[Burning Issue] Women and the military

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The position of women in the armed forces, which is described as a male-dominated establishment generally, offers a limited window for any kind of change in the role of women in occupational and bureaucratic structures. However, breaking the glass ceiling, two women officers have been selected to train as helicopter pilots at Combat Army Training School, Nashik. Till now, women officers were only limited to performing ground duties in the Army Aviation Corps.

The Supreme Court last year ruled that women could serve as army commanders further granting permanent commission and promotions equal to their male counterparts. 

India’s women in uniform: A timeline

  • The role of women in the Indian Army began in 1888 when the ‘Indian Military Nursing Service’ was formed during the British Raj.
  • During 1914-45, British Indian Army nurses fought in World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939-45), where 350 nurses either died or were taken prisoner of war or declared missing in action.
  • But it was only in 1992 that the organisation opened doors and started inducting women in non-medical roles. In 2015, India also opened new combat air force roles for women as fighter pilots.
  • During 1914-45, British Indian Army nurses fought in World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939-45), where 350 nurses either died or were taken prisoner of war or declared missing in action.
  • However, despite all these developments, the women in the Indian armed forces that constitute 3% of the Indian army are still not allowed to be a part of the active combat.
  • Since 2008, women were inducted as permanent commissioned officers in the legal and education corps and as permanent commissioned officers in eight more non-combative corps in 2020.

A timeline of women’s inductions into the military –

YearServiceBranches that opened up for women
1991NavyEducation, Logistics and Law Cadre of Executive Branch
1992ArmyArmy Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, Army Education Corps, Judge Advocate General Branch
1993NavyAir Traffic Controller
1994Air ForceTransport and helicopter pilots
1996ArmyEngineers, Signals, Intelligence, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering branches opened up for women.
2001NavyNaval Constructor Cadre of Engineering Branch
2008ArmyWomen became eligible for Permanent Commission in Army Education Corps and Judge Advocate General Department
2015Air ForceFighter pilots

Present context

  • The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Union government to explain the admission of merely 19 women in the prestigious National Defence Academy (NDA) for 2022.
  • The court also asked the Centre to place the figures on record the total number of candidates, including women, who appeared in the NDA, Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) and Rashtriya Military School (RMS) entrance tests.
  • The NDA exam was held and 8,009 candidates qualified for the Service Selection Board test as also medical tests, out of which 1,002 candidates were women and 7,007 men.

Supreme Court’s ruling to grant Permanent Commission (PC) to women officers

  • In 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the right of serving Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers of the Navy to be granted Permanent Commission (PC) on a par with their male counterparts.
  • The Court has directed that SSC women officers found suitable for the grant of PC shall be entitled to all consequential benefits, including arrears of pay, promotions and retirement benefits as and when due.
  • All serving women SSC officers in at least seven wings, including the executive, engineering, electrical, education, law and logistics, will be eligible to apply.
  • The grant of PCs will be subject to: (i) availability of vacancies in the stabilized cadre; (ii) Suitability of the candidate; and (iii) recommendation by the chief of Naval Staff.

Women in Uniform: A global scan

India has limited experience as regards the induction of women in the armed forces. The first batch had joined in 1992. Therefore, our knowledge of the complexities and long-term effects of the issues involved is highly limited.

On the other hand, women have been serving in the militaries of developed countries for a long time. These countries have acquired a deep understanding of all the issues involved.

Let’s have a look:

United States

  • The United States is considered a pioneer and a trend-setter as regards induction of women in the services.
  • There are approximately 200,000 American women on active duty in the US armed forces. They constitute nearly 20 percent of its strength.
  • Women are also participating in Iraq operations in large numbers, albeit in support functions as they are forbidden to be placed in direct ground combat with enemy. They, however, are assigned ‘combat support’ duties on voluntary basis.
  • Prior to November 1975, if women became pregnant, they were given the option to terminate pregnancy or seek discharge.
  • A number of important steps were initiated during President Clinton’s time. Women were permitted to join as combat aircraft pilots and could also be assigned for prolonged duty on combat naval ships. The scope of combat-risk assignments for women was redefined to open additional appointments to them.


