Lieutenant Commander Bhavna (Bev) Parmar has had an impressive career in the Royal Navy.
Having served for 14 years within the Senior Service, she is at this point a Training Manager for those working on the courseware development for both Queen Elizabeth Class carriers and Type 45 destroyers. The holder of an aerospace engineering and astronautics degree, Parmar is well equipped for understanding the complex systems aboard modern ships and providing engineering training for those using them.
Though she was not always confident in herself.
As part of this years’ just-past South Asian Heritage Month, the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) interviewed Lt Cdr Parmar, noting that given the small number of South Asian women in the Navy, she is a kind of trailblazer.
She told the NMRN:
“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.”
Speaking of why she joined up, she said:
“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.”
Not only did it work out, but the Navy been exemplary when it came to diversity, she said, telling the NMRN:
“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.”
The NMRN has also made a point of connecting Parmar’s story with those who were, in a sense, her forerunners: women in the WRINS (the Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service.)
While women served in a number of auxiliary roles and on the home front during World Wars 1 and 2, and black men served in combat during the First and Second World Wars, women within British India contributed to the war effort in their own way.
Part of this effort involved women who served with the RIN, the Royal Indian Navy (the navy of India when it was still part of the British Empire during World War 2) - or more specifically, with the WRINS, the Women's Royal Indian Naval Service.
These women performed vital roles within the service on land so that more men would be available to crew ships.
While these land-based roles included mundane (but important) clerical work, they also encompassed maintaining machine guns, training in gunnery duties and even cracking codes to help track down U-boats.
The WRINS were formed in 1942 and had a considerable number of Anglo-Indian women (those with both Indian and English ancestry.) Though by 1945, Indian nationals made up two-thirds of the service.
Chief Officer Margaret Cooper, herself a member and then Deputy Director of the WRINS, at one point said of the those in the service:
"Women of many nationalities, castes and creeds are represented in this young service, and it is particularly interesting and encouraging to those who know the WRINS, to note how well these women and girls with their many diverse opinions and customs, get on together in their everyday life and work."
While the pictures in Margaret Cooper’s photo album, donated by her to the NMRN, help to illustrate some of the social and military history of the WRINS, the National Museum of the Royal Navy notes that their voices were not recorded. The museum instead got the voice of Lieutenant Commander Parmar and asked her what she thought of the WRINS.
“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 … “
Lt Cdr Parmar also pointed out that this prejudice was not necessarily deliberate, and that ignorance about the WRINS and the importance of their contribution to the war was the main issue.
“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.“
Women, she says, who did technical and engineering roles, another connection with the modern-day Lt Cdr Parmar herself and her engineering training.
When asked what the WRINS of the Second World War might think of her, Lt Cdr Parmar said:
“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.”
For more on Lieutenant Commander Parmar and the WRINS, visit the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
And for more on women in the Armed Forces, click here.