On the 83rd anniversary celebrations of the formation of the Indian air force in Hindon, Uttar Pradesh, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha struck a significant blow in favour of gender equality by puncturing what has often been described as a brass ceiling. Raha made a historic announcement: Women will soon be inducted into the fighting arm of the IAF. Although Indian women serve in the air force, navy and army as support and technical staff — which they were allowed to do only in 1992 — a combat role in any of the three services is unprecedented. The arguments deployed to keep women out of what is arguably the last and most exclusive of male-only clubs have been predictably sexist — biology and a lack of physical strength have been cited; it is said that unit cohesion will be undermined; and that women soldiers will damage morale. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in May went so far as to hold forth on how “demoralising” it would be for the troops if a woman comrade was to be captured by the enemy — a contention rooted in the archaic understanding of a woman’s body as the repository of national honour.
Of course, none of these claims are particular to the Indian military establishment. Armies in most countries have furnished similar justifications to continually deny combat roles to women — only 15 nations allow women in close combat. Yet, as barriers to the entry and advancement of women fall across professions, at least on paper, there is increasing pressure on militaries to prove, with evidence, why women who meet the forces’ exacting standards cannot be treated on par with their male peers.
In 2013, for instance, then US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta cancelled the ban on women serving in direct ground combat positions, prompted partly by the valour displayed by women on the battlefield in the US’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Specific exceptions can be requested by service commanders for certain roles — and the elite Marine corps is thought to be seeking one — but the onus is on them to explain why the bar should stay. Australia and the UK will both open front-line roles to women by 2016.
In any event, given the fluid nature of warfare today — as the example of Lieutenant Colonel Mitali Madhumita, who won a gallantry award for saving the lives of 19 people during a February 2010 terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, shows — women in the services who are nurses or doctors or, like Madhumita, part of the education training corps are already engaged in combat. It is misleading to continue to pretend they are not. Hopefully, the other service chiefs will take the cue from Raha’s watershed announcement, dismantling the remaining barriers to a fully inclusive military.