In the larger construct of women striving for gender equality across the world, the entry of women in militaries is seen as ‘breaking a formidable male bastion’. The military was considered the exclusive preserve of men, but that situation no longer prevails as many countries now have women serving in their armed forces. Most militaries however, continue to deny a role to women in the combat arms of their armed forces and the breaking of this ‘male preserve’ is seen by many activists as necessary to usher in an era of gender equality. The issue continues to be hotly debated in India and abroad, the subject having its supporters and detractors in equal measure.
Their is no denying the fact that some women have distinguished themselves in combat. Indian history testifies to the heroism and bravery shown by Razia Sultan (1205 – 1240) and Rani Laxmibai, more popularly called the Rani of Jhansi (1835 – 1858). But many more women have distinguished themselves in combat though their exploits are not that well known. To name but a few, Belawadi Mallamma, born to Sode king Madhulinga Nayakawas, formed a women’s army to fight the Maratha empire to save her kingdom. Rani Velu Nachiyar was the first woman of Tamil origin to challenge the British empire, before even Rani Laxmibai. Rani Abbakka from Chowta dynasty ruled a small coastal town called Ullal, 8 km away from Mangalore and fiercely resisted the Portuguese in the first half of the sixteenth century, gaining the name Rani Abhaya (fearless queen). There have been countless others from across the country to effectively disprove the notion that women are not capable of combat.
But is combat a necessary indicator to gauge the success of the gender equality movement? Rafia Zakaria in her article, ‘Women in Militaries’ has given a contrarian viewpoint, arguing cogently that women in militaries will be seen as mere figureheads in the fight for gender equality, and in the process the more substantive issues which need to be addressed will get ignored.
This line of argument cannot be brushed away. While large strides have been taken towards the emancipation of women, legacy attitudes discriminating against women continue to prevail. Some of these have religious sanction and some are driven by social attitudes and mores. Even advanced western democracies are not free of gender bias, as evinced by a New York Times column of 31 March 2016, which reported that five key members of the United States women’s national soccer team, the reigning Women’s World Cup and Olympic champion, plan to file a federal complaint charging U.S. Soccer (the governing body for the sport in America) with wage discrimination. The players contend that though the women’s team is the driving economic force for U.S. Soccer, its players are paid far less than their counterparts on the men’s national team. Similarly, in many parts of rural India, women are paid less than their male counterparts for the same quantum of work. While awareness is causing a dent in female exploitation, much still remains to be done.
In the above paradigm, Zakaria’s contention has merit. It is easy to brush aside gender concerns by the flippant response that women are now equal to men by pointing to the handful of women who are now in combat roles in the military. Women donning combat fatigues and taking part in live combat gives a certain handle to people to proclaim that gender discrimination is now a thing of the past. Such women form convenient figureheads to disguise the fact that most women, the large majority of women, are very, very far from being equal. Zakaria rightly states that “the lie works in the US; it works even better in India or in Pakistan. Everyone is clapping so hard for the female fighter pilots that all the rest of the state’s inaction on women’s issues — from wage equality, to legal equality, to law-enforcement training for assault, to preventing trafficking — is conveniently pushed aside”.
The argument could be stretched to other fields too. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have had women Prime Ministers. But singular success by a small group of women hides within itself the larger ugly reality that women in these countries are uniformly exploited for reasons of their sex. Women continue to be treated as objects of possession, not as individuals in their own right. In many parts of South Asia, women are considered a liability. This reflects in lower literacy levels as compared to men, reduced access to health care and discrimination in food intake within the family structure. The preference for a male child results in female foeticide, which is resulting in skewed sex ratios. Dress codes are imposed on women through religious diktats. Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to impose restrictions on women – on their movement, dress and behaviour to keep them subservient to men. It is this mass of women that Zakaria addresses, basing her arguments on the premise that empowerment of a few is unlikely to change the lot of the rest of women in society.
This line of reasoning is unexceptionable, but like all facets of life, cannot be straitjacketed. It is true that gender equality requires more than just a token presence of a few female fighters in the combat arms. In any case, there still remains a great deal of opposition to women in the combat arms, and the grounds are not wholly unjustifiable.
It is indisputable that the very raison d’être of any armed force is to ensure the protection of the nation state. The dictates of modern warfare demand a certain calibre of personnel for the military and women thus cannot claim a right to be represented in the armed forces on the basis of gender alone. By the same yardstick, women cannot also be refused the right to join the forces based on their gender. The argument in India has been skewed, largely due to a lack of understanding of service conditions in the Indian context. Stated simply, role definition must be the sole criteria for intake of personnel into the armed forces and this must be independent of gender.
In India, a particularly jarring note was struck when women who had joined the Army as Short Service Commissioned Officers were denied regular commission, while their male counterparts were not similarly restricted. The Apex court rightly struck down the ruling as arbitrary. The Army erred in viewing the issue from a gender perspective and not from the perspective of cadre management of officers. The Army requires a strong support cadre which comes for the most part from Short Service Entry Officers and to grant regular commission to such officers was questionable. Entry to the regular cadre was rightly denied to female officers, but that did not stand the test of equity as it should have been denied to male officers too.
Arguments against the entry of women in the forces range from fears that service conditions could lead to sexual harassment or of what could happen to them should they be captured by the enemy. These arguments are baseless and stem in large measure from legacy attitudes which define women in certain roles and behaviour patterns. Male prisoners too have been tortured and sodomised by unscrupulous enemies, so why should women expect to be treated differently? The problem here is a skewed sense of viewing female genitalia as representative of family honour – an attitude stemming from viewing women as property of the male.
Many men in the forces are of the view that “an officer, who cannot run with us, cannot train with us and cannot exercise with us can barely be expected to lead us”. This is based on a false assumption that a woman cannot do all of these things. Interestingly, men do not view the male officers in similar light. Again, this has much to do with legacy attitudes and what is perceived to be the defined role for women in society. The question of women in combat arms hence cannot be predicated on the basis of gender. Rather, the determining feature must be suitability for the respective role and if a woman fits the bill, so be it. Criteria adopted for selection should be free from gender bias, making competence for the role the sole guiding principle for selection.
Writing on the subject, Colonel Gordon D. Batcheller of the US Marine Corps averred, “Some advocates insist it is a woman’s right to serve in the military if she wants. That, of course, is nonsense. The military is created and structured to win wars, and its personnel policies are crafted to serve that end, not satisfy vocational whims”. While it is nobody’s case that a woman should be enrolled on the basis of her sex, the Colonel is being presumptive in assuming that women lack the competence and skill sets to fight and win wars. Sadly, that too is part of legacy attitudes.
The one single point of difference I have with Zakaria is her contention that women in combat arms will be mere figureheads – a clever ploy to disguise the fact that the majority of women are very, very far from being equal. That may be so but symbolism too has an important role to play in changing the attitude of society to its women. Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza are two Indian ladies who have transformed the Indian scene with their prowess in badminton and tennis respectively. Mary Kom has done the same in boxing. Geeta Phogat paved the way for women to take up wrestling as a sport – a feat which was near unimaginable just a few years back. Women in India as I daresay in Pakistan too, have broken the glass ceiling in many fields – politics, law, academia, journalism, business, sports, mountaineering – almost every facet of life. By becoming figureheads, they have given new hope to all the women who are shackled by religious and social constraints; they now have hope that their chains too can be broken. The key is to look at issues through the prism of competence and gender neutrality and not discriminate on the basis of sex.