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Not a level battlefield

Indian women must insist on real gender equality within the armed forces, writes Suparna Banerjee.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2012 21:11 IST

Finally, after much dragging of feet, the defence ministry has agreed to grant permanent commissions to women in the army, thereby enabling them to hold down regular army jobs along with their male colleagues. While this is surely a positive development, it does not signify any genuine enhancement of women’s responsibility and prestige in the army as they are still excluded from the combat streams.

Although many nations send their women to war zones across the world, Indian women are not yet thought fit enough to fight for their own country.

The arguments put forward in support of this exclusion range from the crudely sexist to the paternalistic. The strongest apparent reason cited is the notion of women’s ‘weakness’. It is unscientific and unfair to assume that given the right material conditions women cannot, if they wish to, develop the physical strength needed to withstand the rigours of the battlefront.

History abounds with instances of women engaging in physically demanding activities, fighting included. Moreover, modern warfare, conducted with technologically advanced battlegear, is not entirely, or even primarily, about brute power. And to assume that women would be inferior to men in strategising or in mental stamina and sharpness of faculties is rank sexism.

In most countries, women have faced obstacles to their participation in the national security systems. The defence establishment everywhere has been the last impenetrable bastions of patriarchy. Man — in his pride of superior physical strength — has tenaciously held on to this last vestige of exclusivity even as all other masculinist citadels, like politics and science, have gradually succumbed to the international women’s movement and women’s demonstrated abilities.

As Simone de Beauvoir argued, it is the embodiment of the lack of everything that defines man as an independent human subject — viz. physical and mental strength, intelligence, and independence of will — that signify the patriarchal conception of ‘Woman’ as the ‘second sex’, the ‘Other’ to ‘Man’ as the human norm. The fact is, then, that it is not Indian women who are weak; rather, the fragile ego of the man in the army is not yet strong enough to face up to the idea of women as fellow soldiers, let alone withstanding the prospect of female superiors.

Fear and hatred of female power and the independent female will make weakness, timidity and stupidity in women attractive to men. Men need women to be weak, docile and mindless in order to maintain and justify their dominance. Hence, the ideology of ‘femininity’ is advanced at all levels of culture as an apotheosis of these negative attributes. The idea of women at war militates against this pernicious femininity against which men measure their ‘manliness’.

It is this notion of ideal womanhood (often conflated with motherhood) that actuates also the apparently benevolent eagerness on the part of men to protect women from the hazards of the battlefront. What lies beneath this chivalry is a condescending paternalism that is a more insidious form of the idea of male superiority. Instead of recognising the dignity of women as human equals of men this ideology — with its feudal lineage — seeks to ‘respect’ and ‘protect’ women’s ‘delicacy’, thereby underlining their assumed inferiority and rendering them dependent. Moreover, the spuriousness of this benevolence is established amply by the actual treatment meted out to women in the armed forces. Taunts and abuse, physical and mental harassment and even wilful victimisation have often greeted pioneering women in these institutions and even in the police.

A case in point is that of Anjali Gupta — the first woman in the Indian Air Force. While her suicide might have been the result more of personal rather than institutional betrayal, the way her career was destroyed with the ultimate military punishment of the court-martial does smack of sexist vendetta on the part of her superiors.

A strain of feminism that allies itself with the international pacifist movements may look askance at women clamouring to go to war. But it does seem a point of honour for Indian women to insist on real gender equality — as distinct from tokenism — from the country’s defence establishment. After all, they have a rich legacy of female heroism to carry forward, they who are the descendents of women like Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Matangini Hazra, and many others who contributed significantly to fighting the British colonisers and, later, to the task of nation-building.

( Suparna Banerjee is the author of the forthcoming book Science, Gender & History: Mary Shelley & Margaret Atwood )

The views expressed by the author are personal