If the phrase “fight like a girl” had a visual definition, it would be Dr. Seema Rao. She is known as India’s lone female commando trainer and has dedicated her life to increasing the skills of people in the Indian military. Her badassery extends beyond just being a qualified commando trainer (which in itself is no small feat!), she is also a combat shooting instructor, a firefighter, a scuba diver, an HMI medalist in rock climbing, and one of the 10 women in the world certified in Jeet Kune Do.
Dr. Seema is the daughter of Professor Ramakant Sinari, the man who had helped liberate Goa from the Portuguese, according to Vagabomb.com. She began her interest in combat training and martial arts from a young age, and at 16 years old met her future husband Major Deepak Rao, who today is her commando training partner. You know what they say, “a commando couple that trains together, stays together.” OK we totally made that one up, but the saying definitely applies to Seema’s life!
Aside from bonding over a love of physical activities, Seema and Deepak also pursued a career in medicine together. Seema went on to earn an MBA in crisis management after becoming a doctor. Seema and Deepak developed their own training program and in 1996 began working with the Army, Navy, Border Security Force, and National Security Guard, a partnership that is going on 2 decades now.
Seema and her husband chose not to take compensation from this partnership, as they say they wanted to become guest trainers of the Indian military out of their patriotic love of their country.
As if the power couple are not busy enough, they also run a program called DARE (not to be confused with the American anti-drug program made popular in the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan) which stands for Defense Against Rape and Eve-teasing. Eve-teasing is the Indian colloquial term for harassment toward women, a common problem in the country.
With DARE, Seema and Deepak mostly train women to learn how to defend themselves on the streets, and this has become quite popular in places like Mumbai.
“Most of the women traveling late in the night face threat from sexual predators. This program not only deals with physical aspect but also psychological aspect, which teaches how to avoid miscreants,” Seema told the Times of India in an interview about her work.
“I think DARE program is very important as it equips women, both mentally and physically, to face adverse situations posed by potential eve teasers, molesters, and other sexual assaults. This is very easy to learn and it is all about women empowerment,” she added.
Seema has faced her fare share of detractors and naysayers, yet in a testament to the power of her training program, has successfully managed to fend of potential attackers.
“During initial days of learning martial arts, I was targeted by three sexual predators at a beach but I taught them a lesson for a lifetime that day,” she said.
As for sexist push back against having a woman in a leadership position in a typically male-dominated field, she allows her work to speak for itself.
“It’s a physical field, so one needs to have physical capabilities and skills. When you are able to do something on your own, it leads everyone by example. Male ego was subtle but besides that I did not have any problems,” she said.
Having trained a number of elite forces in India, including the Black Cats, Marines, Para-commandos, as well as the National Police Academy and Police Quick Response Teams in nearly every major city, Seema says the men quickly learned who they were working with once they saw her in action.
“Not only did I have to discipline them, but I also had to gain their confidence in my ability to teach. However, eventually, I have always managed to earn the respect of commandos that I have trained,” she told Vagabomb.
Despite having a ridiculously busy lifestyle and work schedule, Seema does have time for a personal life. She and her husband adopted a young girl, but has still felt the sting of sacrifice in other areas.
“I have not regretted anything. However, I have made many sacrifices. Firstly, because of extreme physical work and demands, it was not possible to have my own biological child. In order to complete the family, I adopted a girl child. Secondly, I could not attend my father’s funeral since I was away training army personnels. I could have gone back but did not want training to end mid way. My father surely would understand my problems,” she explained.
Her story and work are inspiring far more than just military and law enforcement, as Seema was recently asked to give a presentation for TEDx MITE (Mangalore Institute of Technology and Engineering). She was also featured on the Humans of Bombay Facebook page, where she spoke about the influence of the men in her life, and how she has been able to transcend gender restrictions which still abound in many areas of Indian society and culture.
“My father was a freedom fighter, and my whole life I’ve wanted to be like him— to make a difference for my country. Even though I’m a certified doctor, my heart always longed to serve the country,” she began.
However, when she met and fell in love with her future husband, both their sets of parents did not approve of the relationship, but it did not stop them from doing what they desired to do with their training.
“At 18 we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together and our parents didn’t approve so we set out on our own since then. He knew that I wanted to empower myself and do something for the country so as a stepping stone, he began to train me in martial arts. We would go to work all day and at night train until sunrise…with every passing day I felt more independent and powerful. I wanted to become a commando trainer and I was so determined that I trained harder than ever before,” she recalled.
“As time went by and my commitment to this cause grew, my in-laws disapproved of me, the woman of the house undergoing such intense training and one day asked us to leave their home. My husband and I moved into this small clinic space, which is the only place we had at that but this is something that brought us even closer together,” she said.
She ends the piece by emphasizing how important it is to have men supporting women in order to move toward a more equal world.
“There have been many lows in my life — on the family front, on the health front — I’ve been injured multiple times and on the financial front as well…but I didn’t stop. Often I hear that we live in a male dominated society, but I have never let my gender come in the way of what I wanted to achieve. My husband and I have always been equals and that’s why we’re so strong — from work to family we’re equally invested in both. As a society, that’s how we evolve — by having strong, independent women who are supported by strong, independent men as equals — two halves who can take on the world together,” she concluded.
To see a woman who has defied social norms, being supported by her husband, and having a family of her own to pass on her legacy (Seema says their adopted daughter went on to become a doctor, which doesn’t surprise us given the parents she has!) is such a powerful visual reminder of the importance of role models.
You can keep up with what Dr. Seema Rao is doing by following her on Facebook.