[Burning Issue] Women in Armed Forces

Our mythology is replete with instances of warrior women who were revered, worshipped like the `Shakti’, consort of Shiva the Destroyer, mother of all warriors, and who manifested herself as Durga the warrior goddess, to fight and destroy evil. The Greek Goddess Athena, the Roman Diana, the Nordic Valkyries and the Amazons are cases in point.

However, the induction of women in armed forces is the matter of debate today.

India’s women in uniform: A timeline

  • In 1888, the role of women in the Indian army began 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.
  • Today, all wings of the Indian Armed Forces allow women in combat roles (junior ranks) and combat supervisory roles (officers), except Indian Army (support roles only) and Special Forces of India (trainer role only) (c. 2017).
  • Since 1993, the government has progressively opened up the three services for WOs in selected branches.

A timeline of women’s inductions into the military –

Year Service Branches that opened up for women
1991 Navy Education, Logistics and Law Cadre of Executive Branch
1992 Army Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, Army Education Corps, Judge Advocate General Branch
1993 Navy Air Traffic Controller
1994 Air Force Transport and helicopter pilots
1996 Army Engineers, Signals, Intelligence, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering branches opened up for women.
2001 Navy Naval Constructor Cadre of Engineering Branch
2008 Army Women became eligible for Permanent Commission in Army Education Corps and Judge Advocate General Department
2008 Navy Observers
2015 Air Force Fighter pilots


Present context

  • Recently, 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 judgment was based on a case filed by 17 women SSC officers who were denied PC and discharged despite completing 14 years of service as SSC officers.
  • Another bench of the court led by Justice DY Chandrachud had earlier declared that women would be eligible for permanent commission in select army cadres too.


  • On February 17, the Supreme Court of India passed a ruling that will enable women to serve as army commanders.
  • The court also extended permanent service – which has only applied to men so far – to all women officers.
  • Following the court’s ruling, women will now be allowed to command entire military units. However, they will still not be permitted to serve in army combat units, like the infantry or artillery corps.

What did the Court say?

  • 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.
  • The bench did not though extend the benefit of its ruling to those SSC officers who have since retired, instead granting them pensionary benefits and compensation of`25 lakh to some for loss of the opportunity.

Significance of the move

  • The court ruled that women naval officers cannot be denied the right to equal opportunity and dignity entitled to under the Constitution on specious grounds such as physiology, motherhood and physical attributes.
  • The battle for gender equality is about confronting the battles of the mind.
  • History is replete with examples where women have been denied their just entitlements under law and the right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace.

What did opponents say?

  • The Judgment frowned on submissions by the government law officer that certain avenues such as sea-sailing duties were ill-suited for women officers as there is no return to the base, unlike in the Army and the Air Force.
  • The law officer had claimed that in vessels of a Russian origin no provision has been made for women as sailors and there are no bathrooms to accommodate them.
  • It also made the incredulous argument that women should not be appointed to top roles such as colonels or brigadiers, because most soldiers are men from rural backgrounds who are not “mentally schooled to accept women officers in command.

Permanent Commission (PC) Vs. Short Service Commission (SSC)

  • A SSC means an officer’s career will be of a limited period in the Indian Armed Forces whereas a PC means they shall continue to serve in the Indian Armed Forces, till they retire.
  • The officers inducted through the SSC usually serve for a period of 14 years. At the end of 10 years, the officers have three options.
  • A PC entitles an officer to serve in the Navy till he/she retires unlike SSC, which is currently for 10 years and can be extended by four more years, or a total of 14 years.
  • They can either elect for a PC or opt-out or have the option of a 4-years extension. They can resign at any time during this period of 4 years extension.


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 recognises 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 defence 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.


While ensuring that women get their rightful place to serve in the armed forces before introducing any measure to improve gender equity, it should not weaken the fighting capabilities of the sword arms of national security. That is the bottom line.

  • Our armed forces should undertake an exercise to determine physical fitness standards required for meeting the minimum operational standards (MOS) required for each arm.
  • It should recruit persons meeting the MOS, regardless of gender.
  • This time-consuming exercise should be undertaken with political and organisational support of the government and the services if they seriously want to lift existing restrictions on women’s entry in all branches of the armed forces.
  • Induction of women into combat positions should be on the basis of their abilities and not on the basis of their gender.
  • The training for both women and men should be standardized to eliminate differentiation based on physical capabilities.

Way Forward


Defence 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 defence policies.










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