Boy, the wing commander was a woman!” retorted one of the candidates, a director of a fairly well-established company, when asked how his interview had gone. He had come in for an interview with me, after he and I had been communicating over email for a few months. Similarly, sometime last year, I was travelling in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand, and spent a night at the army mess. In the morning, when the junior commissioned officer came to settle the bill, he walked straight to my colleague, thinking he must be Wing Commander Joshi, in whose name the booking had been made. The two gentlemen in these anecdotes were from different backgrounds, but even after 23 years of women being in regular service, it is still widely believed that only men could possibly be rank holders. Mirth aside, if this is the space we are in, there is dire need for change.
It took the air force two decades to give women a chance to live up to the motto of “Nabham Sparsham Deeptam”, which means touch the sky with glory. It was 23 years ago that the air force first opened its doors to women. It was the first of the armed forces to allow women to wear the blues. The recent announcement that women could now also serve as fighter pilots is welcome. But having served in the blues, and being a member of the pioneering batch of women recruits, I know that more is required than just a blaze of eye-catching announcements.
When we walked into the academy 23 years ago, we discovered that although the mechanism for induction was in place, we were thrown into the deep end and asked to swim. Basic things like uniforms had not been decided. For weeks, we attended classes at the academy in “coloured clothes” — much to the envy of our male colleagues. Issues, small and big, including questions like where one would be placed in the seniority rankings after the training period was over, have taken years and countless representations to iron out.
There were constant battles. I remember applying for a junior commander course and my application being turned down on grounds that short-service women were not eligible for in-service courses. But short-service men could do these courses, a prerequisite for growth in service, as they had an option to continue. I applied again as A. Joshi, and voila! I found myself in Red Fields, where the course is conducted. I finished the course, and this opened up opportunities for the rest.
Women have been kept on the periphery for a long time. Change has had a glacial pace, but gradually, glass ceilings are being shattered — from ground duties to transports, from helicopters to, now, the sacred fighter cockpit.
It is not that women are incapable. There is resistance to them entering the elite club. The only argument put forward against women sharing the combat space is: How will they be treated in the enemy line?
Let’s start by not violating women in our own homes. Violation, if any, during conflict should be covered under the war tribunal. Locker room jokes and bonhomie in the crew room will apparently not be the same — but in this era of WhatsApp and the internet, is this true?
An airman — not of an officer’s rank — once wrote something lewd on my office door, and was court-martialed for it. His remark reeked of male chauvinism and the psyche of a feudal lord. That a woman can hold a position of authority is something that certain people find difficult to accept. However, not once did I feel vulnerable. Rather, there was a deep sense of confidence in the system of justice. These internal schisms need to be addressed before we make populist announcements.
The Indian armed forces, the third-largest in the world and defenders of a billion-plus people, have been facing their own internal battles of accepting women into their fold. The legal battle that Squadron Leader Rukhsana and I fought for permanent commission for women in the armed forces was viewed as a waste of time by our peers. They thought that we wouldn’t be able to challenge air force policies. But all is not lost. I firmly believe there is a large section that feels women should have equal opportunities. The fact remains that the induction of women in 1992 was conceived by the military, which then, as today, has men in policymaking roles. I won my case on the basis of my performance, which was rated by my superiors, who were men, and who judged me fairly. The judges who gave the verdict were also both men. Through this journey, there have been a few good men who believed in the equality and capabilities of women.
Change should be effected not for its own sake but because it will benefit a larger section. We need the best officers to serve, irrespective of their gender — not just good male officers. Don’t package change as a favour to women. They need to be moulded into thinking partners. The challenge is not teaching women how to fly. As they say, you can train a monkey to fly. The challenge is to bring about a shift in thinking and mentality. Give women the wings to fly, and they will carve a path for themselves. Let’s not waste time discussing logistics for toilets. Let’s go ahead and make women equal contributors in strategy and future-planning. And then see them soar high.
Being a solider is not about courage; it’s about sacrifice. Don’t try teaching that to a woman.
The writer is a retired wing commander from the first batch of women to join the armed forces.