It was day one of the second Physical Training Instructor Course to be run at the Officer Academy and I was experiencing a complete mixture of emotions. I was nervous - would all of the women turn up? I was anxious - would the ANA men accept the women on the course? But above all, I felt a sense of excitement - days like this have the potential to make a huge step forward for equality for women, if not in the whole of Afghanistan, at least in our Academy.
Within the first two hours of the course kicking off, all of my questions were being answered. The girls turned up (early) and they were all clearly eager to start the course. The men didn't seem at all fazed by the three female sergeants amongst their number, rather it turned out that I was a far more fascinating prospect for them. The thought hadn't even crossed my mind amongst my other worries; I was so concerned about the ANA women, that I had completely forgotten that I am some kind of freakish phenomenon to the men here in Afghanistan. Although the PTIs who work in the gym every day had got used to seeing me working, this was a completely new group of people I had to persuade to trust me. Having a woman as their course instructor, in a position of authority and power over them was completely new for the men, no wonder they were completely shocked! Once again I found myself in a position of having to prove myself to the men; thankfully this time I had the visible support of the three women on the course who thought it was brilliant having a woman in charge. I realised I needed to show myself to be a strong role-model for the girls to follow in their future careers as instructors at the Academy.
The moment this dawned on me I realised what a vital part in helping change mindsets in Afghanistan I am playing here. My efforts to inspire this small group of ANA women, has the potential to make a difference in the long term. If they see me in front of the class, confidently teaching the men, then why can't they? Yes, it's only a few people now - but if my influence is reflected in the way the female sergeants behave around their male colleagues and when they are delivering lessons to the cadets the effect becomes magnified. The more I can show people how capable I am, the more they will realise that women can be just as competent as men in their Army.
After all the introductions and my 'sales pitch' the students were faced with their first experience of the physical testing element of the course. I needed the girls to be seen to be doing exactly the same tests as the men; I was very conscious that the credibility of the mixed course rested on their willingness to participate fully. Just 'getting on with it' is something that seems to be quite a hurdle when it comes to working alongside women in Afghan culture, and I felt we needed to make the right impressions on both the male and female students right from the start. If the girls were seen to be getting an easier ride on the course the men would default to their natural assumptions that women are less capable than men. I needed to avoid that at all costs.
The time for the test came. This group of young women completed the press ups and then the sit ups alongside the men, without any fuss at all and they then moved outside for the run. Although it is just a basic physical test in the British Army, the 2.4km run was probably the most strenuous physical exercise any of the girls had ever done. The men didn't believe the girls would be able to do it, and several were arguing that the women should be allowed to just do half the distance. The problem is that diluting standards at this stage could open the door to those who would like to see the physical content of female commissioning course to be diluted too - I couldn't let that happen. Even though some of them were very slow and two of them walked some parts of the route, I was able to encourage them to keep going to the end. Despite the tantrums and tears on the way round, they all successfully completed the run. Their pride was palpable. A huge sense of relief washed over me; I knew that there was huge amount of work ahead of me, but here was a way that I could really make a difference for both the women and men at the Academy.
My next hurdle will be understanding the cultural sensitivities associated with women and exercise in Afghanistan and working out how to deliver an effective physical training programme on the commissioning course without offending anyone.