There was a recent news report about women police officers in Gujarat having issued orders that they must be addressed as 'Sir' and not 'Ben' (sister), as Gujaratis are prone to do out of respectful deference. The news sent me down memory lane.
In the 1990s, when lady officers had
been introduced in the army, I was visiting an engineers' regiment doing bridging training in Uttar Pradesh. A young woman Captain reported the parade to me as per norms. She was appropriately and smartly turned out for the occasion. However, her somewhat awkward footwear could not escape my eye. The front portion of her regulation boots had risen up in a curve. Sensing my observation, the commanding officer informed me that Capt Priya's shoe size was 5, while the unit did not have any pair smaller than size 7.
These were not the only teething problems, as I learnt from junior commissioned officers (JCOs) during my interaction over tea and pakoras.
The manner of reporting the parade to a lady officer was equally confusing. The accepted method of reporting the total number present by a JCO to an officer is "… parade par upasthit hain Shrimaan". This honorific of Shrimaan could not obviously be used for ladies. The use of its Hindi opposite, Shrimati, would be even more outrageous. In the absence of instructions, the JCOs had improvised their own variants. Quite a few called them 'Sir', as the Gujarat police officers are now demanding.
Some used 'Madam' as the form of address. The English word 'madam' is derived from the French 'ma dame', meaning my lady. In France and Francophone countries, 'madame' is considered respectable and is much in use. However, in British colloquial parlance, it may be referred to a brothel owner and could be found objectionable. Some other JCOs innovated the safe-playing 'Madam Sir' in their communication. The English may scoff at the term, but then jugaad (ploy) is the Indian hallmark. To resolve our immediate problem of addressing, we decided to use the term Sahib, that sounded inoffensive and workable for both sexes.
The army had been an all-male affair till recently. In the regulations, there exists enough material on dealing with 'brother' officers. There has been nothing about dealing with ladies donning an officer's uniform. I do hope the military has since evolved the appropriate glossary and methodology to 'mantreat' their lady officers.