The issue of bringing women into the armed forces has been contentious for some time, despite Nirmala Sitharaman batting strongly for equality for women, when she was defence minister. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case for grant of equivalence in allowing posts of commanding officers to women in the armed forces. The government submitted an affidavit, laying out its justification for the alleged unsuitability of women officers to discharge this role: “Psychological limitations”, lower physical standards, domestic obligations and absence due to pregnancy. The government argued that the “composition of rank and file being male predominantly drawn from the rural background with prevailing societal norms, troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command of units”. Stretching the argument even further to exclude women, it argued that “The non-linear battlefield has rendered the erstwhile rear areas as much vulnerable as battlefield. Therefore, the induction of women officers into the Indian Army, hithertofore a male bastion, needs to be viewed in the perspective of the changed battlefield environment”.
Needless to say, the arguments are regressive and do not meet the yardstick for progressive and liberal values that any modern society ought to aspire for. The government’s arguments reopen a debate which had been closed nearly three decades ago, when the women officers were first inducted into the armed forces. All the arguments put forth against giving women more responsibility have been answered by the armed forces by giving women greater responsibility in uniform — the IAF has allowed women to become fighter pilots, and the Army has sent them to tough UN peacekeeping missions globally.
The arguments are not only wrong, they are also misplaced: The current case in the Supreme Court is not about granting a role to women in combat arms but about the denial of equal opportunity in their existing roles for promotion to higher commands. Women officers are already commanding platoons and companies successfully, with male soldiers accepting orders from them as part of a professional force. A professional force does not discriminate on the basis of gender, it works because of training, norms and culture. There is no need to give women any special dispensations but the government cannot promote discrimination on the basis of gender. It must move towards gender mainstreaming in the army, and further achieve gender equality by establishing professional standards and adhering to them without any bias.