Khost, Afghanistan. Eighteen-year old Private First Class Brown jumped out of the Humvee to the sound of gunfire from Taliban fighters. Yet instead of ducking for cover, Brown grabbed a medic bag and ran through gunfire to rescue a fellow soldier, trapped in a burning vehicle. For courage under fire, PFC Brown received the Silver Star, the third-highest combat medal the United States gives out, from Vice President Dick Cheney himself. And oh…Brown’s first name is Monica. Another soldier, Sergeant Hester – Leigh Ann, in case anyone was wondering – received a similar commendation in Iraq for foiling an attempted ambush of their convoy by the enemy.

One of the few remaining vestiges of institutional misogyny and torpid conservatism can be seen in the armed forces of most countries. Women are systematically kept away from combat roles with rules based on little more than ill-informed assumptions and personal prejudices. Ironically, women have served the military for as long as there has been war – traditionally, they took up the roles of seamstresses, cooks, nurses, and other “soft” support staff and followed the men on their campaigns. Although there may be some very rare exceptions, there has generally been much resistance to the idea of women in combat roles.

Attempts to justify this blatant discrimination have been made on many, equally flawed premises – the woman’s traditional role with Kinder, Küche, Kirche, indiscipline among male soldiers, questions of trust in female comrades, costs of segregation of facilities, and the fear of rape in case taken as a prisoner of war. None of these excuses hold much water, and are certainly not enough reason to allow the restriction of the liberties of half of the world’s population. So what specifically makes women unsuitable to combat?

Tradition: This is a catch-all concept that hides various shades of misogyny. Relegating any responsibility to the received wisdom of a hoary past, arbitrary rules subjugating women are justified. The idea of the woman as the master of the hearth is no more intrinsically valuable than the notion that men should be the sole breadwinners for a household. The myth is that women are somehow “softer,” more caring than men and are more suited to domestic chores while men work outside the home in more “heavy-duty” occupations.

The only problem with this portrayal is that it is just not true. It is easier to find more evidence of women engaged successfully in domestic chores simply because there are so many more of them. Raised to fulfill a certain maternal role, many women are not encouraged, even actively discouraged, from making choices that might take them away from their societally approved stations. There is nothing to suggest that women are inherently incapable of functioning in a world that has so far been demarcated by men; indeed, the achievements of many women in power and behind the scenes – Hatshepsut, Nefertari, Theodora of Byzantium, Marie de Medici, Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth I, Amina of Zaria, Maria Theresa, Catherine I of Russia – prove beyond doubt that women who find themselves at the forefront of public affairs conduct themselves as well and as ruthlessly as men.

Traditionalists will fire back, “Should chores not be evenly divided in a family?” Of course they should, but why use sex as the criterion? Why can we not use something equally arbitrary such as one’s golf handicap?

Indiscipline: Another argument against allowing women into combat roles is that their presence will cause indiscipline in this great bastion of testosterone. In essence, the proponents of such reasoning feel that the there will be a breakdown of order in the ranks because of female presence. By implication, this is not just an argument to restrict combat roles to women but to bar women from any profession in which group cohesion is important, such as the police force, firefighting, or space flight.

This reason truly troubles me; if the presence of women makes men act irrationally and in an unstable manner, the only true solution is to wipe out one entire sex! While this exaggerates the dimensions of the argument, its premise justifies the complete veiling of Muslim women as well as the notion that a victim of rape was “asking for it.” Segregating women for a male weakness upends the common sense principle that action and responsibility be coupled in the same person.

Trust: A theory is also advanced that male members of a unit would not be able to trust their female counterparts. This makes as much sense as the other arguments. Clearly, no one doubts the competence of women, or they would be barred from other professions such as medicine and engineering. Thus, the lack of trust must have to do largely with physical ability. This alarm is not a red flag but a red herring. First of all, anyone who knows anything about the military will also know that there isn’t one physical fitness test but several, based on age, service, and job specification. Yet whatever minor variations may exist between the sexes, their abilities on the battlefield are beyond reproach.

