An episode of sexual harassment on a public road in her late teens (once called ‘eve-teasing’) triggered Dr Seema Rao to toughen up and learn to defend herself through martial art. She went on to achieve a black belt in Taekwondo and Krav Maga, and 8th degree black belt in military martial arts.
She’s also the world’s highest qualified woman instructor in Bruce Lee’s art of Jeet Kune Do, and is a combat shooting instructor. She has been training the Special Forces of India for almost two decades without compensation, and is a pioneer in close quarter battle.
It’s safe to say: no one dares to mess with this woman now.
Seema’s is a remarkable story of persistence and strength. As the Buddhist parable goes, the higher the rocks in its path, the greater the wave. Having spent her childhood in Mumbai being fearful and timid, she grew up to be a brave adult, who confronted each fear head-on and overcame it, no matter what it took.
“When you know you will live just once – and that life can get over in just a blink of an eye – then you are able to see danger and dangerous situations in a detached fashion,” says the 50-year-old in retrospect. “You realise that every moment is precious, and you struggle to make the most of it. You begin to take all adversity in your stride.”
Married when she was just 18, Seema’s is also a story of a very special man and life partner, Major Deepak Rao, who encouraged her every step of the way, being her stepping stone and support at every junction.
He’s the person who pushed her to complete her martial arts and combat training; to study alternative medicine, immunology and leadership from international universities; and to learn fire-fighting, jungle survival, mountaineering and scuba deep-sea diving.
“My husband and I have a very philosophical approach to life, actually,” says Seema on the phone from her training academy in Mumbai, where their daughter Komal – who is also a martial-arts expert – handles the administration and assists Seema in conducting combat classes.
“In all the difficult moments of life, we have been together. Our friends in the Forces call us the ideal ‘buddy pair’ – two soldiers who are completely in sync in all functions, with harmony in mindset and total trust in the other.”
She goes on: “You can be a strong and resilient person by nature, but if you have someone’s support during the lowest points in your life, there is nothing like it.”
There have been plenty of low points in Seema’s life, not the least because of the difficult path she chose. As she says, she has broken practically every bone in her body. Once, she fell from a height of 50 feet and suffered vertebral fracture.
Another time, during a grappling bout with a fellow soldier, she lost her focus and balance after hearing the news of her father’s sudden demise. It led her to fall on her head, causing severe injury with loss of memory for months. She credits her family for being there for her throughout.
For her work as India’s first woman commando trainer who has so far trained over 20,000 soldiers from Indian armed forces, paramilitary and police, Seema has received three Army Chief Citations, a commendable record. She is also winner of the World Peace Award, and earlier this year, won the coveted Nari Shakti Puruskar, the highest civilian award for women.
“Each award means a lot – they are all about appreciation of one’s work. But to be honest, receiving the Nari Shakti award from the President of India is something I hold very dear to my heart. My achievements would be incomplete without this award,” says Seema.
Passionate about inspiring women, Seema is a TEDx speaker who gives frequent talks on overcoming obstacles and fighting to the finish. She has authored several books, including the world’s first encyclopedia of close combat operations, and used her life’s earnings to gift 1000 copies of the book to the Home Ministry and Indian Army. She gave copies of her book Commando Manual of Unarmed Combat to FBI and Interpol libraries.
Interestingly, Seema’s husband once clandestinely enrolled her for a beauty pageant when she was in her late 30s. “It showed me a different colour of life,” Seema laughs in recall. The contestants underwent training in a five-star hotel over several days. “We had a good time. I met women from many different walks of life,” says Seema, who flexed her biceps during her ramp walk to loud cheers, and won the runners-up position.
“Women don’t know their own self-worth,” says Seema. “Over generations, women have been brainwashed into believing they are not capable. But they have to be made aware of their qualities.”
As feminist role model, she feels a sense of responsibility towards fellow women. “My story inspires them. It’s a story of strife, frustration, glory – all the stages of life,” she says, recounting a talk she gave at the National Women’s Parliament in Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh, to tens of thousands of women. “My core is close quarter battle training. But my passion is women’s empowerment,” she signs off.
First published in eShe’s June 2019 issue
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