The issue of women serving at par with their male counterparts in the Indian armed forces has received much attention since the vice chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Marshal PK Barbora, with a well-deserved reputation for not suffering politically correct nonsense and speaking his mind, pointed out the financial infeasibility of training women IAF officers to become fighter pilots only to lose their services due to pregnancy or the demands of child-rearing.
The Delhi High Court’s Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul and Justice MC Garg, ruled in March that both the army and the air force would have to offer permanent commissions to their women officers serving short service commissions. Now, as it turns out, while the government thinks this could be managed in the case of the air force, it feels the peculiar terms and conditions of service in the army require it to challenge the order of the court in that respect.
The armed forces cite many reasons for the nominal opportunities given to women to serve. Women aren’t tough and don’t have the adequate physical constitution (Women might not have a constitution comparable to men, but they can be trained to be tough – try getting on the wrong side of a paramilitary women’s battalion), women might distract males from their duties (It should be up to the males to focus on their mission), the presence of women in a conflict environment might distract male personnel from the mission and focus on their protection (Again, its up to males to get out of that mindset), cases of sexual harassment and misconduct might increase (Prosecute them as and when they happen), women would necessarily have to be posted to peace stations thereby reducing the tenure of male personnel at peace stations (No compulsion to do this – give them opportunities that are no different from those that are given to male personnel), it is difficult to get work out of women (The difficulty is in the mindset that believes this).
None of these are actually justifications for denying women the opportunity to serve.
Much has been written comparing the opportunities of service offered by foreign militaries to their women citizens. Your correspondent recently visited the USS Harry S. Truman, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier, berthed at the largest naval base in the world at Norfolk in Virginia. There were plenty of women personnel, sailors not necessarily officers, serving on board. To be sure, they were berthed separately, and one officer who commands personnel including women sailors, when asked his experience, did crib, “You know what the biggest problem is? They get pregnant on you. Ten to fifteen women go home pregnant every month.”
But even he said this was a problem that had to be managed and did not mean women shouldn’t be serving on carriers. He estimates that 20 per cent of the crew on board the USS Harry S. Truman are women. Your correspondent saw him issuing orders to women sailors that were immediately and efficiently obeyed. As for issues relating to sexual misconduct or harassment, he said that was the fastest way to end a career in the US Navy.
There is no denying there are enormous cultural differences between the societies from where US and India militaries recruit. So women are said to be given light work and preferential postings in the Indian armed forces. But there is no reason for such a cultural mindset to remain unchallenged. Especially since the initiative here lies with and has to be taken by the government. At one time Sati (the practice of cremating widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands) was a way of life. But the then government outlawed it, as unpopular a step as it might have been. Homosexual acts were illegal under the Indian Penal Code. But the courts struck done the law and the government refrained from pursuing the matter, even though many remained in favor of retaining the laws.
Waiting for a favorable cultural mindset to become popular before women are offered equal opportunities of service in the armed forces is merely the postponement of an inevitable decision in this matter.
While operational imperatives and the interests of the services should decide the deployment of women personnel (just as with male personnel) as Air Marshal Barbora thinks, at the same time there is no reason to turn women away as long as they are subject to the same terms and conditions of service as men and no less is expected of them.
For now, a middle ground has to be found with the ultimate and long-term aim of making, not only officers, but all ranks of all arms and services of the armed forces, open for recruitment to women, as long as the interests of the armed forces are optimized.