By Debayan Roy, Legal Practitioner, Law Graduate (AKK New Law Academy- 2009-2014).
A ‘Defence’ tale of Hypocrisy and Deprivation
Across the bullet proof glass enclosure, sat two dignitaries. One was riding on the hope of millions to usher in an era of economic growth and development and the other was the president of the world’s ‘super economy’. Amidst the enthusiastic ocean of Indians, and the pomposity of the Republic Day parade, what went unnoticed was perhaps the shadow of subtle hypocrisy engulfing the march of the Naval Contingent of 144 sailors led by Lt. Commander Sandhya Chauhan. As the march began, one couldn’t help but notice the pride beaming across the face of our Prime Minister, and as the First Lady discussed how India as a country has grown beyond the excruciating shackles of women discrimination, the tale of hypocrisy and deprivation towards the “pink” gender in the Indian Defense Services was waiting to unfold.
The tale began 23 years ago, when the induction of women in the armed forces began through the Women Special Entry Scheme. Though they served primarily as Short Service Commissioned Officers, they were soon granted an extension to serve four more years starting from 2004. Keeping pace with intense globalization, and international examples, India soon granted the officers Permanent Commission, but restricted to Education, Law, Naval Architecture, etc. Combat operations were certainly not meant for the women. The most appalling notion of women fragility which overshadows most of these decisions has to critically scrutinised.
Gender Equality since time immemorial has been the most controversial subject of deliberations in this country. The deeply ingrained value of role isolation forms the crux of debates, opinions and decisions, especially when the event of granting Permanent Commission to women in the Military arose. The hard line views regarding women in the military are indicative of the national perception so narrow that it surpasses logic. From showcasing social and cultural apathies to the menace of combat operations, the continuous reiteration of a woman being an object of fragile demeanour continues. A nation which symbolizes itself as a woman, a woman who has faced the wrath of thousands of wars and bloodied partitions, could not have inflicted more injustice to herself. We think policy and central decisions are an evolving subject, but wait, has the clock stopped ages ago?
While the UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon recently created media uproar by shedding light on the eventual government plans of allowing women to be recognised in the combat operations of the armed forces starting from 2016, the country certainly had its own share of shocking revelations. As you flip across Charles Moore’s editorial piece in The Telegraph, ‘This equality obsession is mad, bad and very dangerous’ (1), one is tempted to question the fundamentalism involved in viewing ‘equality’. His view of restricting the role of the feminine gender to promote peace, caring and support the traditional family is not only delusional but seems to be fictional. Contrast these international views with a little bitter truth from our own homeland. Irom Sharmila, the name sounds synonymous, isn’t it? To save her motherland from the continuous strangulation suffered at the hands of AFSPA, she did endure it all. Though her apathy came to a slow end, but her struggle showed the world, what a woman can achieve if she wills, and binding her within the shackles of domestic bliss and parenthood, certainly throttles her further.
It is extremely imperative not to underrate the orthodox culture of the military. As a part of the state and bulwark of predominant masculinity, it is a mirror to the widely prevalent social bifurcations of our society. The ancient idea, that the society would fall apart if women dared to cross the line marked in sand, has to be demystified. Angela Merkel, Hilary Clinton, Col. Jeannie M. Levitt, Ayesha Farooq, Captain Megha Razdan, Flight Lt’s Alka Shukla and M.P. Shumathi, are staunch believers of this theory. There have been intense deliberations which certainly carry the comparative analysis between the countries favoring women in combat and the ones opposing it. But a country where we have launched initiatives such as the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’ or ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, harsh gender insensitive statements such as the one stated by IAF Chief Marshal Arup Raha certainly draws a stark picture of Irony. In an interview he said
As far as flying fighter planes is concerned, it’s a very challenging job. Women are by nature not physically suited for flying fighters for long hours, especially when they are pregnant or have other health problems,”(2).
Now this statement strongly smells ofJohn Gray’s classic work– “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – the classic guide to understand the opposite Sex”. This work had all the notions which traditionalists like Mr. Raha love to perpetuate. It had preached the philosophy of how men are “naturally” more powerful and aggressive than women who are “naturally” made for love, sensual, venal, etc. Gray’s endeavor further patted the already inflated male ego by justifying a man’s job to fight and a woman’s job to pleasure him. While the restriction on the women to join the combat forces seems unreasonable prima facie, a strong argument favoring them is the need of the hour.
