Is India late in allowing women for combat roles?

Values change with time; principles are timeless 

SC in favour of women in Army

Thank you Aishwarya Bhati, my little princess, for spearheading this historic case. A welcome judgment by Supreme Court. The headlines by The Hindu, ‘…blow to mindset…’ seems inappropriate and disrespect to men and women. All of us, includes both male and females, are governed by the culture and values prevailing in a geographical place or say State or Country. Belief system takes a couple of generations to break free. The judgment: better late than never.

I too had always believed in equality of gender in performance of various duties. Irrespective of gender, not only both males and females be paid equal compensation along with equal distribution of workload.

A female should not complain and ask for lighter duties but equal remunerations. Around 1997-98, the women demanded they should be considered for BEST conductors’ job in Mumbai. It is similar to frontline Army job, sort of…! Their demand was accepted after lot of negotiations with equal pay and equal workload. After two months, the complaints surfaced. Lady conductors wanted only daylight hours duty and be given less crowded routes, as they experienced pinching and compressions from passengers in crowded buses. Obviously male conductors protested. Within six months the order was withdrawn. This is Indian mindset of both females and males.

In merchant ships, I have worked with lady officers/crew on foreign flags. There is no discrimination and demands with respect to hard duties, living conditions and use of even common washrooms as there is severe space constraints with regard to living spaces. Because in the western culture no one stares at any women, with naughty eyes, even if provocatively dressed. Nor do they mind sharing a cabin with male counterpart as space on board a ship is highly tight. Important thing to remember is that their interaction with opposite gender is natural and normal in western countries, unlike India.

There are three main issues for female soldiers/sailors/airmen, besides cultural differences and asking for concessions: privacy, pee and sex…!

But I guess the time has arrived for both genders to work shoulder to shoulder and share equal responsibility. Hopefully, the outlook and mentality of both Indian men and women will change with this historic judgment of Supreme Court. Most of superpower countries have accepted this change in last decade or so.

I believe, “Military training is about fundamentally reshaping norms and attitudes that soldiers bring from their social backgrounds.”

Gen Bipin Rawat, present CDS, sparked considerable outrage in 2019, when he said, “Maternity leave was an issue, women need more privacy and protection, and that India was not yet ready to accept body bags of women” killed in combat“. He also said, “Women need to be ‘cocooned’ from the eyes of subordinate soldiers”. He was basically talking about Indian ethos and mindset.

Around the world, getting women into combat roles has been a hard-won battle. Today more than a dozen nations allow women in combat roles.

American & British Military

When women officially became eligible for combat positions in the American military in 2016, it was widely hailed as another step towards the equality of sexes. In 2018, the UK military lifted a ban on women serving in close combat ground roles, clearing the way for them to serve in elite special forces.

At that time, critics pointed out that mixed-gender teams in close combat could lack cohesion, and there was some evidence that women are less likely to pass the tests and aerobic fitness. Rest, it be assured the Women aren’t going to be a problem in Indian Armed Forces. Today it is Army, tomorrow it will be Navy and Air Force.

Lt Gen HS Panag, a retired Indian general says, “While some can argue that women, in general, may not be able to cope with the rigour of combat due to the sheer physical strength required, why deny the opportunity to those who can?”

Things you were afraid to ask?

In my view, the right of a woman to serve in any role in the armed forces must be equal to a man’s as long as the physical and qualitative standards are not compromised. Let’s look at some more aspects, pee, privacy and pregnancy, to which, are Indian women ready?

How do female soldiers pee?

When deployed, women may need to urinate in unsanitary locations or with male soldiers close by. According to US and UK armies, the female urinary diversion device (FUDD) allows you to urinate discreetly while standing up or leaning back. You can urinate with minimal undressing – just unbutton your pants. Easy and happy?

Pregnancy and female soldiers

Daily Mail, UK, reports in February 2017: “Women joining the armed forces are becoming pregnant at the rate of one a fortnight despite relationships with male soldiers being strictly banned.”

According to statistics released by the UK Ministry of Defence between 2014 and December 2016, 36 Army recruits, 15 RAF and 10 Navy recruits became pregnant during their basic training.

Daily Mail, UK, reports in February 2017: “Women joining the armed forces are becoming pregnant at the rate of one a fortnight despite relationships with male soldiers being strictly banned.”

