It was never about male or female officers—it was a fight for equal rights and the Supreme Court has upheld the right to gender equality in the armed forces as enshrined in Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution of India. In a benchmark judgment on February 17, the Supreme Court granted parity to women officers with male officers, with respect to consideration for permanent commission and opportunity for command of units based on the selection criteria. The parity granted is only partial, and was restricted to the plea of the litigants as related to terms and conditions of short service commission in the combat support arms, excluding artillery and combat support services. Women are still not at par with their male counterparts with respect to the following rights/opportunities:
- Direct permanent commission into the armed forces through the National Defence Academy after 10+2 and respective service academies after graduation
- Joining fighting arms—infantry/mechanised infantry and armoured corps—and one combat support arm (artillery) in the army
- Service on ships and submarines in the navy (Indian Navy has in principle accepted the proposal subject to women-specific facilities being created)
- Joining special forces
- Enrolment as soldiers, sailors and airmen, i.e. as personnel below officer rank (Indian Army has made a small beginning with enrolment of 100 soldiers in the Corps of Military Police in December 2019)
The battle for absolute and rightful gender parity for women in the armed forces is going to be tough and long drawn. The patriarchal military is likely to give no quarter and none should be asked. Having been born and brought up in the army, I have had first-hand experience of this attitude. There is no doubt that officers and soldiers respect women literally to a fault, but complete with exemplary chivalry, this respect is similar to the attitude of condescending gallant knights on white horses rescuing damsels in distress. Back in 1992, the military had granted short service commission to women officers after government intervention, primarily to maintain a veneer of gender equality in the armed forces, and no more. While the armed forces grudgingly accepted women officers due to their meritorious performance, further reforms for gender parity were scuttled based on untenable arguments of relative differences in physiology, rigours of military service, lack of infrastructure for women in the field and, above all, the perceived cultural non-acceptance of women commanders by soldiers.
Sample the attitude of the hierarchy. General Bipin Rawat, then Chief of Army Staff (now Chief of Defence Staff), on December 15, 2018, in an interview to CNN-News 18, said women in combat would have to be “cocooned” from the prying eyes of subordinate soldiers; commanding officers of fighting units might require long maternity leave, which the army can ill afford; our soldiers are not ready to accept women leading them; and the society is not ready for women coming back in body bags. If these are the views of the senior-most military officer of the armed forces, one shudders to think about the attitude of the rank and file.
The underlying principle of the Supreme Court judgment is that so long as women meet the desired physical, intellectual and performance standards, they should have parity with their male colleagues in the armed forces. And therein lies the challenge for women to change the entrenched mindset of the military hierarchy and its subordinate officers and soldiers with at par if not better performance in all fields. Firstly, this performance must come in the physical fitness standards, an argument often made by detractors of women in the armed forces. However, both the military and the women officers are to blame for this. In the initial stages, the induction of women in the armed forces was seen as a cosmetic appendage and very low physical fitness standards—barely 50 per cent of male standards—were laid down. This is something women officers should have protested against. Women remained complacent and thus could not cope up with the physical rigours of soldiering.
These standards have since been revised, but are still 25-30 per cent lower than men with no tests for upper body strength. Equal rights and opportunities imply equal physical standards. The standards have to be role-specific, and not gender- or age-specific. The military must revise the physical fitness standards for women to make them at least up to the minimum standards laid down for the men. For combat arms and special forces, these must be at par with the standards laid down for men. Standards would also have to be laid down for post-pregnancy fitness recovery in terms of time. Coping up with the physical fitness standards to withstand the rigours of military service is the biggest challenge for women as, according to the Center for Military Readiness, USA, on an average they are shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50 per cent less upper body strength and 25-30 per cent less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance.
Greek philosopher Euripides (480-406 BC) said 2,400 years ago: “The daughters of Sparta are never at home. They mingle with young men in wrestling matches....” Physical fitness standards are fundamental. Women must understand that if they cannot measure up to the physical fitness standards set for various services, they have no right to seek gender parity. There is no separate battlefield only for Amazons.
Secondly, gender parity also implies no concessions with respect to terms and conditions of service. Of course, physiological gender-specific concessions like maternity leave will be encoded in rules and regulations. Women officers must set an example by adopting measures similar to those taken by women sportspersons. The experience so far has been that the performance of women officers declined post marriage and after bearing children. There was a marked tendency to request for peace tenures to take care of children and to be with the spouse. The problem was manageable due to the small numbers and short service tenure of 10+4 years. With grant of permanent commission, women will have to cope with schoolgoing children and related domestic issues.
The problem will become more acute with induction of women as soldiers due to tougher conditions of service. Women also have to be prepared for 50 per cent of their service tenures to be in field or operational areas away from their families as it is for men. Facilities in field and operational areas are primitive and rudimentary. Women will have to bear the same privations as male soldiers.
Thirdly, women will have to accept service in mixed gender units in future with the attendant problems related to privacy and instinctual male conduct. This has been a manageable problem so far as women are serving only as officers and dealing with soldiers as superiors. Once women are enrolled as soldiers, the problem will become more acute. There is limited scope for women-only units. The armed forces will codify rules and regulations for conduct, but as in other armies, it will remain a challenge.
Fourthly, with grant of permanent commission, women officers will be eligible for courses and competitive examinations as part of military education programme. Since these are mostly in the intellectual domain, women officers must outperform men to prove the point.
On the issue of gender equality in the armed forces, we are decades behind other armies. The Supreme Court and the high courts have paved the way strictly on the basis of the fundamental right to equality. However, the women will have to measure up to the strict intellectual and physical standards of the armed forces. Further reforms to earn absolute gender parity and the rights still denied will be contingent on the performance of the women officers in service, particularly those granted permanent commission.
(Views are personal.)
Gul Panag, Actor and entrepreneur, who was raised in cantonments all over India as the daughter of a service officer