The right of a woman to serve in any role in the armed forces must be equal to a man’s as long as the standards are not compromised.
Women in Indian armed forces don’t need token representation, but equal status on equal terms. And, induction in combat roles is the last frontier women seek to conquer.
General Bipin Rawat’s remark last month that the Indian Army may not be ready for women in combat roles stirred a hornet’s nest. The Army chief said that women in combat would have to be “cocooned” from the prying eyes of subordinate soldiers; commanding officers of fighting units might require long maternity leave which the Army can ill afford; our soldiers are not ready to accept women leading them; and the society is not ready for women coming back in body bags.
Women activists, social media and print/electronic media rubbished the Army chief’s statement as patriarchal and biased. A minority, however, supported the Army chief, highlighting the physical rigour that combat roles need and how biologically women could be at a disadvantage.
The ‘physical’ argument
Women were first inducted into the armed forces in 1992 as officers. Over the years, they have been inducted into various branches and arms of the three services. In the Indian Air Force, women have been inducted as fighter pilots and the Indian Navy has decided in principle to induct women as sailors as soon as training ships and battleships are ready to cater to them.
The Indian Army has inducted women officers in all arms and services, except infantry and armoured corps, which predominantly engage in close combat. Artillery also remains an exception as most of its officers operate alongside the fighting arms.
There should be no doubt that in today’s India there cannot be and should not be any discrimination on the grounds of gender. Women are equal to men in almost every aspect. However, due to biological factors, they may not be physically as strong as men.
And despite various advancements in weapon technology, close ground combat remains predominantly a physical endeavour. Some women with extraordinary physical prowess can be better than men, but all women are not. As per studies carried out by Centre for Military Readiness in the United States, female soldiers on an average are shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50 per cent less upper body strength and 25-30 per cent less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance.
Equal standards, equal role
The experience of Indian armed forces is limited to women officers. Barring a few exceptions, we have not inducted women as soldiers, air warriors or sailors. The reasons for this are mostly social and patriarchal. The induction of women officers has been primarily to maintain a veneer of gender equality in the forces. The approach is condescending and accommodative. The physical fitness standards are kept lower than desirable and the terms and conditions of service not adequately codified, which leads to organisational problems at a later stage.
Women officers perform well when young and single. But post-marriage and post-pregnancy, many officers, owing to various social and patriarchal pressures, tend to neglect fitness and seek transfers/postings that affect Army’s organisational strength. The armed forces have so far been able to cope with these problems because the number of women officers is relatively small. But the way ahead is to revise the physical standards and bring them at par with those for men, and review the terms and conditions for women in service.
While some can argue that women, in general, may not be able to cope with the rigour of combat due to the sheer physical strength required, why deny the opportunity to those who can? In my view, the right of a woman to serve in any role in the armed forces must be equal to a man’s as long as the physical and qualitative standards are not compromised.
Women should be gradually allowed in all branches, arms (including fighting arms), and services. Necessary infrastructure must be created for women soldiers. As a first step, the armed forces must lay down physical fitness standards that are necessary for women in service. These must be equal to the average standards set for the male soldiers. When it comes to fighting arms, the standards should be at par with the male soldiers.
The terms and conditions of service for women must be codified keeping in view the organisational interests. Military law, rules and regulations to address gender crimes and problems must be laid down. To begin with, a five per cent quota can be fixed for women, without lowering the standards for induction. Only volunteer women officers/soldiers must be allowed to join fighting arms subject to meeting the psychological and physical fitness standards.
The only problem I foresee is a lack of will on part of the government and the armed forces to take the decision.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal