Pakistan’s first female general hails Saudi Arabia for women-centric reforms

Pakistan’s first female general, Nigar Johar, who in November was appointed colonel commandant of the Army Medical Corps, has hailed Saudi Arabia for introducing “commendable” reforms for the welfare of women.

Lt. Gen. Johar joined the Army Medical College in 1981 and graduated four years later. She subsequently became the only woman in the history of the Pakistan Army to reach the rank of a three-star general, and was asked to lead a corps.

A native of Swabi, a small settlement in the conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan’s northwest, Johar said the environment of her town when she was growing up did not prevent her from dreaming of a professional career, adding women should believe in themselves as they are capable of excelling in any field.

She also praised the recent reforms undertaken by Saudi Arabia to empower women.

“In Saudi Arabia, where there were restrictions, females are driving there after commendable steps taken by His Majesty (King Salman),” she told Arab News in an exclusive interview earlier this week. “I was recently there for Umrah and saw female drivers there which made me very happy.”

Women’s rights are one of the issues that have benefited most from Saudi Arabia’s reform push in recent years. Saudi women have been appointed to high-ranking positions in the public and private sectors, as well as diplomatic missions. More Saudi women are also working in the legal profession and have opportunities to represent clients in court and work at public prosecution offices.

In her own case, Johar attributed professional success to a clear sense of purpose along with a system of meritocracy in the Pakistani armed forces.

“If you know your job and work hard with clear direction and sincerity, there is no reason why you would be left behind,” she said. “The army system is merit-based. This is also exemplified by my presence here.”

Explaining her passion for the armed forces, she said her father was an artillery officer who inspired her.

“He was my ideal,” she said. “I had seen him in uniform from the beginning which influenced my decision to become a doctor and join the army.”

Johar’s dedication and professional excellence captured the attention of her superiors, who gave her positions of command and authority, making her feel she was facing “the biggest challenge” of her life.

She said her first leadership role arrived when she was asked to command a hospital as a brigadier

“That was definitely a huge challenge, since you have to prove yourself,” she said. “Then you feel a burden of responsibility because you know that you are there to make it or break it for females coming there after you.”

With the outbreak of the coronavirus disease pandemic, Johar was asked to convert the Military Hospital Rawalpindi into a fully equipped COVID-19 center within a week.

She recalled the daunting challenge, saying: “We converted it into a COVID hospital by spreading oxygen services to over 100 beds and expanding its intensive care unit.”

As the disease started spreading in the country, she took the initiative to add a further 3,000 beds by taking over the Army Public School building.

“We worked day and night with our team to manage the emergency situation,” she said. “Now, I can proudly say that we did quite well, because our mortality ratio was very low.”

In the beginning of her career, Johar said she had faced gender-based discrimination, which was a global issue present in every field.

She remembered how female doctors were initially not allowed any specialty other than gynecology in the army, but said things have now changed.

“I wanted to be a cardiologist but I couldn’t because I was a female and they were not allowed to be cardiologists,” she said. “Now, we have females in so many areas in the army.”

Although her initial dream of a medical career did not come true, she believes her life took a better turn.

“I feel that my destiny turned out to be better than what I had planned for myself,” Johar said. “I could not become a cardiologist but I am sitting here now, which is better for me.”