To illustrate this further, Martha McSally, a retired United States Air Force Colonel, the first women to become a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force (USAF) and who flew a fighter aircraft in combat, in her intensely intriguing report “Women In Combat: Is The Current Policy Obsolete?”(3), analyses the nature of hurdles a woman faces in combat. The startling revelations regarding the various myths obstructing the role of a woman leaves a lot to learn for our Indian Counterparts. The first myth which needs to be busted is the aspect of (a) Physical Strength. Yes! Combat demands strenuous activities, but compartmentalizing notions regarding women participation with a mere assumption of weakness is ludicrous. If the Government has ushered in a new era in militarypolicy by introducing Permanent Commission then the apprehension to introduce a uniform physical examination procedure irrespective of the gender bias seems certainly plausible. Are characters such as Rani Lakshmibai, Sabiha Gokcen, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal mere figments of imagination? The 2020 which Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Azad dreamt of cannot be achieved if such ancient preconceived notions are still adhered to.
Secondly, the aspect of (b) Cohesion deserves a mention. Military cohesion is nothing but unification of the forces for a common purpose irrespective of caste, creed, gender, etc, and mostly the barrier to this while women are in Service is “sexual misconduct” or the stance of sudden rise in male testosterone levels. Feminist Chloe Angyal calls military sexual assault an epidemic (4), one that is both under-reported and under-acknowledged. India fears this. It fears that with an already case-bogged military judicial system, and conservative social structure we still belong to, most of these cases would remain wrapped up in the shady blankets of the dingy military bunks. Ruth Seifert offers a thought-provoking analysis (5) of rape during conflict. According to Seifert, Rape during a conflict, is not “an aggressive expression of sexuality, but a sexual expression of aggression.”
It is vehemently important that the Government acknowledge such incidents and takes responsibility of the culture of harassment and violence that pervades the armed forces, so that it can be judiciously addressed. Susan Brownmiller was one of the first historians to deal with the subject, of war and women, and war rape. She wrote (6), “War provides men with the perfect psychological backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women.”
With around 3% woman in armed forces, 2.8% in Navy and 8.5% in the Air force, India sports one of the world’s worst records of women recruitment in Defence forces. We the public of the largest democracy maybe have to borrow courage from a woman like Charu Khanna, who had the audacity to challenge the CMAA rules which debarred women from acting as make-up artistes in the Cine Industry. The hostility towards women’s entry was shattered with the apex court ruling in favor of justice. It is time; the government rose to the occasion and carries the positive policy mechanism ahead.
Existence of the Caracal Battalion in Israel, a combat force devolved to give the women a true feel of a combat, draws me to the next point. (c) Women are the ones who just do not belong to combat roles. Martha McSally had portrayed a poignant truth of our social system where there is a staunch belief that women are the protectors and givers of life- not takers of life. It is a man’s role to protect and a woman’s role to be protected. It is here the rampant defence of pregnancy arises.
Reforms lead to a path of development, which certainly cannot be achieved by shunning the door to a particular gender. Military leaders must create a climate where personnels are not apprehensive to speak about pregnancy as a concern and make the female warriors realize their obligation towards the nation to avoid such instances which would negatively impact the unit cohesion. But a point we often miss is that while pregnancy is a temporary phase, parenthood is permanent aspect of life which affects both military Men and military Women.
A country where gender discrimination has made deep inroads not only into our societal hierarchies but moral conscience, an attempt to recognize woman as a part of the military combat will give the lioness a certain boost. When parents shiver at the thought of their daughter travelling alone at night, the atavistic notions of our culture is at war in our minds. When Captain Sandhya led the battalion at the Republic Day parade, she was carrying the heavy burden of the constant female infanticide and gender apathies of her hometown Haryana on her shoulders. It is time, the government lifts the veil of hegemonic masculinity and welcomes the female force to be a part of the combat, make them feel truly empowered, beyond the superficial sketch of women emancipation like “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’. If an educated girl child finds herself banished from even a single sector based on gender, the entire foundation of her childhood and identity is left shaken and susceptible to questions.
Let the girls follow Major Mary Jennings Hegar, an American Combat leader who was serving captain in Afghanistan and a living idol of courage and bravery. Let the girls dream of Alice Miller, the Israeli Aeronautical engineer, whose lawsuit paved the way for women into armed forces. Let the girls dream of Rani Lakshmibai or Savitribai Phule, Let the girls dream of a horizon where patriotism tears across the gender biased surfaces and dream of a horizon painted with women power, beyond a mere attempt to garner praises from a President of a powerful economy. A powerful economy awaits us too, but not until, we strive for equality in the true sense.
(5) Seifert, Ruth. War and Rape: Analytical Approaches http://www.wilpfinternational.org/publications/1992ruthseifert.htm
(6) Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, 1975, Pg 31 – 139