First Lieutenant Shaye Haver and Captain Kristen Griest of the US Army may not have broken the military’s brass ceiling, but they have definitely cracked it. Last Friday, they were awarded the prestigious Ranger tab to pin on their uniforms after becoming the first women to pass the 62-day Ranger training course, considered the most intense and demanding in the US military. About 4,000 soldiers attempt the Ranger course every year, and around 40 per cent qualify.
Like their male counterparts who were required to get buzz cuts for the training, the two women also had to have close-cropped hair. But they still cannot join the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, the US Army’s Special Operations force, which remains closed to women.
These two women officers attended the Ranger course as part of the US Army’s ongoing assessment of how to better integrate women in the force. The then US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, had announced in 2013 that the military would open up combat roles to women by 2016 unless the services could provide data and evidence to keep certain positions closed to women. The US Navy has already announced that it will not ask for any exemptions for women joining the Seals, the Navy’s elite special operations force.
Clearly, the debate on women in the US military is moving in the right direction. If the US does allow women into combat units — which looks likely — it would join more than 15 other countries, including Canada, France, Germany and Israel, that have removed the ‘brass ceiling’.
What is the situation in India?
Television images of an all-women military contingent marching down Rajpath this Republic Day were impressive, but did not present the full picture. While women have served in the military nursing service since 1927 and as medical officers since 1943, they were allowed to join in other non-combat roles only in 1992. These women can join the Indian armed forces only as officers, and that too in certain specific roles, and largely as short-service officers (a stint of ten years, extendable to 14).
The government has recently granted permanent commission to women serving in the Army’s legal and education corps, their corresponding branches in the Navy and Air Force, the accounts branch of the Air Force and as air traffic controllers in the Navy. But discrimination persists. The case for the grant of permanent commission to women officers in the Army — at par with male officers selected and trained with these women officers — is being heard in the Supreme Court.
Lt Colonel Mitali Madhumita, India’s first woman Army officer to win a Sena Medal (gallantry) for saving at least 19 lives during the February 2010 terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, has approached the judiciary because she is not being allowed to change her choice to permanent commission in education corps like her male counterparts.
In any case, the proposal to have women in combat roles was ruled out by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in May. Parrikar’s reason was the same as that proffered by the Service Chiefs to the Parliamentary Committee on Women’s Empowerment: that in the case of women being captured by the enemy, the troops would be demoralised. If there was ever a patriarchal argument, then this is the one. How worse could the case of a captured woman soldier be than the brutal torture, chopping of limbs, and murder of Captain Saurabh Kalia and his patrol captured by Pakistani soldiers in Kargil?
Even if this is a problem, the way forward is to sensitise the larger public, and particularly the military, to accept women in combat roles by shifting the focus away from their gender. The example of the Canadian armed forces is instructive in this regard. In May 2006, Captain Nichola Goddard became the first woman in Canadian history to be killed while serving on the frontline in a direct combat role against the Taliban. Canada’s response did not focus on the issue of gender but rather that it had lost a competent and dedicated soldier.
More than the larger public, any decision to make the defence forces gender-neutral will be controversial within the Indian military. Senior military officers argue that having women in combat roles will damage the cohesion of fighting units, disrupting its esprit de corps and have a detrimental effect on factors such as morale, health and welfare. They also say that women lack the physical strength to be effective in ground close combat. Our prevalent social norms and the background of our troops further complicate the situation, they argue.
These are genuine concerns but experience shows that the most important aspect of successful integration lies with strong leadership, whereby women are treated as equals with the men in their unit. Moreover, in today’ asymmetric wars, where there are no defined frontlines, while exclusionary policies may keep women out of the combat arms, they cannot be kept out of combat itself.
In no country has the military hierarchy easily changed its views on altering the status quo, which has been traditionally and exclusively male. Even in Canada and Israel, the removal of combat exclusion for women was a result of political and legal pressures imposed on the military. These militaries had to then make large adjustments. It may well go the same way in India.
Finally, it all boils down to this: if a soldier — irrespective of gender — can meet the standards the military has established for a particular job, he or she should be able to serve there. As research shows, it is leadership which is a major factor in how well military units perform — not the presence or absence of women.