SC order on women in army: just the first step on a long road

Ashraf Engineer

February 24, 2020

The Supreme Court order granting equal rights to women in the army was significant. Women can now get permanent commissions and command positions on par with men. They are eligible for equal promotions, ranks, benefits and pensions as their male counterparts and – this is the most important part – they can serve a full tenure, get paid more and achieve their full potential.

While we must celebrate the victory, women are a long way away from true equality in the army. Look at what the government thinks about them. It argued in court that women are unsuitable for command posts because male troops are not prepared to accept women officers. Let that sink in – it’s the women who are unsuitable because the men aren’t ready to accept them in superior positions.

The Centre’s affidavit said: “The composition of rank and file being male, and predominantly drawn from rural background, with prevailing societal norms, the troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command.”

The sexism couldn’t be more explicit. As it is in much of Indian society, women are expected to step back because the men can’t handle them making real progress.

The government argument consisted of a laundry list of similar reasons: different physical standards, greater family demands, the risk of women being taken prisoner and over-exposing women to combat situations.

The ruling, by the way, does hold back a bit – it doesn’t open the door to women serving in combat units like the infantry. They can, however, command battalions or head the intelligence department – and promotions to command positions will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

This is why the ruling is only the first step on the long road to equality.

According to data tabled in Parliament, the gender ratio of officers in the army is the worst of the three forces – 27 men for every woman. Across the army, navy and air force, there were 3,653 women officers for 62,507 male officers in 2018.

This imbalance is true, in fact, of public service in general. According to Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation data, women comprise only 23% of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) personnel, 12% of the current Lok Sabha and 11% of Supreme Court judges.

It’s not about the rules

Gender issues in the military – like in other professions – are not about what the rules allow. Without crushing the blatant sexism we see all around us, we’re unlikely to see equality.

How many times have women been told not to step outside of their traditional duties because “that’s what they are best at”? It’s a pervasive malaise that’s been around us for so long we barely notice it.

As the court observed, “A change of mindset is required with changing times.”

Let’s consider the Centre’s argument that, since the rank and file comprises mainly rural males, women officers won’t be accepted. What it’s really saying is that capable women will not be given their due because the male egos will be bruised.

Many have said that the government is just being practical – the army is too vital to mess around with. This is an argument based in patriarchy and it’s difficult to imagine this mindset  changing any time soon. In fact, in 2018, then army chief and now Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat had said women were not ready to be inducted to combat roles, adding that the army was looking to take in more women as “interpreters”.

Let the change begin

Clearly, what’s needed is institutional and long-term transformation. The army owes it to the women who’ve been serving in various branches such as the Medical Corps.

There’s no reason why the army can’t plan for long-term confidence building for women officers through a career planning process. A transparent, merit-based performance evaluation with objective parameters would be a good start.

The men will not simply wake up tomorrow and accept female authority. Grand as it sounds, a larger societal effort for gender equality is required, starting with the IAS, legislatures and courts. Gender sensitisation should be included in school and military curricula.

The army leadership should look upon the Supreme Court order as an opportunity for cultural change, even if it’s gradual. It doesn’t come without its problems, of course, but then no evolution does. After all, flawed standards with patriarchal overtones are no reason to hang on to the bad policies of the past.

It’s time instead to fix the real problem.

Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons. Used for representational purposes only.