Who wants to be a Gurkha? WomenOn the race to become the first batch of women to join the British Gurkha regiment under the British Armed Forces
In the early hours during the mid-winter mornings, even before the dawn creeks, young women run towards the training ground in a single file. At six in the morning, the 18-year olds prepare themselves with a warm-up for the next three hours of arduous physical training that includes running up the steep stairs, sometimes carrying their friends on their backs, sit-ups and body weight heaves. They are on the race to become the first batch of women to join the British Gurkha regiment under the British Armed Forces.
After the British government announced that they will be recruiting women in the regiment, which has been a part of the British Army for more than 200 years, the training centres which only used to grant admission to men have now started training women too. But many of the young women who have been undertaking the training are hesitant to talk about it as openly as their men counterparts for mainly two reasons. First, the process of women recruitment in the British Gurkha is yet to be confirmed and second, they fear that they may face social ridicule.
“I haven’t told my relatives yet, they think I’m attending some pre-classes before I begin my bachelors,” said Tsheden Lama, who was among the few women who could complete the heaves exercise on her own, which is the preliminary examination for men to be selected for the British Gurkha. She started her training with Salute Gorkha Training Centre in Kathmandu branch at Basundhara more than a month ago but due to unconfirmed recruitment process, she worries that her extended family will look down on her choice to recruit in the military.
Lama doesn’t come from a military background—none of her immediate family members have been a part of any military organisation. While studying on grade 11, she said that she discovered her passion to be an army personnel, which according to her has driven her to travel everyday from her home at Gokarna to Basundhara at wee hours of the morning to complete the three hours physical training followed by English and Mathematics classes later in the day.
Riya Shrestha from Budol, Kavre shares a similar story as Lama who has been a trainee at the Pokhara headquarters of the same training centre and has been living in their dormitory. “I came to know that the British Army is recruiting women through social media, after which I googled for the training centres where I can prepare myself for the competitive recruitment process and this is how I ended up here,” she said.
Both Lama and Shrestha, however, had to convince their family members before they dived into the heavy preparation-training programme. “At first, my parents didn’t like the idea, they told me that it could be very difficult for me or what if I could not handle the gruesome physical training as I was not a very athletic person while growing up. But after some convincing they have been supporting me,” said Shrestha, who chose to train in Pokhara rather than in Kathmandu, which is closer to her hometown.
“I didn’t want to be distracted. I knew I had to put in a lot of effort coming from a non-military background and I thought that living farther would discourage any of my feelings to seek the comfort of my home,” she said about her decision to travel to Pokhara.
Shreejana Buda from Kathmandu and Manisha Buda Magar from Kohalpur have also been sharing the dormitory with Shrestha. Unlike Lama and Shrestha, these two are from the military families and said that they draw inspiration from their family members to join the military. While Magar’s father is a Nepal Army personnel, Buda’s elder brother has only recently been drafted into the British Gurkha regiment.
These women who have been living in the dormitory at the training centre, which is located right behind the Pokhara Stadium, where most of their training takes place, seem to have been living more routine and disciplined lifestyle. Even in their free time, they watch inspirational biography documentaries of mostly sportspersons to keep them inspired and focus on their goal.
Shrestha’s mother Sona Shrestha said that initially she was hesitant to let her travel alone to an unknown city on her own and pursue a career which is mainly male dominated and certainly very new to her and her family. “When she told me that she wanted to leave for Pokhara, she was the only girl in the whole dormitory—that scared me a lot. But now that I look back, I am already proud of her that she is following her dreams and enrolled herself in the training programme without anyone’s assistance,” she said.
Nevertheless, none of the three room partners have opened up about their aspirations to their friends and extended family. “Nothing is fixed yet, so what is the point of letting people know. I will only be a subject of ridicule if this doesn’t work out,” Magar said.
But when Shrestha expressed her concern to her mother, the social pressure didn’t bother her. “I told her she is not doing anything wrong, so there is nothing to hide. Success and failure is a way of life, so even if she doesn’t get the chance to apply, she can accomplish a lot of things in her life,” she said. But when the other day some of Shrestha’s friends found out about her training in Pokhara, she still wasn’t comfortable enough to open up to them. “We’ve been told that the notice will be published in April, so I am eagerly waiting for that,” Shrestha said.
Tom Haswell, Head of Political and Public Affairs at the British Embassy in Nepal said that recruitment of women in the British Gurkha came after the British government’s decision to open all roles in the British Armed Forces to women, including the infantry.
“We are hoping to extend this same opportunity to Nepali women who wish to join the Gurkhas and we are discussing this aspiration with the Government of Nepal,” he added regarding the unconfirmed status of the recruitment process of women in the British Gurkha.
Meanwhile, the training centres have been training women under the same criteria as men. The selection process, which has been described as one of the toughest in the world, requires the hopefuls to undergo three phases of selection process—starting from the registration, regional selection and central selection—each level examining the physical and mental strength of the candidates. Towards the final round, they require to complete the gruelling ‘Doko carry’, where the potential recruits run uphill carrying a wicker basket on their back filled with rocks that they need to complete in maximum 40 minutes.
But due to unclear criterion and unconfirmed status of their recruitment, these women are forced to look for other options in addition to hiding their training regimen from friends and family. Most of the women are looking to compete for the second lieutenant rank in the Nepal Army, which has been recruiting women in general service since 2004.
But this is not the first time the British Army had decided to recruit women in the Gurkha regiment. In 2007, when the British Army sought to recruit women, Krishna Kumar Pun, owner of Bull’s Fitness Centre said that he had trained around 50-60 women but then the whole process was scrapped. Pun who is currently training one female hopeful who wants to compete in the British Gurkha recruitment process said that the recruitment process to foreign military organisation is, however, not a sustainable solution to youth employment and should therefore be stopped.
Pun’s statement is part of the polarising public discourse on Nepalis recruited to foreign military where on one hand it questions the status of Nepalis as mercenaries in the current global political landscape while on the other, it emphasises the legacy of bravery and loyalty earned by British Gurkhas. But at the end of the day, it is a lucrative employment opportunity for the Nepali youths with a salary of more than £18,000 a year, a pension for life and a British passport.
With the British government’s decision to end gender-bias in their recruitment, young Nepali woman have their hopes high to be a part of the Gurkha regiment. The growing number of women joining the training centres is a testament to Nepal’s changing social attitude towards the participation of women in a male- dominated career such as military but the women’s reluctance to openly announce their military training schedule to their family and friends also showcases society’s hint of hesitation.