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South Asian Women and the Royal Navy

There are many parts of the Royal Navy's history that haven't been recorded in the way we'd do so now. Life and culture has changed and is continuing to change as the world develops.

It's important for a museum, managing a collection like ours, to be aware of these changes, and recognise the differences from how information and stories were curated in the past to how it's collected and used in the present day. We want to reflect the past, present and curate whatever happens in the future so we have a much clearer, balanced view of the story and we can share it in the best way possible.

One of the topics that we constantly research and develop is the role and relationship women have with the Royal Navy. 

Women have always and continue to play an important role in the Royal Navy's past and present. Whether it's in a supporting role, as a WREN or as current active navy personnel, women are integral to the Royal Navy. 

In this post we start to look at the extensive and integral involvement of South Asian Women with the Royal Indian Navy.

Womens Royal Indian Navy

South Asian Women are trailblazers. Fact.

During the Second World War the women from the Womens Royal Indian Navy (WRINS) cracked codes to track down U-boat submarines, maintained machines guns, trained in gunnery duties, performed clerical duties and proved that women did have a place in the military. Formed in 1942, by 1945 approximately two thirds of women employed by them were Indian nationals.

Consisting mostly of young girls, the WRINS improved the status of women in India. Women could work away from their families, gaining more professional and social independence. Though they were not allowed to go to sea they could become deeply involved in naval life and play a vital role in defeating the enemy.

These women were able to make a difference, developing their skills, broadening their outlook and also directly confronting issues that still affect us today, those of race and gender equality.

Then versus Now

Their experiences are captured in images and magazine cuttings in photo albums of the WRINS given to Margaret Cooper, who was Deputy Director of the WRINS. It is on display in the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s Hear My Story Gallery.

But the WRINS voices in this album have not been recorded, their words have been edited by copywriters, so if we could ask them about their experiences - truthfully what would they say?

We can’t ask them, but what we can do is capture the voice of a modern trailblazer and record an un-edited account of a current serving South Asian Woman in the Royal Navy for future generations.

Lt Cdr Bhavna (Bev) Parmar has served in the Royal Navy for 14 years and is the Training Manager in charge of the Future Training Unit responsible for developing the engineering training for the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers and updating the training on the Type 45 destroyers. She has an Aerospace engineering and astronautics degree which helps as she gets to grips with understanding new systems that are used on the ships.

Let’s be honest, South Asian women are still pretty rare in the Navy. As Lt Cdr Graham Kerr from the Royal Navy’s Diversity & Inclusion Policy – Race, Ethnicity, Religion & Belief Lead says “South Asian women, as a minority within a minority in the RN are very few and far between so Lt Cdr Parmar is one of very few women of South Asian Heritage serving in the RN.”

In order to reflect the true, complete story of the Royal Navy then we need to ensure that we have more diverse voices, such as Lt Cdr Parmar’s captured in our collections to reflect the reality of the time that they are serving.

In conversation with Lt Cdr Parmar

We interviewed Lt Cdr Parmar about her motivations behind joining the Royal Navy, her perception of those first South Asian trailblazers and consider that perhaps there are some similarities between the two generations of women as to why they joined the military?

Why did you join the Royal Navy?

“Two parts of it intrigued me about the Navy, it was interesting, it was a field and an environment that no one I knew from my culture, background or family were ever interested in joining and secondly there was a bit of a challenge against it because it was a bit of a taboo environment particularly in my family where you can’t join that, especially being a woman, it was almost a retaliation you could say to prove the point that yes you can join and yes I will achieve it, thankfully it worked out.

Before I joined the Navy I was very under confident, I had been brought up with failure rather than passing- I have been brought up being told that you will not be able to achieve it. The Navy has brought up my confidence. You meet some amazing people, my best friends are in the Navy and I would never have met them if I hadn’t gone to Dartmouth. The people are the best thing.

My family are very proud of me and in all seriousness, I would not have been able to stay in the Navy nor succeed in the Navy without my husband, he has been amazing. He knew I wanted to join the military before we got together, he has never discouraged me.

I have experienced prejudice outside of the Royal Navy but not in the Navy. I will not wear my uniform whilst picking up my children from school.

From my perspective, I am truly humbled that these women [WRINS] did the jobs they did in this environment as they must have experienced quite a bit of prejudice and yet they still carried on and that was prejudice through ignorance rather than to prejudice through deliberate action because at that time there was not a whole world approach that we have now where the colour of your skin doesn’t determine where you come from and a particular way of life, so I am truly humbled that they did that.

It’s fantastic that those women did that service but I think that it got forgotten and that’s a shame because those women would have been fantastic figureheads for Asian Women to look up to and to understand that there are women who do these engineering kind of roles, ammunitions kind of roles, flying aircraft and that’s not colour related there are all women who do jobs just as men do, have a look” 

What do you think the WRIN’S would think of you?

“I’d like to hope that they would say at least there are some Asian Women in the military and they are raising the flag to say it is a fantastic career, consider it”.

Thank you Lt Cdr Parmar for taking the time to chat with us and for sharing your perspective. 

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