Needed: Gender inclusivity in the Indian armed forces
While many institutions in the country have become far more gender-inclusive, one which has been slow off the mark is the armed forces, especially the Army. This is why the government’s recent statement, in response to a public interest litigation petition in the Supreme Court, that it is not averse to women joining military colleges such as the National Defence Academy is a welcome step forward. If this happens, it could be a game-changer.
In the 1.4-million-strong Indian Army, women constitute a minuscule 0.56%, while the corresponding figure is 1.08% in the Air Force and 6.5% in the Navy.
While many senior male Army officers say that, in principle, they are not against more women coming into the forces and even moving into combat roles, they cite several reasons why this is still impractical. Among the reasons are the low acceptance of women in leadership roles among male soldiers, the vulnerability of women soldiers to sexual harassment, physical fitness limitations, and the lack of infrastructure such as separate sleeping arrangements and toilets. One Major General spoke of the vast resources which would have to be commandeered to make the forces gender-friendly. He also felt women officers would seek privileges such as easier postings which could lead to resentment.
None of this, strikingly, is the fault of women; yet they are excluded. The objections stem from the inability or the unwillingness of the male-dominated establishment to accept more women breaching the bastion.
I spoke to various women officers, among them Captain (retd) Yashica Hatwal Tyagi, who was posted at the ordnance base during the Kargil War while she was five months pregnant. She feels that the objections to women joining in combat positions are ridiculous.
“Women don’t need to be mollycoddled, and I don’t believe this theory that men will not accept a woman’s leadership. I know from experience that if you deliver on your job, you will be as respected as I was. Yes, we need infrastructure improvements, but more than that, we need a mindset change. We cannot be caught in a zero-error syndrome in the case of women in the forces.”
A serving woman Lieutenant Colonel (who did not want to be named) agrees with this. “All the objections raised are not insurmountable. I have gone on night patrols, managed issues like uncomfortable sleeping quarters and sanitation facilities. I find the objections to expanding the role of women in the forces immature. As for physical fitness, it depends on your training. I don’t believe for a moment that women cannot fare well in combat roles, these are old shibboleths which refuse to go away.”
Former Army chief VP Malik is all for change, but gradually. He feels that conditions have to be “conducive” before women can move to combat roles. He feels that when the time comes, women should compete on merit and not expect any concessions. Another woman Army officer dismissed the idea that women wading into a largely male bastion leave them open to sexual harassment. “It is not as though other professions are immune to sexual harassment. This is just an excuse.”
At present, women cannot join the armoured corps, infantry, mechanised infantry and artillery. Says Captain Tyagi, “More women than ever are ready for the armed forces, but are the armed forces ready for them?”
The views expressed are personal