India’s first female Maritime Pilot shares her Womaning story

In conversation with Reshma Nilofer

Hello ji,

Today’s edition is going to be different from our usual fare. For the first time, we will focus on just one story. Fittingly, it is the story of someone who is used to being the first.

Reshma Nilofer is the first and the only female Maritime Pilot in the country, one among an elite few in the world.

To lend some context to how big a deal this is – only 2% of the sea faring population are women. And most of these women work in hospitality aboard cruise ships. So, in the merchant navy, women are a further miniscule fraction of even this 2%. Of them, exactly one woman in our country is a Maritime Pilot.

And that woman is Reshma.

I can barely contain my excitement that today, I get to share with you her story of Womaning in India.

Used to being the first

Reshma spent her childhood in Chennai with her elder sister and parents. Her parents were the wind beneath her wings. Reshma’s mother taught her that if she was willing to work hard, even the sky was not the limit for her dreams.

Growing up in an environment that never held her back for being a girl, Reshma recalls that her first brush with prejudice was at school. Students at her school were divided into Houses. Only boys were ever made House Captains, with the girls relegated to being Vice-Captains. She was the first student who protested against this. She asked her teachers why a girl cannot be the Captain and got the stock reply, “This is how things have always been done. It is tradition.”

She realized, however, that the school tradition had forgotten to delineate “boys’ sports” and “girls’ sports”, so she became the Captain of the school football team.

Something different

After finishing her schooling, Reshma wanted to do something different from the traditional doctor and engineer career paths that most of her peers were selecting (or having selected for them by their parents). Reshma’s parents said they would support her with whatever career she chose. One day, she saw an advertisement for Maritime College in the newspaper and it seemed like an exciting opportunity. She applied and got selected for the four-year course.

At college, we were only 5 girls in a batch of 250 students. If you included all the other batches, the grand total was 6 girls out of 5000 students. Some of our lecturers would ask us, “Are you sure you want to do this? It could be very difficult. How will you work in the engine room? How will you do this job?”

The less polite Professors would bluntly say, “At the most, you girls will sail for 5-10 years. Then you will settle down and sit ashore.”

“Settling down”

Looking back, there are several things that Reshma finds wrong in the assumption that women cannot do certain jobs because of this looming cloud of “settling down”.

First, “settling down” – a euphemism for having children – seems to be the universally accepted definition of womanhood. Unless you have a child, you are somehow not a complete woman.

Second, there is an assumption that a mother will not be able to do this job. There is nothing that women have not gone on to achieve after having kids. Mary Kom, Serena Williams – some of the best athletes of our times are mothers. I know Maritime Pilots abroad who have done this job not just after becoming a mother, but even while they were pregnant, climbing rope ladders from one moving boat to another, well into their second trimester!

And third, there is an implicit free pass given to fathers when such statements are made. Men have children too, but their careers are to stay unaffected because it is assumed that their wives will bring up their children for them.

What does a Maritime Pilot do, exactly?

The Captain of the ship is the highest authority on the ship. At sea, the Captain knows everything there is to know about their ship, its route, its movement, etc. However, when they head close to land, the Captain needs someone with local knowledge and expertise to manoeuvre the ship safely in and out of the port.

The Maritime Pilot’s role is to board the ship when it is close to port, and advise the Captain to help them navigate it safely onto the port. And then repeat the task when the ship departs. To do this, the Pilot boards and deboards between a moving ship and a moving boat. Using a rope ladder. Often over choppy waters, and sometimes in bad weather. The physical demands of this task are humungous, and the risk is high. There have even been fatalities of Maritime Pilots on the job. In fact, Reshma herself got injured at work in August 2020 and it took a few months for her to recover fully from the injury.

There is no doubt that the job comes with its occupational hazards. But the risks are the same, irrespective of the Pilot’s gender. The physical nature of these risks, however, leads to several pre-conceived notions about women’s ability to do this job.

“Captain, it is your lucky day.”

The Captain is all-powerful on a ship. And a Maritime Pilot is the only person who gets to give directions to this all-powerful being, on their turf. So it is a role that comes with a lot of power – something people are not used to associating with women at work. Reshma feels this on a daily basis.

Often, when I board the ship, the Captain sees me and then peers to see if the actual Pilot is walking behind me.

When they realize that I am the Pilot, they typically say something like, “Oh, I did not know that India had a woman Pilot too.”

I usually reply, “Yes Captain, it is your lucky day. I am your Pilot today.”

A Pilot is not a replaceable person. So once the Pilot has boarded your ship, you have no choice as a Captain but to work with them. Different Captains have different ways of making peace with the fact that they have no choice but to work with a woman Pilot.

I often sense the Captains looking over my shoulder to see if I know what I am doing.

But once we dock safely, some of them have even been gracious enough to come to me and say, “Ma’am, you really did a great job today. I have to admit that I was worried if a woman will be able to take my ship to safety. I am sorry for thinking like that, I have a lot of respect for you.”

“Is she on her period?”

