised in her professional life, she must work “double.” One of the first women to pass the entrance exam of Pakistan Air Force, Quratulain Fatima, described a different consequence of this traditionalism, as she felt conscious of not creating a “scandal” given Pakistan’s “conservative society” but also a need for her and other women to prove themselves while their male colleagues doubted them.
Olsson and Martiny conclude that exposure to counterstereotypical role models can “change women’s gender stereotypes and self-stereotyping” and can “enhance role aspirants’ immediate self-efficacy beliefs and performance”. Therefore, some of the barriers of participation and aspiration that individual girls have are potentially broken down. The ongoing success of Lt Gen Nigar, as a counterstereotypical role model may help to change perceptions among Pakistani girls and women. Those who aspire to join the army may have more faith in themselves to achieve that goal. To encourage girls and women to join the army would not only allow Pakistan to make the most of the talent it has, irrespective of gender. In this way, personnel shortages can also be avoided in times of conflict.
The second hurdle that Lt Gen Nigar’s example may help change is the male perception of women and, most importantly, the perceptions concerning the suitability of women to serve in the highly competitive institute, Pakistan Army. Testimonies from female officers within the Pakistani military show how having supportive male relatives made achieving their goals easier. However, it is common internationally for individuals to dismiss women as unfit to serve in the army for no reason other than their gender, which is a form of sexism. A sexist institutional culture is not limited to perceptions only but to issues like sexual harassment, which threaten female interest in the army and retention of in-service female staff. But Britain’s former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, has recently been criticised for suggesting that a “laddish culture” within the army is needed to ensure soldiers “go close and personal with the enemy.” He conceded that this had to be “squared away” with a more inclusive environment for women. While men and women in Pakistan Army are more segregated than the British Army, this does not mean that sexism is not a problem. Therefore, Pakistan Army might have to consider to what extent sexism limits the number of women in achieving a senior post and the retention of female officers, just as the British Army is now. Lessons can be learnt from British reports for strategies to make the army more inclusive.
The position of Lt Gen Nigar would mean that the voices of women within the AMC would likely be heard, and their concerns would be addressed.
The third and final opportunity presented by Lt Gen Nigar’s pioneering role is the increased representation of women in the Pakistan Army, which can make it a more amenable environment for women that widens access to female officers. A major barrier to women working in Pakistan is the lack of facilities. According to a policy brief by the International Growth Centre from February 2021, Pakistani society requires segregated toilets and prayers areas that only around half of all workplaces could provide. Moreover, the lack of maternity leave leads to women leaving work and not returning after having children.
The provision of these basic facilities and maternity leave would allow more women to remain at work. A senior female officer, like Lt Gen Nigar, could make these changes a reality throughout the corps where women can serve in. Indeed, the first female major general in the US Army, Anna Mae Hays, who was promoted in 1970, used her role to advance the civil rights for women by helping to establish maternity leave for female officers. The position of Lt Gen Nigar would mean that the voices of women within the AMC would likely be heard, and their concerns would be addressed. Not as a matter of special consideration for women over men, but to make the army equally accessible to men and women. Female representation is important in the corps as it will consider the problems of women staff that is not prioritised generally.
To conclude, as Lt Gen Johar has said, the role of women in the Pakistan Army is far more progressive than many Islamic and developing countries. But there are opportunities for it to go even further as a result of her success. In falsifying stereotypical gender norms through both the female and male lens and increasing the representation of women within the army, Pakistan can attract more female officers and improve retention. This will enable the country to benefit from all of its available talents, regardless of gender.