Uncharted waters – meet Captain Mona Shindy

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WHEN Captain Mona Shindy climbed aboard HMAS Canberra to test missiles in the Pacific, a locker had to be converted into a sleeping quarters to accommodate her.

Never before had an active Australian warship carried women. But aged 23 and launching what would become a 26-year career with the Navy, this was just the first hurdle of a trailblazer.

Already she had a University degree in the blokey domain of engineering. Weapons engineer. And if this were not unusual enough, Captain Shindy happens to be Muslim, and for most of her career in the navy, has been a mother

Australian Navy Captain Mona Shindy

On board HMAS Canberra Captain Shindy and her two female room-mates were like celebrities, and not all of it was positive publicity.

“We were an absolute novelty and people knew our every movement, what we got up to and where we were. Overall the experience was a positive experience but there certainly were times that were quite challenging,” Captain Shindy says

“Most female engineers in any work environment _ you really do have to work that little bit harder initially to prove your worth, to demonstrate your competence to really be accepted fully as valued member and a real contributor to the team.”

Then came the challenge of Ramadan, and explaining as a young sublieutenant that she was fasting and would appreciate a meal being put aside for her.

The response was along the lines of: “You’ll eat with everyone else, or you just won’t.” Which left her “the middle of the ocean with a few cans of tuna”.

The response was along the lines of: “You’ll eat with everyone else, or you just won’t.” Which left her “the middle of the ocean with a few cans of tuna”.

Once the right ranking officer was made aware of the problem, a solution was soon found.

Accolade…Telstra NSW Business Woman of the Year. Picture: Christian Gilles

Anger was never an option.

“My first reaction is to empathise, rather than get angry, and to try and be part of the solution and work on the education piece, through engagement and interaction and just being professional about what I do and delivering professional outcomes and results. In the end, people respect that.”

It’s an attitude that has delivered her to the pinnacle of her career, recognised this week when she was named NSW Telstra Business Woman of the Year. As Director Littoral Warfare and Maritime Support, Captain Shindy advises the Government on the best way to spend billions of dollars on replacement tankers, ships, patrol boats — almost everything except submarines.

She was previously charged with turning around the Fast Frigate System Program Office, from an inefficient organisation with adversarial stakeholder relationships, to a collaborative culture with performance-based contracts. And she shaved 30 per cent in costs from a $130 million budget.

“People were happy at the end of the tenure, ships were leaving the wharf on time with all the maintenance done, when initially they weren’t.”

Soon after her first tour of duty on HMAS Canberra, Captain Shindy married and had a daughter, now 20 and a son, 18, who finished his HSC on Wednesday. Their happy accident followed a decade later in the form of another daughter, now 11.

Captain Mona Shindy at Garden Island Navy Base in Sydney. Picture: Toby Zerna

The job has required service on ships for two-year durations, with time away ranging from two to six months.

“But six months in anyone’s language for a mother with two young children and a young family, is a very significant sacrifice.

“I’m not going to dress it up. It was tough.”

It could not have happened without an extended family backing her up. Crucial were her mother — “who in many ways acted as a pseudo mother for my children sometimes when I was away” — and husband, who has taken many career breaks.

“For me, the only thing that made it easier is knowing that those kids had just as much love and support from those that were with them than I could have given them myself.”

Her family migrated from Egypt when she was three.

“The moment my parents migrated to Australia, they were determined to feel as Australian as anyone else.” She holds the position of Chief of Navy’s Strategic Adviser on Islamic Cultural Affairs, for which she was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross in this year’s Australia Day honours for her work bridging cultural divides.

Cpt Shindy is a weapons engineer with 26 years experience. Picture: Toby Zerna

It is her aim to encourage more Muslims to join the defence force — around 100 of the 45000 defence force personnel identify as Muslim, 27 of them in the Navy.

“There’s lots of Australian Muslims who feel very hurt … by previous military campaigns that our defence forces have been on that have I guess resulted in discomfort and difficulty …. where those campaigns have occurred that have caused ramifications for a lot of innocent people.”

She says terrorist attacks which have hijacked aspects of religious teachings to justify those behaviours have created “fear and uncertainty for others who are non-Muslims”.

“For some people that gets looked at as the whole Muslim community,” Captain Shindy says. Some young Muslims see this in black and white “us and them” terms.

“They don’t have the maturity necessarily to see the greys and to understand that this is not everyone that has those views about you. That erodes confidence for those kids.”

There’s lots of Australian Muslims who feel very hurt … by previous military campaigns that our defence forces have been on

Her message to them is this: “You can be a proud Australian that loves everything about this great nation and still love your roots and love where you came from and straddle both worlds and both communities. That’s how I live my life and I like to help other people find their way in living those two things.”

And she can cite her own experience, including active service at the start of the 2003 Iraq War.

“It’s always tough, when you go anywhere, whether that’s Iraq or not. They were difficult times, they were interesting times I think for the whole nation.

“We are an instrument of our democratically elected government and I think that’s something that is very much accepted, understood and part of the contract that I personally have with my organisation. That’s my role, that’s what I signed up to do.”

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