Reshma says that, much like these gracious Captains, she has had the good fortune of working with a few male mentors and allies who have been appreciative and supportive of her. However, by and large, it has been far from an easy journey. She spoke about the broad attitudes shown towards her by men she has worked with.

Most men resent having to work with or for a woman on a ship.

Some of these men are constantly on the lookout for ways to find fault in a woman’s work. This makes for a very strained working environment. And our performance is scrutinized with a magnifying glass for any signs of a crack.

Then there are the Father Figures who think of themselves as women’s protectors and start trying to control every aspect of their lives. They start telling you who to talk to, who not to talk to, and expect you to report your every movement to them. It can get very intrusive and nosey. They don’t seem to be aware that a professional line is being crossed.

‘Feelings’ and ‘gossip’ are often words cited to denigrate women professionals. However, there are also the kind of men who absolutely hate that a woman is on a ship at all and make no effort to hide their feelings. I have had such men gossip about me behind my back to an unbelievable extent.

If I do something wrong, they will say, “Women are not cut out for this job.”

If I do something right, they will point to the man nearest to me and say, “She gets her man slaves to do everything for her anyway”.

If I point out something they are not doing right, it will be, “Why is she so moody today? Is she on her period?”

And if I get promoted, it will be, “Oh she got it because she is a woman” or “because she looks good” or everyone’s favourite, “she must have slept with the boss”.

Designed by the men, for the men

Not only are women not welcomed aboard in spirit, there is also little physical evidence of a ship being made keeping any female presence in mind.

For decades now, hundreds of thousands of seafaring women across the world have been asking for menstrual waste management facilities aboard ships. There are provisions for wet waste, dry waste, plastic waste, but no provision for menstrual waste. I personally switched to sustainable methods like menstrual cups and reusable cloth napkins a few years back, but for a majority of the women who use sanitary napkins, there is little choice.

I have heard of instances where a woman disposed of the napkin with the rest of the waste, and the man handling waste segregation publicly insulted her for it – not sparing a thought for the basic question, “Where else is she supposed to throw it?”

And so, women are left with no other option but to hold on to that insanitary waste, hide it like some sort of a thief, and wait for the ship to reach land to find a bin!

The request for something as basic as a separate bin for menstrual waste has been repeatedly voiced by women in all kinds of roles, on all kinds of ships. We are living in 2021 and yet to see any change. Ships are clearly designed by men and for men.

Naari Shakti

In 2019, Reshma was awarded the Naari Shakti award by the Government of India. President Ram Nath Kovind presented the award to her. One would imagine that if nothing else, being given such a high honour has to get one their co-workers’ respect. Maybe even adulation?

Sure. Just not if you are a woman.

When I won the award, I had male colleagues make all sorts of snide comments to me and about me behind my back.

They said, “We did this job for 300 years and no one said anything about it. She became a Pilot yesterday and suddenly the President is awarding her.”

If such people made the slightest attempt to understand, they would see that the challenges a woman has to face to get to this point are inconceivable and incomparable.

But you can only wake someone who is asleep, not someone who is pretending to be asleep.

Reshma’s advice for employers

In a recent talk she gave, Reshma spoke about how it makes actual business sense that the shipping industry in particular, but the working world in general, ensures that women – 50% of the population – are provided an environment where they are able to contribute equally to the workforce.

Here are the points she highlighted in her talk:

1.       Leave your biases at the door: First of all, let us do away with our prejudices and biases that certain jobs are impossible for women to do, or do effectively. If we are given the kind of supportive and nurturing environment that society gives young boys and men, there is nothing that women cannot do just as well, if not better. I want to live in a world where we are not the lady CEO, the lady Pilot, the lady entrepreneur. No man has ever been called a male CEO or a male pilot or male entrepreneur.

2.       Men, become allies: It is exhausting for women to keep advocating for ourselves all the time. We need the men to join our voices in favour of equality so that we can create a fairer and more just world for ourselves and the children of today who are the future of tomorrow. Women need regulatory, cultural and legal support in the corporate world. Give us policies for enhanced acceptance, non-discrimination and zero tolerance of sexual harassment at the workplace.

3.       Maternity discrimination is a real thing: Women need to stop being penalized by employers for having and caring for their children. Whether it is maternity leave or a gap in their CV, there needs to be a respect in the professional world for the incredible amount of work it takes. Also, fathers need to be offered and encouraged to take paternity leave because only when we have equality at home can we expect equality at the workplace.

Nine out of nine

The first and the only Maritime Pilot of India signs off with one of her favourite stories.

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States who dedicated her life to justice and equality – was asked, “When will there be enough women in the Supreme Court?”

She replied, “When 9 out of 9 Supreme Court Justices will be women.”

The answer would always shock people.

Her response to this shock was, “But there had been nine men on the Court (for decades). And nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

Pioneers like Reshma will always be the first ones to have blazed the path. Here’s hoping that someday soon they will not be the only ones there.

My gratitude to Reshma for her time and her honesty. May her tribe increase.


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