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Women Warriors Break Down Barriers Across Asia

The gradual dismantling of norms and gender stereotypes in Asian militaries can have a positive impact on other areas of society.

The U.S. Pentagon has revealed that over the course of the next few years, nearly all combat slots will become open to women. The announcement changes years of traditional military practice, and will likely have an impact both domestically and worldwide. While this move towards equality acknowledges the fact that women are capable of serving in these highly skilled and trained positions, it’s crucial to note that on the ground, women have already been serving in combat for quite some time. Formal Pentagon recognition of their status is significant, and a welcome sign that women risking their lives are increasingly receiving the same credit that men already do.

Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who lost both of her legs while flying helicopters in Iraq, noted after hearing the news that “The reality on the ground in a 360 battlefield is that women have been serving in combat…. I didn't lose my legs in a bar fight.”

Representative Duckworth is not alone. Women comprise approximately 14 percent of the nearly 1.5 million active military personnel. Over 280,000 women have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and 152 of the more than 6,600 U.S. service members killed there have been women.

With the opportunity for women to serve in combat, the United States military can determine how to best capitalize upon the unique characteristics and skill sets that women may bring to a traditionally male-dominated combat environment. In an article in the New York Times, Retired Army Captain Adrian Bonenberger argued that:

“There are two truths functioning in parallel here. The first is that women are different from men. The second is that in modern warfare, women may in many ways be as good as men at fighting. Some evidence suggests that women may be better suited than men to be pilots, for one thing, and may be as capable as or better than men as snipers and marksmen. Rather than ignoring the differences (the current method) or trying to make women into men, or vice versa (the proposed future method), the military should be looking for ways to maximize the capabilities of both.”

For any military division, the hope is that the best of the best end up on the front lines. With women now being considered for over 230,000 new posts, the pool of elite candidates will ideally increase.

Following the Pentagon’s announcement, the United States will soon join the ranks of countries like Israel, Australia, Canada, Norway, France, and New Zealand in allowing women to protect and serve their countries from the front lines. Much of the attention regarding this announcement has focused upon women in the Western world. However, what is the current status of military women in various Asia-Pacific countries?

North Korean women are eligible for combat roles in the military. In fact, Kim Jong-un is reportedly a frequent visitor to an all-women's artillery company under the Korean People's Army Unit 4302, the Thrice Three-Revolution Red Flag Kamnamu [persimmon tree] Company. 

Conversely, the South Korean Ministry of Defense stated in September 2011 that it is in the process of opening up more front line positions to women. Defense planners anticipate that women will serve in 12 combat branches by next year, including the army's artillery and armored divisions; the air force's air defense; and the navy's fire control.

Women in Singapore are eligible for combat roles, aside from positions in the elite Commando and Army Developmental Force units.

Indonesian women comprise ten percent of military personnel, but are not allowed in combat roles. 

China has opened more combat roles to women over the past few years. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) initiated a pilot program in June 2010 to allow women to apply for combat positions. On February 17, 2013, eight female sailors joined the crew of the Harbin as members of a navy escort mission. It officially marked the first time that women served in combat roles aboard a naval vessel. Last year Chinese female fighter pilots completed their first solo runs in China's advanced combat aircraft, the J-10. The first female missile unit was formed in 2011.

Pakistani women made history in 2006 when they gained entry (after three years of training) into the air force as aerospace engineers and fighter pilots, the latter of which is arguably the most coveted job in the military. Although women do not currently fly in combat missions, pilots like Flight-Lt Ambreen Gul and Flight-Lt. Nadia Gul nevertheless argue that the Pakistani Air Force is a trailblazer for women's rights.

Indian women serving in the army, navy, air force, coast guard, and other parts of the defense industrial complex are in non-combat positions. The government has nevertheless taken steps to expand their presence in the military, and the Ministry of Defense asserts in its 2011-2012 annual report that women are able to serve in more positions for longer periods of time with greater promotion potential than in the past.

In Oceania, the New Zealand legislature passed a 2001 law granting women access to military combat roles. The Australian government decided in 2011 to remove all restrictions on women serving in combat roles. The changes are being implemented over a five year period; the Army just opened up all positions to women in February 2013.

Women in Taiwan are allowed to serve as combat pilots. President Ma Ying-jeou recently acknowledged that perceptions toward women in combat are changing worldwide, and indicated that he is open to considering women for combat roles.

Recently, the Japanese Ministry of Defense commissioned its research arm, the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), to begin studying whether it should allow women to pursue combat roles. Tokyo has gradually allowed female Self-Defense Force (SDF) personnel to join an increasing number of military units since 1993, as a part of its gender equality campaign. Women currently comprise slightly over 5 percent of the SDF, but the government apparently hopes to boost the number of female personnel to compensate for a declining birthrate.

The gradual dismantling of traditional norms and gender stereotypes in militaries worldwide may have a positive impact on other arenas where gender norms are still heavily entrenched. Asian women in politics and business have made great strides in recent years, but nevertheless have many challenges to overcome both at home and in the boardroom.

How can the United States play a positive role to promote women’s empowerment both within its own military as well as in Asian militaries? First, perhaps the United States can work with foreign governments to encourage more Asian women to apply for spots in their own or American military academies. Such academies provide the type of valuable leadership training that could help more women become military officers and eventually decision-makers back home. Second, the U.S. Department of Defense might want to consider how its female military personnel can join forces with female Asian allies and partners during bilateral or multilateral military conferences and training exercises.

Women don’t seek to achieve a “separate but equal” status; they strive for full equality with their male peers. Providing American servicewomen opportunities to share experiences and even train with their Asian counterparts could help women identify current challenges, discover solutions, and overcome obstacles to further their empowerment and future success in a cooperative environment.  

Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and China Power contributor. Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in CNN.com, RH Reality Check, The Frisky, Ms. Magazine’s site and more. Her first book, an anthology that deconstructs the myth of the “good mother” will be out Fall 2013 from Seal Press.