It is 2020 and by now women have scaled mountains, built robots, fought battles, reached space and proven in every way possible that they are no less than their male counterparts when it comes to skill, bravado and intelligence. Nevertheless, the 'second sex' is still fighting for a place at the table when it comes to breaking the glass ceiling and being judged upon merit. The latest is their exclusion from India's armed forces.
In a shocking admittance, the Centre recently told the Supreme Court that women officers are not eligible for higher posts in the army as male officers are not yet ready to accept them. The other reasons, they said, why women should not be considered for commanding positions are the highly assumable 'greater role' of women in the upkeep of domestic life and family, as well as the danger of her being kidnapped.
“The composition of rank & 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".
This means exactly one thing: Women have to take the fall for the incapability of men.
The Centre further told the SC bench that women could not be considered for senior positions as bodily functions like pregnancy keep women away from work for long periods.
Additionally, appointing women in higher roles can expose them to the risk of being taken a 'prisoner of war' which can lead to additional stress for the government as well as the army.
The arguments, while masquerading as practicality, are just more ways to reinforce toxic gender roles that women have for centuries tried to break out of. The truth is that despite gender sensitization programs and several steps in recent years by the Indian Army to increase women's representation in the armed forces, patriarchy is still what decides women's fate in these professions. In September last year, about 100 women started training to be commissioned as first women soldiers of the Army by 2021. The armed force, nevertheless, remains a largely male preserve with no space for women in commanding roles.
In 2018, Chief of Defense Staff Bipin Rawat had said pretty much the same thing when claiming women are not yet ready to be inducted to combat roles in the army and adding that they were looking to induct women as "interpreters".
"Yes, we may be more open in our big cities, but our Army personnel are not coming from big cities only. They are coming from rural areas too, where the intermingling, which is expected, is still not there," IANS quoted Rawat as saying at the time. Rawat also censured journalists against comparing India with other countries where women served at par with men in the armed forces, citing India's cultural differences as the reason why women are not equal to men.
The key idea was that several men in the Army come from underprivileged and rural backgrounds and that these men could not be expected to respond positively to a woman in command.
The arguments not only infantalise and objectify women as child-bearers and incapacitate commanders as well as incompetent at combat, but it also means that the government has in the past two years made no efforts to sensitise the men in the army.
Why must women miss out on higher positions because men in the rank and file will purportedly not accept women in commanding roles?
The broader message is that women are meant for 'softer' roles in the army as these roles are more suited to the feminine mentality than hardcore male roles like combat and defence strategy.
Since 1992 when the army first threw open its doors to women, the number of women has grown from 50 to 1,300. However, a report in Hindustan Times found that many of the women who were trained and inducted in 1992 itself are yet to receive commissions after 20 years in fields other than education and law - decidedly 'tamer' branches of the army much like interpreting which falls under military diplomacy.
Senior officials such as Rawat have previously pointed out that women's bodies make it harder for them to be considered for combat positions. A similar opposition had been faced by women when they first started being inducted to the police force. today, they form an intrinsic part of police forces across states and yet only makeup for barely over 7 percent of the force. It took the country its 71st Republic Day to display women from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at the national parade in New Delhi.
The apathy meted out to women officers in the army is nothing short of shoddy efforts to give equal platforms to women. Providing women with an equal platform is the duty of the Indian government as well as the infrastructure of the armed forces.
While the Indian Air Force has seen a considerable change in the gender ratio with many women rising to commanding ranks and achieving impressive feats, the army remains largely a male domain. And it might take more than just keeping them away in the hopes that men will miraculously start to accept female authority. To change the existing gender roles, governments, civil society, as well as the army, need to work hand-in-hand and create a curriculum for serious gender sensitization training and exercises.
It is the system itself that needs to be more accepting of women and not just the men who are part of it.