At least 102 servicewomen were sent home from Iraq after finding out they were pregnant, before British forces withdrew from the country in 2009. Between January 2006 and December 2013, 99 servicewomen on operations were flown back to the UK under strict military rules that ban mothers-to-be from serving in a war zone. According to figures released by the Ministry of Defence, UK, 16 women were removed from Afghanistan in 2013 due to pregnancy, while 18 were sent home in 2011.

According to Pentagon sources, “In September 2012 it was revealed that Lance Bombardier Lynette Pearce, then 28, gave birth to a son at the field hospital in Camp Bastion, four days after the base was attacked by the Taliban.”

Bethany Saros, who enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old in 2002, faced this blame head-on when she became pregnant by a fellow soldier during a 2007 tour in Iraq. Although condoms were available to soldiers at her deployment site, Saros did not use birth control. Her decision not to end the pregnancy meant her deployment was over, and Saros recalls meeting several other pregnant women in Kuwait while they all waited to get shipped back. “I felt like a pariah, and I think the other girls did too,” she said.

“It’s not like anyone does this on purpose,” Saros explained. “The fathers of these babies, they don’t get any problems, and they were screwing around just as we were.”

Here are some tell-tails

The New York Times in 2019 asked servicewomen and veterans to send them stories that defined their experiences in the military. “We left it to them whether to share their accomplishments, the challenges they faced or something unforgettable from their time in the military. Below is a selection of the more than 650 submissions we received.”

‘Not Many Women Get to Do What I Do’

Stella Clerra, serving USAF,

“I am a jet engine mechanic on the F/A-18F Super Hornet. Not many women or men will ever get the opportunity to do what I do. It’s been tough at times throughout my career to have men tell me they will not work for me because I’m a woman. I say to them: “That’s O.K. You don’t have to follow me, but I will bring you along.”

‘If They Were Going, I Was Going Too’

Gayle Gaymon, Army Veteran

“I decided to enlist during the Vietnam War. My cousins, who were also my close friends, were being drafted and volunteering for other branches to avoid the Army draft. I was afraid that they would not return. So, I decided that if they were going, I was going too.

‘The Whole Office Saw a Video of Me Naked’

Petty Officer First Class Liberty Law, Navy, 2004-Present

“In 2006, a male shipmate got into my barracks room and placed a camera in my bathroom and set it to record. I found it only after getting out of the shower. I took the camera to my male chief, whom I had known for only about a month. He assured me that he would get to the bottom of it. By lunchtime, the strange looks from everyone became obvious. Another shipmate told me that everyone in the company office had passed the camera around and saw the video of me naked, getting into and out of the shower.”

‘I Smoked the Hell Out of Some of Those Men’

Nicola Hall, Army, 2000-05,

“In early 2002, I deployed to Afghanistan with the 21st Military Police Company (Airborne). The infantry was facing issues running combat patrols because the local women were hiding intelligence, weapons and high-value targets. It would have been cultural warfare for the male infantrymen to search these women. They needed a “high-speed female” to go on combat patrols and missions with them — and I was selected. My unit treated me no differently because I was a woman. I was referred to as “Hall.” I was a leader, a paratrooper and I smoked the hell out of some of those men.”

‘Many Days, I Contemplated Suicide’

Florence Shmorgoner, Marine Corps, 2014-Present,

“In 2015, I was sexually assaulted, and I waited until 2017 to report it because I was scared that I would not be believed or, worse, that I would be deemed a “troublemaker” in my platoon. It took about a year for the whole process to end. I was fortunate enough to go to counselling and see a psychologist and was found to have depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD — all stemming from the assault. I struggled with my self-worth more than I would like to admit. Many days, I contemplated suicide. Not because I felt like a burden but because the pain, I felt every day was nearly unbearable. To this day, I still have nightmares of the assault. But I have found peace, which I have learned is all that matters.

What is a female soldier called in US?

Just soldiers, just as female USMC are called Marines, female Air Force are called airmen, and female Navy are called sailors.

Is India late in allowing women for combat roles?

Not at all. Considering our cultural beliefs, we are just in time. Thanks, Aishwarya Bhati, the firebrand female lawyer at Supreme Court, solicitor and crusader for women’s rights. Let me recall that the U.S. military made history when it announced that all positions – including combat positions – are now open to women who qualify. As of early 2016, women will now be eligible to drive tanks, fire mortars, lead infantry soldiers into combat and serve in special operations units.

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