  • Though Israel has conscription for women (as well as men), a large number of them are exempted for various reasons.
  • Women are generally not allotted active battle field duties. They serve in many technical and administrative posts to release men for active duty.
  • Although they make excellent instructors as well, most women occupy lower and middle level appointments. Only a handful reaches senior ranks.

Other Countries

  • In the Australian Army, women are still not allowed in the field/battle. In Russia, women generally serve in nursing, communications and logistic support functions.
  • Like all Islamic states, Pakistan does not permit women in the armed forces. It is feared that women would create distraction and cause disruption of internal order.
  • There is also a great deal of concern for the safety of women from the organisational environment itself.

Why males have ever dominated the armed forces?

  • Militaries across the world help entrench hegemonic masculine notions of aggressiveness, strength and heterosexual prowess in and outside their barracks.
  • The military training focuses on creating new bonds of brotherhood and camaraderie between them based on militarised masculinity.
  • This temperament is considered in order to enable conscripts to survive the tough conditions of military life and to be able to kill without guilt.
  • To create these new bonds, militaries construct a racial, sexual, gendered “other”, attributes of whom the soldier must routinely and emphatically reject.

Dimensions of the Issue

Indeed, the court’s strong statements against the gender stereotypes employed by the government come as a welcome relief. Equally, ensuring that women can hold permanent commissions in the army recognizes the equal effort and service that they put in.

  • Gender is not a hindrance: As long as an applicant is qualified for a position, one’s gender is arbitrary. It is easy to recruit and deploy women who are in better shape than many men sent into combat.
  • Military Readiness: Allowing a mixed-gender force keeps the military strong. The armed forces are severely troubled by falling retention and recruitment rates. This can be addressed by allowing women in the combat role.
  • Effectiveness: The blanket restriction for women limits the ability of commanders in theatre to pick the most capable person for the job.
  • Tradition: Training will be required to facilitate the integration of women into combat units. Cultures change over time and the masculine subculture can evolve too.
  • Cultural Differences & Demographics: Women are more effective in some circumstances than men. Allowing women to serve doubles the talent pool for delicate and sensitive jobs that require interpersonal skills, not every soldier has.

The road is not so simple

Capabilities of women

  • The Centre states that although women are equally capable, if not more capable than men, there might be situations that could affect the capabilities of women such as absence during pregnancy and catering to the responsibilities of motherhood, etc. 
  • The arguments are presented on the basis that a role in combat would require tough training, whereas the current training for women is different and at a much lower level than that of their male counterparts.
  • However, Lieutenant Colonel Mitali Madhumita and IAF squad leader Minty Agarwal are examples of women who stand as a testament to the capabilities of women in commanding positions.

Adjusting with the masculine setup

  • To then simply add women to this existing patriarchal setup, without challenging the notions of masculinity, can hardly be seen as “gender advancement”.
  • In fact, in order to succeed within the army, women are forced to deride their femininity and work harder than men to establish parity in the eyes of their counterparts.
  • They are forced to blend in while standing out for their exceptional work in order to be taken seriously.

Fear of sexual misconduct

  • This superficial approach to gender equality defines parity solely based on the opportunity to participate hence fails to address several fallouts most notable of which is sexual harassment and abuse.
  • Sexual harassment faced by women military officers is a global phenomenon which remains largely unaddressed, and women often face retaliation when they do complain.
  • Extensive and rigorous data on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the Indian armed forces is not available.
  • However, a relatively small 2015 study, which questioned 450 members of the armed forces on sexual discrimination in their workplace, found that sexual harassment is rampant in the military.

Gender progressiveness could be an illusion

  • In reality, there are several factors behind the decision to include women in the forces, including using the illusion of gender progressiveness within the army to shame populations for their gender inequities, brand them as backwards and use this to justify military control.
  • Women’s inclusion is criticized as just another manoeuvre to camouflage women’s subjugation and service as women’s liberation.

Battle of ‘Acceptance’

  • The only way to command is to show the lower ranks that the orders are fair and just, both in spirit and action.
  • Acceptance of women in the military has not been smooth in any country. Every country has to contend with sceptics who consider it to be a counterproductive programme.
  • They tend to view it as a political gimmick to flaunt sexual equality, or, at best, a necessary liability.
  • Additionally, every country has to mould the attitude of its society at large and male soldiers in particular to enhance acceptability of women in the military.
  • For trained soldiers “acceptance” is not an option; they have undergone rigorous regimentation to accept orders from the command.

