I was one of the first women to learn how to fight behind enemy lines. I trained with the SAS between 1999 and 2002, at a time when the idea of women on the frontline was total fantasy.
Women with the SAS? A British Muslim woman with the SAS?
There were plenty of raised eyebrows when I walked into the barracks, a skinny girl who looked like she wouldn’t survive a gym session, but my Colonel was a visionary; he realised that one day the British Army would have to change to reflect our society, and he allowed a group of twelve women the opportunity.
There was no benchmark – he simply wanted to see what we were capable of. Two of us survived the rigours of “Female Selection” but sadly, a week before I was due to receive my “sandy beret” – the trademark of the SAS uniform – the experiment was canned, my Colonel retired, and no one ever spoke of it again.
I was angry. I’d put myself through the toughest mental, emotional and physical challenges known to man – for nothing. I'd go home blistered and bruised and have to wear trainers under my shalwar kameez so my parents couldn’t see my blackened toenails. And I almost died twice – nearly falling off a cliff, and being submerged underwater unable to get the heavy pack off my back. Still, no complaints and I’m now rather handy with a machine gun.
The Army simply wasn’t ready for women then. But, the day finally arrived – Friday 8 July 2016. The day that my Colonel knew was coming. The day the Government lifted the ban on women in combat roles in the British Army.
Before I joined the Army, if I'd heard the news about lifting the ban on women on the frontline, I may have been one of those feminists punching the air with my fist saying: “Yes – frontline for women – equal rights”... and had no idea what it encompassed.
But having been in the Army and trained with men, can women do the job that is required? I certainly think so. Don’t get me wrong; I completely understand why men have always been put on the frontline. Biologically, something happens to men, call it testosterone or whatever, when they are put under threat. Within seconds a powerful burst of aggression kicks in and they become a pack of wolves.
I experienced this during training. I also realised that whilst women can get to this level of aggression, it doesn't come as quickly or as naturally as it does with men. And of course, seconds and minutes lost in the field can be life or death. Any delay is simply a risk you can’t take.
Having said that, I still think it’s right that women should have the opportunity to train for frontline roles. So long as we do not lower the high standards to let women pass. Women in combat should not be a “tick box” exercise for the government nor should they become a circus for the media.
The last thing our nation needs right now is women coming home in body bags.
Lifting the ban is a great opportunity for integrating women with men in the Army and helping to abolish the inequality the Army has experienced. I'm excited and proud to have helped pave the way. Allowing women access to these roles can only serve to make our military establishment more dynamic.
Azi Ahmed is the author of Worlds Apart: Muslim Girl with the SAS
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