Break the brass ceiling: Indian military women deserve a fighting chance

She raised her hand, but the general said: “No, we can’t send you there… it’s too dangerous… our jawans are not used to women… you might die.”. She responded, firm and clear: “But isn’t that a choice every soldier makes when they don their uniform? Why is my choice being treated differently?”

In the Indian context, the question is not whether women are ready for combat roles in the defence forces. The real question is: will we let go of our illusions about women and do we want to provide equal work opportunities to them?

We are witnessing an extraordinary social and cultural shift in India, bucking the old gender roles. There are still the laughably confused matrimonial adverts for “smart, homely, MNC-employed” girls. But there is also a big change. Haryana, which was infamous for its heinous female foeticide even up to a decade ago, is now producing a remarkable number of women wrestlers for the country, who bag golds and silver medals on international platforms. Our current batch of jawans in the military are also young boys who went to school with such budding wrestlers back in their villages. To my mind, they are more than ready to have women command them in combat. Let us not impose obsolete standards on a new generation.

Moving on, it is time to address the alibis of logistics and the capacity of the forces on the frontline to deal with diversity. Do we have women’s toilets, separate barracks, gender-sensitisation modules, policies to deal with harassment? No, and this is the biggest hurdle that our leaders and bureaucrats need to address now.

Will there be enough competent women for prestigious combat roles? The facts speak for themselves. Women have fought and held their own in war, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel. The ground situations in these countries, in terms of culture or geography, are not very different from our own. Certainly, not every woman would qualify for such a role, but just like the men, they can be rigorously screened and harshly trained before they pick up that gun, operate a tank or fly a fighter jet. In our own country, we see bright young girls thundering in fighter jets, as they undertake daytime missions on fighter aircraft notoriously branded as “flying coffins”, the MiG-21 Bisons. Six naval officers circled the globe on INSV Tarini in June 2018. These are the girls who were transformed from being ‘homely next-door creatures’ into magnificent soldiers.

Male US Navy SEAL aspirants have faced 20% qualifying chances during their preliminary training and pass rates are as low as 35%. Marine commandos in India undergo extensive selection and training too. It is only fair to expect the same level of attention and resources for women soldiers to attain that level of excellence and be “war-ready”. We might also have a low pass rate while reaching these standards, but some of us will get there.

Another commonly heard excuse is that women do not qualify for combat roles because their legs are not long enough to fly the fighters. This is the  kind of logic that kept our country from inducting its first set of fighter pilots, even after women officers were brought into ground roles, to fly helicopters and transport aircraft, two decades ago. Pakistan Air Force went ahead and brought in women to fly jets before Indian Air Force.

Around the world, the same bias is manifest. Global equipment designers for aircraft, helmets, body armour, boots, night-vision goggles and so on construct their prototypes with men of a certain average height in mind. And so, women, who are outside this norm have a hard time using them. Women have to remove layers of body armour to fit the curves of their bodies, which endangers their safety. I remember our training days when local cobblers had to custom-make boots for some of my fellow women officers.
Gender diversity is essential for any organisation’s success.

Recently, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon announced that they would no longer take a firm public unless it has at least one woman or non-white board member. The military is also going through a seismic change in terms of technology and operations. Future warfare will not just be about physical prowess — self operating planes, unmanned vehicles, information warfare and cyber-operations will be key.  We are at a critical junction today. Decision makers for the defence forces need to question their own ingrained, subconscious biases. Their future plan should be based on rational judgment, rather than pre-conceived notions and snap judgments about gender-based ability.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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