Gender equality is – and perhaps will continue to be – a contentious sticky wicket in this country, for many a reason. The deeply entrenched attitudes of role segregation form the basis of opinions and decisions, as evidenced in the recent events regarding the Permanent Commission (PC) for women in the military. This implacable fixation on the issue of suitability of women in combat is symptomatic of the general mindset that is so compartmentalized that it defies reason. From citing socio-cultural sensitivities to the hazards of combat, the reiteration of unsuitability of women in combat, refuses to budge from its hardened positions. If you thought policy decisions are dynamic, ever shifting and self-adjusting lines drawn in sand and not in stone, think again!

Without peering too far into history, let us catch a quick overview on how it was set in motion:

On 21 September 1992, a landmark day, the induction of women as Commissioned Officers began. Through the Women’s Special Entry Scheme, eligible women candidates were recruited as Short Service Commissioned Officers. They are presently limited to Corps of Electronic and Mechanical Engineers, Engineers, Signals, Army Education Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, Army Educational Corps, Military Intelligence Corps, Judge Advocate General’s Branch and Army Air Defense. Women are offered Short Service Commission in five streams, viz. Non-Technical, Technical,NCC (Special), Judge Advocate General and Post Graduate/Specialist.

In 2004, the tenure of Short Service Commission (SSC) woman Officers was extended by another 4, years, taking it up to 14 years (4 years on voluntary basis). In 2011, Permanent Commission was opened to women in Judge Advocate General and Education Corps.

Meanwhile, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court, hearing the matter of (WP (C) No.3357/2007, WING COMMANDER ANUPAMAN JOSHI Vs. UNION OF INDIA & ORS.), in its judgment, on12 March 2010, issued direction to the Centre to grant Permanent Commission to women. This was challenged by the Ministry of Defence and in their affidavit filed in the apex court; it has refused the possibility of review of the policy of not granting Permanent Commission to women for the foreseeable future.

The same policy is followed in the Indian navy which recruits women Officers into Short Service Commission in the branches of: ATC, Observer, Law, Logistics, Education and Naval Architecture. Approval has been given for Permanent Commission (PC) in Education, Law and Naval Architecture branch on completion of Short Service Commission (SSC) tenure depending upon merit and vacancy. The scope of revision of policy regarding women in combat appears to be a closed window.

A worldview:

Traditionally, military everywhere, has either been skeptical or out rightly rejected the idea of women officers in combat role, primarily citing unsuitability due to “biological barriers”. Even if we agree that nature itself has imposed on women certain caveats, which dictate the flow of a woman’s life, can we allow that reason alone to further harden the stance or to let it completely colour the discourse against Permanent Commission and combat role? Is it reason enough?

Even the world’s most powerful country, the USA, with its unparalled military might is also no exception to this bias. Martha McSally, (a retired United States Air Force colonel. She was one of the first women to become a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force (USAF) and the first woman in U.S history woman to fly a fighter aircraft in combat. In June 2006, she completed a tour as the first woman to command a combat aviation squadron.) in her thoroughly researched report “WOMEN IN COMBAT: IS THE CURRENT POLICY OBSOLETE?”, evaluates many of the biases that pose a hurdle to women’s role in combat.

“ The most typical arguments against women in ground combat are: 1) Women lack the physical strength to be effective in ground combat; 2) women’s presence will decrease unit cohesion and therefore overall effectiveness; and 3) women just don’t belong in combat.”

Further in her report she elucidates how these biases are entrenched and she counters them with her own personal experiences.

“A. Physical Strength

                Closer inspection of the argument from “physical strength” reveals two troubling double standards; is both over – and under – inclusive; many women have the physical strength to engage in ground combat while men do not. Second, the Army does not submit male recruits to physical strength examinations before assigning them to ground combat positions… A male recruit’s physical strength is tested only informally by whether he can complete the training required for the combat job. The double standard here is glaring: Male recruits are not disqualified from entering combat career fields for lack of physical strength, but all female recruits are peremptorily disqualified from such fields regardless of their physical strength.

B. Cohesion

                Military cohesion is based on people uniting for a common mission or purpose, not based on the group consisting of a common race, creed, or gender.

Of all the possible behaviours that degrade the good order and discipline of the armed forces, sexual misconduct is an offense that might uniquely arise from gender integration. Sexual misconduct can come in the form of sexual assault as well as consensual sexual relationships that degrade the good order and discipline… With regard to sexual assault, if the U.S. military has a sexual predator in the ranks, he or she should be identified, punished, and removed from the team. Restricting female soldiers from combat units will not protect all women in uniform from male sexual predators.

C. Women Just Don’t “Belong” In combat

                These critics argue that women must be givers and protectors of life – not takers of life – and that a man’s role is to protect and a woman’s role is to be protected.”

The emotive issues of women combat soldiers being taken as a Prisoners of War (POW) needs a thorough evaluation –individually by the soldiers themselves and also by the policy makers – of risks that war(s) entails. On this issue, Martha McSally opines:

“Although the risk exists for women, it also exists for men, and both accept that risk as a part of their job. In either case, rape is a violation of the Geneva Convention.”

A woman’s life has many significant stages, perhaps nothing is more life changing than pregnancy and motherhood. The issue of pregnancy while being deployed in active duty rightly raises many questions on whether it is feasible at all to have women working in combat. Instead of summarily dismissing women combatants based on the possibility pregnancy, it needs effective reasoning.

“The military is unlike any other organization: Its purpose is the defense of the nation. Military leaders must create a climate where commanders are not afraid to talk about pregnancy as a a readiness issue and to counsel female warriors on their obligation to avoid pregnancies when it will negatively impact unit readiness.

While pregnancy is a temporary condition, parenthood is a permanent one that affects both servicemen and servicewomen.”

Israel, a country measuring a total area of 8,630 sq.miles, sitting amidst the geographical cauldron that the region is and the ever present volatility necessitate an ever improvising security force.Israelchose to come up with a hitherto scoffed, but yet a simple solution: it removed the existing barrier which barred the women from serving in combat role in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

In 1995, Alice Miller, an aeronautical engineer and pilot successfully appealed in the Israel’s Supreme Court for women to be allowed in aerial combat. Although she failed to pass the Israeli Air Force pilot training exams, this successful appeal paved the way for Roni Zuckerman, who became Israel’s first ever female fighter pilot in 2001.

The situation for allowing women in ground combat in the Army remained unchanged and seemingly irredeemable, until the Caracal Battalion came into existence in the year 2000. Caracal is an infantry battalion, although mixed, it is predominantly female.

The fortitude of its policy makers could well be a beacon to the undecided here and elsewhere. Even before there is a war or war like situation and its attendant complexities for any mixed military force, there pops a fundamental logistical nightmare of housing both male and female officers, for any length of time.

As we discuss what needs to be done to include women in our nation’s military preparedness, Indian Air Force (IAF) gave a watershed moment in the nation’s military history when, it drafted two of women pilots: Flight Lieutenants Alka Shukla and M P Shumathi for combat training.

In modern warfare where preexisting lines of combat are blurring, one can only hope that this breaking of fresh ground continues to be a pioneering one. In the words of Lieutenant Colonel Henderson Baker II, who in his report “WOMEN IN COMBAT: A CULTURAL ISSUE?” concludes: “Let them join the fight fully!”

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Zoya Khan

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