There is need for women in the armed forces but not a battalion of women | columns | Hindustan Times
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There is need for women in the armed forces but not a battalion of women

Most of the women who have joined the armed forces, and the percentage is not very high in India, are actually resentful of any preferential treatment. They feel that it creates friction with their male colleagues and that they did not join the army thinking it would be a Sunday school picnic

columns Updated: Dec 18, 2016 08:00 IST
Manohar Parrikar’s idea of an all-women battalion is rooted in the belief that psychological barriers had been broken with the induction of three female fighter pilots.
Manohar Parrikar’s idea of an all-women battalion is rooted in the belief that psychological barriers had been broken with the induction of three female fighter pilots.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar is never at a loss for words. Neither is he shy of contradicting himself. After saying that there are no plans to induct women into combat roles in the Indian army — something President Pranab Mukherjee said would be done in his speech during the budget session of Parliament — the irrepressible Mr Parrikar now says that there should be an all-women battalion. He feels that psychological barriers had been broken with the induction of three female fighter pilots. But, he has also added that this battalion will come up gradually so as not to “compromise” the Army’s primary task of guarding national security. Make of this what you will, I am baffled as to how this pans out. His explanation is: “There is the thinking that soldiers will not listen to a woman commanding officer…I don’t agree. But if there is some initial resistance, an all-women battalion would take care of it.” Is it Parrikar’s contention that an all-women battalion is the only force that can make a male soldier listen to orders from a woman officer? He should do so because he is bound by the rules to listen to his officer, irrespective of gender.

Read: No plan for inducting women in army combat roles: Defence minister Parrikar

Parrikar says women on warships where there are separate cabin facilities is fine, but not on unigender submarines. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. The idea of an all-women battalion hardly serves to bring about gender parity in the army. If at all women are to play a greater role in the armed forces, they should not be segregated into exclusively female zones.

Most of the women who have joined the forces, and the percentage is not very high in India, are actually resentful of any preferential treatment. They feel that it creates friction with their male colleagues and that they did not join the army thinking it would be a Sunday school picnic. Yet, the same prejudices we see in the workplace place constrain them. One is that male colleagues don’t feel comfortable as their banter could be misunderstood by the women present. The other is that women are not psychologically strong enough to withstand the enormous pressure.

Parrikar is, however, right that infrastructure is a major impediment for women to be deployed in many places. But the question of infrastructure obtains even for men. The lack of proper facilities in camps and barracks is well known but little has been done to improve things. The army is in dire need of modernisation and this means bringing in more technology. This is an advantage for women as the greater the technology employed, the fewer the boots on the ground. This will boost the number of women coming into the army — at present it is 1,514 women officers, the navy has 439 and the air force 1,584, bringing the total to 3,537, which is negligible for the vast defence services that we have.

Read: Navy to soon increase role of women, but no combat positions yet

Despite Parrikar’s espousal of an all-women battalion, there should be no effort to push this idea. The armed forces’ purpose, that of defending the nation, simply does not warrant any forced gender equality in the form of all-women battalions. It should simply function on the principle of the best man or woman for the job. One thing one often hears is that we had a tradition of women warriors like Laxmibai of Jhansi, Razia Sultana and Chand Bibi, to name a few. And, yes, women did take part in the freedom movement. But this did not become a tradition and women were largely unseen in the defence realm until the early nineties.

Read: A first for army: 2 women officers scale Mt Everest

Such is the mystique surrounding the army and perceptions of how you have to be as tough as hobnailed boots to join it, that many women, I am sure, would not think of it as an employment option. Mercifully, today despite all the prejudices they face, women are venturing into fields that were not considered appropriate for them before. Our women wrestlers are a case in point. When it comes to imparting skills to women, the options still are the tried and tested ones of health work, teaching and social work. But why not encourage women, especially in rural areas, to think of the forces as an option? For this, there should be more defence training schools, which should not be a problem, given the vast and skilled manpower available in the form of retired soldiers who can man these. Letting women know the army is a career option and one in which they have to function in a gender-neutral environment will do a lot more for women’s advancement in the defence forces than an all-women battalion.