Job Satisfaction

  • Most women feel that their competence is not given due recognition. Seniors tend to be over-indulgent without valuing their views.
  • They are generally marginalised and not involved in any major decision-making. They have to work twice as hard as men to prove their worth. Additionally, a woman is always under scrutiny for even minor slip-ups.
  • Many women complain that despite their technical qualifications, they are generally detailed for perceived women-like jobs. Either they get routine desk work or are asked to perform duties related to social minutiae.

Doubts about Role Definition

  • The profession of arms is all about violence and brutality. To kill another human is not moral but soldiers are trained to kill.
  • They tend to acquire a streak of raw ruthlessness and coarseness. This makes the environment highly non-conducive and rough for women.
  • Women, in general, are confused about the way they should conduct themselves. If they behave lady-like, their acceptance amongst male colleagues is low.
  • On the other hand, their active participation in casual repartee carries the danger of their losing colleagues’ respect.

Societal Impact

  • The government has argued that if a woman is taken captive by insurgents/terrorists or as a Prisoner of War (PoW) by an enemy state, then it would become an international and deeply emotive issue which could have an impact on the society.
  • However, times have changed and this cannot be a valid reason for denying command roles and permanent commission to women.

Physical and Physiological Issues

  • The natural physical differences in stature, strength, and body composition between the sexes make women more vulnerable to certain types of injuries and medical problems.
  • The vigorous training might also have an effect on the health of women officers.
  • The natural processes of menstruation and pregnancy make women particularly vulnerable in combat situations.
  • Such positions usually leave the commanding officer with no privacy and during adverse situations, the lack of sanitation can have an impact on their health.

Comfort Level

  • Most women accepted the fact that their presence amongst males tends to make the environment ‘formal and stiff’.
  • The mutual comfort level between men and women colleagues is often very low.
  • Men miss their light-hearted banter which is considered essential to release work tensions and promote group cohesion. They consider women to be intruding on their privacy.

Whose concern is National Security…

Many defense analysts are disgusted with the ongoing emulsive debate incorporating issues of national security with gender justice. Few of their opinion are discussed as under:

  • The recent debate about the entry of women officers in the armed forces has been highly ill- informed and subjective in nature.
  • People have taken stands and expressed opinion without analysing the matter in its entirety. It is imprudent to consider it as an issue of equality of sexes or gender bias or even women’s liberation.
  • It is also not a question of conquering the so-called ‘last male bastion’.
  • That would amount to trifling a matter that concerns the well-being and the war-potential of a nation’s armed forces.
  • Armed forces have been constituted with the sole purpose of ensuring defence of the country and all policy decisions should be guided by this overriding factor.
  • All matters concerning defence of the country have to be considered in a dispassionate manner.
  • No decision should be taken which even remotely affects the cohesiveness and efficiency of the military. Concern for equality of sexes or political expediency should not influence defence policies.

Way Forward

 Defense readiness is one major aspect which is required to be borne in mind throughout while considering their employability options. The career aspects and opportunities for women need to be viewed holistically keeping the final aim in focus.

  • Misleading information such as using the patriarchal nature of the society as an excuse to deny women their deserving opportunities should be stopped. India has come a long way, and society should be supportive of women being inducted in to combat roles. 
  • So far combatant roles are concerned, an all-women combat squadron should be designed and studied extensively before any further development or decisions are made.
  • The training provided to men and women should be similar to eliminate differentiation on the basis of physical standards.
  • It is the responsibility of the Government to create both administrative and social infrastructure for the easy induction of women into the Armed Forces. Administrative issues should not be cited as a barrier to women’s entry in the Armed Forces.
  • The framework for the induction of women should be incorporated into a policy. As for the concern of preserving the female officers’ modesty and dignity, there should be elaborate codes of conduct to ensure no adverse incident occurs.

Finally, no decision should be taken which even remotely affects the cohesiveness and efficiency of the military. Concern for equality of sexes or political expediency should not influence defense policies.

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