Women Warriors Break Down Barriers Across Asia (Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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, 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.

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