If image was reality, it would be time to crack open the champagne and celebrate women being welcomed into India’s military.
On November 25 last year, Indian President Pratibha Patil made history by becoming the first female head of state to fly in a frontline Sukhoi-30 MKI warplane. Earlier in the year, Delhi-based defence journalist Suman Sharma co-piloted a Russian MiG-35 fighter aircraft at the annual Aero India show–the first woman in the world to do so.
Yet the powerful images of these special G-suit-clad women obscure a more troubling picture in India’s armed services.
Indeed, even while President Patil was readying herself for her Sukhoi flight, Indian Air Force (IAF) Vice Chief Air Marshal P K Barbora was telling listeners that the induction of women fighter pilots would be a slow process in India.
But he didn’t stop there. He went on to argue that training women up as fighter pilots doesn’t make financial sense, claiming that as it costs the Indian exchequer 11.66 crore rupees (about $ 2.4 million) to train a fighter pilot; women just don’t offer optimum returns.
‘In a few years time, we might see this change, (with women pilots) coming in with certain pre-conditions such as until this age we request you to be happy, be married, but no offspring,’ Barbora said, before going on to suggest that since it takes 13 or 14 years of service for the government to recover its investment in fighter pilots, that women should only start their families after this period.
Barbora’s remarks made him–and the Air Force generally–the target of accusations that the institution is out of touch and chauvinistic and he was forced to apologise for his remarks and issue a statement stating that the views expressed were personal. But the damage was done to an establishment already viewed as sexist.
The figures speak for themselves. There are barely more than one thousand women officers in the Indian Army, for example-just 2.4 percent of the world’s second-largest standing army with a staggering 1.4 million soldiers in active service. The Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force fare little better, with 3 percent and 6.7 percent representation respectively.
Such inequity prompted headlines with a cabinet decision that came close on the heels of Barbora’s remarks. On December 15, India’s central government ruled out for the foreseeable future the possibility of deploying women officers in ‘combat roles’ by allowing them to fly fighters, serve in the infantry or on board warships.
Speaking to Parliament on the issue, Defence Minister A K Antony tried to strike a positive note, saying the armed forces were closely watching the global trend of reviewing the decision at an unspecified later date saying, ‘Gradually, they’ll play combat roles…the day will come.’
But campaigners and advocates for women’s rights are dismissive of the wait-and-see approach. ‘What will change in 15 or 20 years?’ says Professor Saraswati Raju, Director of the Women’s Studies Programme at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. ‘If the decision is based on physical vulnerability, this will never change. Biological differences will always remain. And, if the assumption is that women won’t be able to withstand the pressure, then that’s wrong.’
Raju believes that as long as the dangers of service are made clear that there’s no reason why women should not be allowed to serve. ‘Why do we think women officers are more vulnerable? I think a little girl walking the streets of any of our big cities is in greater danger at most given times,’ she says. ‘Also, the argument that women need to be overly protected from the enemy is, I think, a smart way to isolate them, to go back to treating them as custodians of national morality and modesty.’
Major General (Retired) Mrinal Suman says he’s baffled by such outbursts. ‘The defence potential of a country can’t be trivialised like this. Nobody in their right mind can demand equality of opportunity at the cost of reduced efficiency of an institution like the armed forces,’ he says. ‘The defence forces are not an employment scheme. The sole criterion has to be suitability, and women should be inducted into combat roles only if they can perform at the same level.’
Defence analysts have backed the government’s decision, saying India still has relatively limited experience of having women serve in the armed forces. The first intake was in 1992, mostly in the medical and nursing corps for a Short Service Commission of 5 years, extendible for another 5 years, and then another 4, adding up to a maximum of 14 years.
However, it was only in 2008 that women officers were granted permanent commissions of up to 20 years right from the start, as is the case for their male counterparts, in some wings of the armed forces such as Legal Branch, Engineers, Signals, Army Service Corps, Ordnance, Education, Intelligence and Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Even now, women are only eligible for the officer cadre, and the permanent commission is valid only for new recruits, not the existing cadre of women officers.
In contrast, the United States military has approximately 200,000 women serving, nearly 20 percent of its strength, on active duty. Although direct ground combat with the enemy is barred, women are permitted to join as combat aircraft pilots and can also be assigned for extended duty on combat naval ships. In the British Armed Forces, female officers occupy 11.2 percent of all jobs since a major expansion of their role in the early 1990s. Women can now serve in 71 percent of all jobs in the Royal Navy, 67 percent in the Army and 96 percent in the Air Force, although they are still excluded from direct combat with the enemy.
However, Major General Suman says these benchmarks need to be contextualised. ‘In countries which are highly technical, it’s easier to open up more positions for women. The United States of America is touching fifth-generation technology, while the Indian forces still use second-generation technology,’ he says. ‘In a high-tech army, there are a lot of technical jobs women do equally, and often better. They can fly drones for attack remotely from their bases.’
And he adds that even in the United States, the glass ceiling may have some cracks, but it has by no means been shattered. ‘American women have been participating in Iraq operations in large numbers. But, there is not one woman in the 4,137 casualties suffered in Iraq by the US/UK forces so far. Clearly, even in such advanced forces, women are doing only non-operational jobs. Not one has become a casualty. No country in the world to date has women in actual combat positions. Why are we accused of having a gender bias?’ [Editor’s note: according to iCasualties, there have been 19 female US servicemen killed in hostile situations since the beginning of 2007].
Much of India’s poor reputation on equality has been moulded by regular reports of sexual harassment, discrimination and negligence faced by its female officers. In 2006, a female officer, Lieutenant Sushmita Chakroborty, committed suicide, an act her parents say was prompted by overwork. More recently, in July 2009, an Army Court of Inquiry sacked a captain rank Army Service Corps female officer for levelling ‘false’ allegations of physical and mental harassment against her seniors. Several cases of such pressure to keep quiet-with the armed services accused of dragging their feet in investigations or shielding male officers-have come to light.
But, Renu Ratra, a former army major and now a human resource manager at a pharmaceutical firm, says she felt no more or less discriminated against than her male colleagues while in the army. ‘Yes, of course there are occasions when you feel the gender bias. But, doesn’t that happen everywhere?’ she asks. ‘There’s a little more of that in the army because the troops you lead are mainly from rural backgrounds and have limited exposure.’
Ratra resigned from the services after more than six years in the Army Service Corps, largely she says so she could raise her young son in one place rather than having to cope with the constant upheaval of new postings.
Commissioned in September 2002, Ratra says she did well, and was even graded as an alpha instructor who could train future officers. ‘You do need to put in that extra bit to prove yourself,’ she says. ‘I have to do that in my corporate job as well. But, if you are a performer, you can do it.’
But insiders say the odds are still stacked against female recruits, despite the fact that women are judged on more lenient standards of physical fitness. For a 5-kilometre run, for example, a male officer must finish in 28 minutes, while a female officer is given 40 minutes.
‘When women are in a junior position, they work well,’ says one Major, who has undertaken non-peace postings in Kashmir and the Northeast of the country, deemed two of the most critical operational regions for the Indian army. ‘But, their personality and conditions change drastically when they get married. The behaviour shown by the majority has not been very encouraging. Many women officers have not been up to the mark and [there have been] real problems as a result.’
However, he concedes that the debate over female officers is still one worth having, and he admits he has worked with female officers who have exceeded expectations and should, in principle, be allowed to further their ambitions. ‘With permanent commission now being granted, things should change. Women are also now supposed to do all courses and hold more appointments. This may groom them for real tasks.’