Good soldiers respect abilities, and repeated good performance engenders unit cohesion far more quickly than common reproductive organs. As retired US Air Force  Major General Jeanne Holm writes in her book, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolutionmixed-gender units were found to fight better than single-gender units, as women tried to prove their worth and men tried not to be outdone. This was the experience in Vietnam, El Salvador, as well as the Persian Gulf in 1991.

Rape: There is also a fear (I’ll assume that it is genuine) that women soldiers taken  prisoner will be subject to rape and torture. Yes, this is possible, but does anyone really believe that the same does not apply to male soldiers taken captive? One look at what happened at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention camp should dispel all doubts. Some consider the fear that women POWs will be raped to be an extension of the male urge to protect women. This may sound protective and nurturing to many, but they need only take one look at the streets of any modern village or city – a well-trained woman with an INSAS is far safer in Chillayari than in Haryana. However, Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, has the best rejoinder: “You [men] are not our protectors — if you were, who would there be to protect us from?”

There is something to Walker’s words beyond the wit and the tragedy: women have been unabashedly used in espionage operations and have taken part in resistance movements in occupied territories from France to the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Even successful missions of such nature would expose women to compromising situations and to far worse if unsuccessful. Yet there has been no vigorous debate over the hiring of women in the clandestine services, and this only begs the question how genuine or informed, statistics aside, the rape fear is. Further food for thought on this “protector” role would be provided by a comparison between the occurrence of domestic violence by military men on their non-uniformed spouses and men on their uniformed spouses.

Personal reasons: Under this category come all other objections, mostly pregnancy, toilets, and the financial costs of providing privacy. Most of these are merely logistical issues that require only a little thought. For example, much is made of women’s alternative toiletry skills but this only shows an ignorance of female urinary directory products such as pStyleGo Girl, or Freshette, all widely in use among sports enthusiasts already. On pregnancy, the issue seems a little blown out of proportion. It would be a significant coincidence for so many women to apply to join the military, pass the tests, be deployed, and then get pregnant simultaneously such that it hampers operational effectiveness. Nonetheless, men are equally susceptible (more, given the frequency of activity) to being undeployable due to training or other injuries, alcoholism and substance abuse, disciplinary action, and a myriad of other reasons.

Finally, on the privacy issue, this is a concern largely on base, for in the field, soldiers – men or women – have little time for hygiene. In the barracks, the costs associated with an extra door for a shower stall or a dividing curtain to separate men’s bunk beds from women’s is not at all what it is made out to be. Arguably the most difficult case for privacy would be on submarines, but even in that last men-only stronghold, those problems have been solved and women have been allowed to serve for over 15 years, Norway being the first country to allow it in 1995.

*     *     *

Throughout this debate, it should be kept in mind that opening the doors for women to special forces units, armour, and front line combat positions does not mean that tomorrow’s battlefield will resemble a sorority rush. There will not be thousands upon thousands of women applicants for these jobs. Furthermore, even if there are so many applicants, just the basic fitness requirements will significantly whittle down the numbers. Add to that any special training required for specific posts, be it on a submarine, in a Sukhoi-30MKI, or in an elite commando unit, and only a handful will be left. The women who make it thus far would surely have thought through the consequences of their decisions, with their loved ones and by themselves. On what basis are we second-guessing the commitment of these women to their motherland?

There are those who argue that it is not possible for a nation to see its mothers and daughters return from trouble spots in body bags. But what kind of perverted nation enjoys seeing its fathers and sons come home in coffins? Death is difficult, and no child can choose between his/her mother and father, or a parent between a son and daughter. Serving one’s nation is seen as one of the highest virtues; we remember our fallen, our veterans, and our brave men in uniform. Why are we denying this simple right, to serve their nation, to women? This is not an argument against the naysayers – it is an indictment against chauvinists.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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