Army Chief Bipin Rawat received some angry responses for saying that the Indian forces are not prepared for having women officers in combat roles. In an interview published by News18, he almost seemed to be shuddering while detailing the complications that could potentially arise by having women on the frontline. He raised some points to ponder, such as women having the lion’s share of the responsibility of raising kids — what happens to the children when their moms are posted to remote areas, and more pertinently, are we as a nation, ready to see women return in bodybags?
It’s evident the real issue was not whether women will make effective fighters equal to their male counterparts, but the chaos their presence evokes in a hyper-masculine environment. Rawat’s example of a situation when there are 10 women and 100 men, “what will happen if a woman accuses a jawan of peeping as she changes her clothes” is a question to make one cringe but it is an important one. The reality is that if women were allowed in combat positions, they face a far greater threat of sexual violence from fellow officers than shelling from the enemy.
Considering people manning the borders already have the tough job of protecting the country in harsh climatic conditions, they need all the focus they can muster. National security cannot be compromised for an attempt in gender equality. Most jawans come from villages where intermingling of the sexes is limited and they simply do not have the bandwidth to see women in their midst as equals.
In an ideal world, women would not be denied the opportunity to serve their nation only because the men around them can’t handle it. It could be said the Army Chief is mirroring the corporate world’s reaction to #MeToo, which is simply not to hire women. But every country has a specific history, in our case, an alarmingly misogynistic one that’s shaped the culture. The vagaries of the battlefield is a daunting and complex issue for far more emancipated nations than India. Even the US allowed women into frontline combat units just three years ago. The defining movement in India in 2018, #MeToo has opened a dialogue to close the gap between what should be and what is: but the fact is even the most liberal among us will baulk at news stories of women officers being blown up by bombs. It is a double standard, that we still see women as innocents, or victims.
For example, news dispatches from any warzone still make a special mention of the number of women and children killed, perpetuating the existing belief that women need special protection like children. Every human life has value. Women should be in conflict zones, fighting battles when their worth is no more or less than male soldiers.
At the same time in the Indian context, it is also crucial to recognise that indeed, child-rearing is largely the woman’s job and until the men don’t start actively participating in household duties, women cannot logically pursue careers as fighters. There is something to cheer in the fact that there is active dialogue and questions around all the stereotypical male careers. I remember doing a story 10 years ago on Delhi’s first female DJ, she was such a novelty. It’s almost amusing to think that would be worth a profile now; it’s so common to see girls spinning discs in clubs in Goa and Mumbai. Ultimately, there will be women snipers and shooters on an equal footing with men in the Indian military as well. But the main challenge will remain — getting the men to accept them.