‘The Indian Navy has given me the opportunity to be the best version of myself’

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“After a successful command, I could not have been happier than to hand over the Flagship Hospital (INHS Asvini) of the Indian Navy to a fellow woman Flag Officer. It is indeed a defining moment as it tells the nation and the world that women in India have now reached significant numbers in the higher ranks of the Armed Forces and that merit and not gender is the basis of appointments,” explains Surgeon Rear Admiral Sheila Mathai, the senior-most woman officer in the Indian Navy.

On January 30, she handed over command of INHS Asvini to Surgeon Rear Admiral Arti Sarin, a unique event in the annals of the armed forces in India, for it involved two woman Flag Officers.

Excerpts from an email interview.

What inspired you to join the Navy?

Coming from an Army background, I was exposed to the Armed Forces from childhood. My father was a surgeon in the Indian Army and passed away just before I joined college. He inspired me to become an Armed Forces doctor, to serve both patients and the nation. That was the reason why I chose to join the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune.

The Navy was my choice of service as the white uniform looked very appealing! I was also keen to work in the biggest hospital of the Navy, the INHS Asvini.

What were the challenges in the workplace?

When I joined the Services in 1984, the only women in the Armed Forces were doctors, nurses and dentists. There were issues about posting women doctors to remote locations and on board ships. In the first 15 years of my service, women officers wore saris as part of the uniform, which made marching and other military activities like climbing ladders, and boarding ships difficult.

The Navy was the first among the three services to change the uniforms of their women officers to be the same as that of the male officers. This made us feel a part of the service rather than standing apart.

I have seen the paradigm changes in attitudes and perceptions toward women officers in the Armed Forces, particularly in the past two decades. Now women officers are inducted into almost all the branches of the three services. Previously women were not offered Permanent Commission (PC), thus preventing equal opportunity. Now women are being given PC in almost all the branches in which they are permitted to join.

Surgeon Rear Admiral Sheila Mathai on a caving expedition in Meghalaya

Surgeon Rear Admiral Sheila Mathai on a caving expedition in Meghalaya

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Women have shown that they can perform the toughest tasks, if given a chance and the Indian Navy has always encouraged this. The all-women expedition on INSV Tarini is one of many such examples.

We now looked forward to the induction of women soldiers, sailors, and air warriors into our Armed Forces as well. While working in the hospitals and sickbays with patients, we did not face any challenges different from those of women doctors elsewhere. Occasionally, temporary duties to smaller, more remote places without other women around would be difficult. But because we were so few, we were always protected. Sometimes male doctors resented this as they felt that we were being given sheltered appointments while they faced the hardships. However, as women, we were always keen to prove that we could do just as much as our male colleagues if given a chance and this was slowly understood and accepted so that these situations became lesser and lesser and now do not exist.

What has been your takeaway as a doctor and Naval Officer of the Indian Navy?

The Indian Navy and the Armed Forces Medical Services are excellent career options for women. I have had every opportunity to specialise and super-specialise in my field. As a paediatrician and neonatologist, I have had the opportunity to excel both as a doctor and a medical teacher, having also gone back to my alma mater as professor for a couple of tenures.

As an Officer, have been given a number of administrative roles to perform including Director, Institute of Naval Medicine and Command Medical Officer, Eastern Naval Command. I was given Command of the Flagship hospital of the Indian Navy for the past 15 months and have steered it through the COVID crisis. It is now at the centre of the vaccination drive in the Navy. At no instance was my gender ever an issue. I have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with my male colleagues and have commanded large numbers of men and women with the skills and experience that I have acquired from the Indian Navy.

I have now taken over as Command Medical Officer Western Naval Command, an appointment that oversees the medical assets of the main Operational Command of the Indian Navy. Here too, there is a complete gender-neutral environment and the chance to work and thrive.

I have also had ample opportunities to indulge in sport and adventure activities. The Indian Navy has given me the opportunity to be the best version of myself. Running the half marathon, caving expeditions in Meghalaya and sailing are all sports that I enjoy.

Your message to women who aspire to join the Armed Forces…

With its ethos of discipline, transparency and fairness, the Armed Forces is one of the best options for women. Women are treated with equal respect and are given a chance to show their capabilities in a safe and organised environment. The feeling of being part of a Service that has the ultimate goal of serving the nation is inspiring and opportunities to do good and live a meaningful life are immense.

At the same time, the Armed Forces also expects you to be strong and face many challenges and changes that go with the job. This actually makes you better equipped to face any problem in life and makes you a stronger, more capable person.

A few words about your family…

My husband, Surg Cmde (retd) KI Mathai, also served for 35 years as a Neurosurgeon in the Indian Navy. We have a daughter who graduated from St Stephen’s and Harvard Business School and works in Healthcare with McKinsey.

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