At a very young age, Beauty Akhter made up her mind that she would become a sailor and travel around the world by sea, as she watched the cadets of the Bangladesh Marine Academy (BMA) – located near her family residence – walking around in white clothes.
To make her dream a reality, she got admitted to the BMA in 2012 after passing the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examination. That was the first time the BMA opened its door to female students.
Even though women's participation was ensured in almost all sectors, there was no Bangladeshi female officer on oceangoing ships until then. "I entered the Marine Academy with the conviction of contributing to this sector," Beauty Akhter told The Business Standard.
She passed out in 2013 after completing a two-year Pre-Sea Training Course as the best scorer.
But the path to establishing a rewarding career as a seafarer has not been all smooth sailing for her. In fact, she has had to face obstacles at every step. She has had to go through a lot of hardships to prove herself in the workplace, but she has wanted to overcome all hurdles by dint of strong willpower and determination.
"Running after a job and then proving myself in the profession has been a constant challenge for me over the past nine years since the completion of my course," lamented Beauty, adding, "Relentless obstacles and non-cooperation sometimes make me feel like I have done something wrong by embarking on this profession."
Elaborating on her struggles, Beauty Akhter said, "After completing the course, I went to various private companies with CVs to do 'free time' – a kind of internship – on a ship but sometimes I was not even allowed to enter the office. Private companies said they would rather keep a man paying him twice the salary but would not hire a girl.
"Disappointed, I often used to visit the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation office. Later, the corporation gave me an opportunity to complete a one-year free time without pay on its ship Banglar Shikha. While it is unthinkable for a man to work without pay, we girls worked for one year without pay. The boys can take the exams later with the money they get from the internship. The opposite has happened with female cadets."
Banglar Shikha used to sail inside the country and therefore there was no opportunity to go to another country, which appeared as a big obstacle in getting a job later, Beauty continued.
She further said she has had only two job contracts, including the internship from 20 September 2014 to 30 September 2015 on 'Banglar Shikha', over the past one decade.
After spending one year preparing for exams and another two years looking for a job, she joined the MV Banglar Orjon, a ship owned by the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation, as a third officer on 25 December 2018.
She sailed across rough seas to various ports in about 20 countries in Asia and Africa with the ship, and then signed off in 2020.
Beauty is the first female sailor with the rank of "third officer" on an oceangoing ship.
"Innumerable adversities could not shatter my dream of becoming a sailor. When I started working, I thought I could watch and handle the ship. I thought I was able to cope with the hostile environment while crossing the rough seas. Then I thought I was more capable than a man. Any work is possible if one's willpower and determination are strong. From this realisation, I have overcome hundreds of obstacles and moved forward."
Beauty has now appeared for the post of chief officer. She wants to join a ship as a third or second officer after passing the exam. She said her dream will be fulfilled only if she can operate a ship as a captain.
Describing her work experience on 'Banglar Orjon', Beauty Akhter said the male officers of the ship initially found it hard to believe that girls were on board. "We were like aliens to them. They imposed various restrictions on our movements on the ship. We were kept separate. They thought we were not worth anything. They thought we did not learn how to work as we did not go abroad during free time."
It took around four months to make the male officers realise that women sailors also were capable of performing their duties, said Beauty, adding that eventually they were able to make the authorities happy with their work.
"Satisfied with my work, the captain of the ship later told me that he would like to have one female third officer instead of four male third officers."
Asked what challenges female cadets still have to face, Beauty said the Shipping Corporation is not hiring officers as per schedule. She also asked for ensuring equal wages and ranks for both male and female sailors to encourage more women to enter this profession.
Regarding people who have been her inspiration in this profession, Beauty said, "My family members have given me mental courage in this struggle. They are still inspiring me to achieve my goals."
Beauty's father Mohammad Bahar Uddin works at Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Limited (CFUL) while her mother Nurjahan is a housewife. She is the second among four children of her parents. Her ancestral home is in Noakhali. Beauty was born and brought up in Chattogram.