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Even today their identity as 'women' overshadows the 'officer' in them

The celebration of Nari Shakti - the theme for this year's Republic Day - has done little towards removing inequalities on ground.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2015 15:17 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
women officers

When a starry-eyed Anupama Joshi entered the hallowed portals of the Indian air force in 1992, in response to a newspaper advertisement inviting, for the first time, applications from women interested in joining the armed forces, little did she think that a few years later she would be fighting a legal battle seeking permanent commission for women officers. Joshi won the battle, and was asked to rejoin in 2010. But having already made other work commitments, she declined. The victory was nevertheless important.

"After putting so many years in service, to deny someone a permanent commission (PC) just because she is a woman was unfair," says Wing Commander (retd.) Joshi.

Much has changed in the armed forces since then. Women are allowed PC in certain departments - lady doctors and dental officers had enjoyed PC even earlier. The airforce now allows the option of PC for women working in departments such as education, accounts and legal. The Navy also introduced PC for women officers working in education, law and naval construction in 2008. While active combat roles are still being mulled by the government, the navy employw women in the logistics department and as air traffic controllers and observers.

"In the airforce, women can't be employed as fighter pilots, but they are engaged in transportation, technical and ground jobs that are associated with combat roles. They are also included in rescue operations," says wing commander Pooja Thakur. This Republic Day Thakur became the first woman commanding officer to head the inter-services Guard of Honour inspected by US President Barack Obama.

But the celebration of Nari Shakti - the theme for this year's Republic Day - has done little towards removing inequalities on ground. Working on a short service commission (SSC - usually a period of seven years which can be extended up to 14) also means having no pension to fall back on. Pension is given only to those who have served a minimum of 20 years. Thakur herself is serving on a SSC and is due to retire next year.

"Personally, I am ready to try something new, but for those who want to continue, there should be the option for PC," she agrees. Some also wish for a combat role for women officers. "Women should be given combat duty once basic infrastructure (such as rooms and toilets for women on ships) and policies are ready and the government thinks the time is right," says Lieutenant Commander Sandhya Chauhan of the Indian navy.

While most lady officers deny having faced any overt gender discrimination or bias, subtle barbs are frequent. As a male officer in the Army sums it, "We are not outside the society. Men here exhibit the same kind of bias towards women as they would outside the forces." One example of this is a senior naval officer who says of the SSC, "It gives the women the scope to live one's dream for 12-14 years, and then she may find another job or concentrate on her primary responsibility - taking care of her family." That women use pregnancy and family as an excuse to ease the workload and look for postings in locations where their spouses can be with them is a common grouse. "I'll not deny that some women do that. But women who are serious should have the option to continue," says Joshi.

If negative bias is a challenge, so is having to cope with excessive chivalry. "Some male colleagues insist on mollycoddling the women," says Joshi. Many lady officers feel a similar discomfort with the identity of 'women' having overshadowed the rank of an 'officer' at this year's Republic Day parade. "The focus might have long term benefits for women officers, though at the time, I was just an officer, not a woman," says Thakur.

First Published: Feb 08, 2015 15:11 IST