Taking a remarkably medieval stance against filling more ranks in the Indian Army with women soldiers, Army chief General Bipin Rawat triggered a debate when he said that accepting a woman commander could be hard for the jawans since most of them come from the villages.
Putting women on the front lines: Yay or nay?
In an exclusive interview with News-18 on Saturday, Rawat further defended the draconian rule of not putting women in front-line combat roles on grounds that they may accuse male jawans of sexual harassment. He also questioned their ability to lead troops, saying that granting maternity leaves while on commanding duty leads to a “ruckus.”
“Suppose I make a woman a commanding officer in an RR battalion. She will be away for around 6 months. In that command tenure, she won’t be given a maternity leave – how can I put that restriction on her?” Rawat asked, going on to later suggest that women aren’t ready for combat roles as they are destined for motherhood and must prioritise raising kids.
In a related contentious remark, Rawat explained how women jawans would add to logistical and security issues, saying they require separate huts to sleep and change in, and refusing to offer redressal if their male counterparts try to peep in.
“Our orders are that a lady officer will get a hut in the COB, then there are orders that we have to cocoon her separately. She will say somebody is peeping, so we will have to give a sheet around her,” General Rawat said.
Citing that plenty of women officers are engaged in exercises like mining, de-mining operations and manning the air defence system, Rawat was reluctant to deploy them in proxy wars, adding that the country “wasn’t ready to see women in body bags.” “See, I am not saying a woman who has children doesn’t die. She can also die in a road accident. But in combat, when body bags come back, our country is not ready to see that,” he said, about engaging women in disputed ares like Kashmir, as it is not good for the morale of the nation.
Here’s how people reacted
Social media was quick to erupt in outrage, reminding Rawat that women fight in front-line combat positions alongside men in a number of conservative and liberal nations alike. Meanwhile in India, the number of women in the Indian army remains alarmingly low. A report released this March by Raksha Rajya Mantri Dr. Subhash Bhamre quotes 1,561 women officers, compared to 41,074 male officers – a monumental difference that puts things in perspective – 96.2% of the Indian army is male.
Twitterati called Rawat an embarrassment to the country after his interview went viral and questioned the real challenges to women succeeding in their careers in the army. While some wanted to know what the army thought of former firebrand PM and commander Indira Gandhi, many demanded his resignation for the unacceptable oversight in his phallocentric reasoning, according to which things in the army can only continue working if women are denied their chance to serve. In reality, however, by limiting female entry, militaries have only maintained or furthered their characteristic brutal masculinity.
“Short sighted, regressive and patriarchal, that’s how he has painted the defence services with one swoop,” a source with relations in the army and who wishes to remain anonymous, told Qrius. “Women have been fighting for equal rights, and in this country the battle for it does not get easier,” she said, adding how she has always regarded women officers with an unspoken reverence and admiration, mainly because they were an unusual sight even a few years back.
Flabbergasted at the army chief’s downright sexist remarks, especially coming “from a representative with the influence and the power to turn things around and not take us two centuries back,” she said over an email correspondence, “Maternity leave, dominance of men in the workplace and peeping toms are everywhere, but shouldn’t the defence sector, like every other, work towards making it more conducive for women rather than excluding them completely? How can we expect or empower women to overcome oppressive social stigma in the form of designated gender roles, to advance and grow, in that case?”
What he should have said instead
Proper gender sensitisation programmes for male jawans and assessing how they respond to female commanding officers is one of the first steps that the army can take to rectify such systemic omission of women from its ranks.
Furthermore, like every other organisation, an internal committee should actively work to redress and resolve complaints accusing fellow jawans of harassment. In light of the hundreds of sexual assault allegations against the armed forces levelled by civilians, such programmes also stand to have an overall positive impact their ethic and responsibility on dutylines.
History of women in combat roles
The armed forces of most countries comprise women serving in artillery, armoured units & frontline combat roles, thus rendering sexual harassment and maternity leaves as unjust excuses for reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Some of these nations include Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Eritrea, Israel, and North Korea. However, only a few countries, namely Australia, Canada, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, allow women to serve on an equal basis.
Women fought in Netjai Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA, and millions of them sacrificed their lives in the two world wars which is around the time armies became more diverse. Eminent among them is Milunka Savic who enlisted in the Serbian army in place of her brother during World War I, fought throughout the war, and became the most decorated woman in military history. However, the only nation to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers in 1914 was Russia. Later, during the Second World War, over 500,000 women fought on the front-line in the Soviet Union.
During the Spanish Civil War, thousands of women fought in mixed-gender combat and rearguard units, or as part of militias. However, before the 1970’s, many western nations barred women from active comabt for various reasons including physical demands and privacy policies. In the US for example, all combat jobs were opened to women only as recently as 2016. Training for women began in 2013, after the Congress did away with the policy of “no women in units that are tasked with direct combat.”
In recent history of global conflict, the women of Rojava fought head-to-head with ISIS, to free retain the autonomy of their Kurdish town in north-east Syria. Self-defence formed a basic principle of the Rojava way of life, which is why women are so active in the armed struggle with a separate and parallel women’s militia known as the YPJ. Leading an anarchist revolution, female vanguards led the fight here, both politically and militarily, often on the frontline.
Here’s why it matters
The sexism among the country’s senior army officers has always been an elephant in the room. The Indian Armed Forces have essentially remained a men’s locker room, despite more and more women making it to the local law enforcement and police services. Recently a women’s only SWAT team was launched by the Delhi police.
From the vantage point of India’s #MeToo era, Rawat’s offensive remarks sounds more problematic, especially to women who wish to serve the nation and have been denied the opportunity owing to gendered discrimination. Today, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of age-old gender roles that was dumped on women for centuries, and refusing maternity leave will definitely and should ideally lead to a “ruckus.”
Furthermore, Rawat’s refusal to engage in a constructive debate about how to bring about a change in the status quo, eminently betrays the lack of women in top roles in the army. His conceptions about the role and limit of women’s strengths also play into the outdated stereotype which discourages women from being aggressive, disbelieves their strength in combative action. It is time to hold Rawat accountable for his remarks, and high time the Indian Army checked its chauvinism and reconsidered women as an asset to the country instead of a hindrance.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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