Last week, the defence ministry approved the induction of women fighter pilots into the Indian Air Force (IAF). The first batch of women officers will start piloting fighter jets by mid-2017. Even though women officers have been flying transport aircraft and helicopters for many years, this goes a step further. It is significant, more so in the light of Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha’s statement in March 2014 that women aren’t physically suited to fly fighter planes.
While no reason for Raha’s change of heart has been put forth, it can be surmised that the current decision has been taken at the behest of the political leadership. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar deserves to be complimented for pushing through this progressive measure.
The induction of women fighter pilots is, however, only a first step on a long journey of giving women an equal standing and role in the armed forces. Parrikar has himself argued against women officers in combat, by raising the spectre of a woman officer being captured by the enemy during combat. The argument is fallacious because the ill-treatment of a prisoner of war is not contingent on gender; the torture inflicted by the Pakistani security forces on Captain Saurabh Kalia before he was killed is well known. Either way, that debate is seemingly settled, as women fighter pilots in service now would face the same danger as any soldier in close combat. Unless, of course, the IAF decides to use them only for symbolic purposes.
The danger of hollow symbolism is something that the defence ministry should guard against. While women have been part of the armed forces for 22 years now, they haven’t been treated on par with their male counterparts. Women can serve only in selected branches of the services, and that too only as officers; even there, except for a few branches, they are denied permanent commission.
Besides bridging these inequalities, the conversation needs to move now towards having women as soldiers, sailors and air-warriors. India is not alone in facing these challenges: Countries like Israel, Canada and the US are still grappling with the subject of women in combat roles in the armed forces. By allowing women as fighter pilots, the Centre has opened the door a little wider. It must work towards fully opening the door — or better still, breaking it down.