Expansion of the role of women in the defence arena has long been a bone of contention with the equal-opportunity seeking feminists on the one side and those staunchly against this on the other. Though the potential of women has largely been recognized in other sectors, when it comes to defence, there still are more raised eyebrows than approving nods. This paper is an attempt to examine the reasons given for this marked alienation of women from this field, commonly recognized as a 'male domain', and hopefully provide reasonable counter arguments.
Through the course of modern history as women have been accepted taking on, firstly, careers and secondly, many occupations typically associated with men, that includes the corporate sector, mining, police, commercial driving and many more, it comes hardly as a surprise that women are also largely being accepted in the military. What remains a source of mystification, however, is that this acceptance is -to say the least- partial. I am here referring to the fact that though almost all defence forces of the world allow women jobs in support arms, very few allow them to fill active combat roles. Following are the arguments in favour of not allowing women in active combat:
• Women are physically incapable of taking on the strenuous demands of combat.
• Women are psychologically not strong enough to deal with the traumatic situations active combat might expose them to.
• Separate spheres argument.
• Traditional view of men as soldiers
• Paternalistic argument
• Women will be more a liability than an asset
• Women might offer sexual favours in order to secure their ACR's, paving their way to higher ranks.
• Empirical problems
Let us now examine these arguments in detail and see the respective counter arguments.
a) Women are physically incapable of taking on the strenuous demands of combat-
This is the most common objection, which has some basis, though is not insurmountable. According to this argument, on an average, women do not possess as much strength and stamina as their male counterparts. Their skeletal system is less dense, thereby being prone to breakage. Also, in aviation, there is the concern that the female body is not as adept at handling the increased gravitational forces.
The reply to this has to be that though generally it might be the case that men possess more strength and stamina than women, it is definitely not the rule. Also, as in men there are strong and 'not strong' men, so in women there are more and less strong women. That, however, is completely beside the point. The question here must not be whether women are less strong than men, but whether they are strong enough. It is proven that women’s’ muscle tissue and strength and stamina increases with proper training. Hence the solution for this problem could be to determine what is 'strong enough' and have that test mandatory in military training academies for cadets aspiring for active combat arms, irrespective of their sex, before they pass out to become officers.
Physical brute force is not the only factor comprising the arsenal of the soldier. In fact, if it were, that army would not win many wars. Strategic skills, stamina, leadership qualities, combative skills and others of the like are likely to be assets that would make a soldier an outstanding fighter and leader. All of these are as likely to be qualities of a woman as they would be of a man, and have no bearing to physical brute force whatsoever.
b) Women are psychologically not strong enough to deal with the traumatic situations active combat might expose them to-
This objection is based on the stereotypical notion that women are much too sensitive to handle death and bloodshed, and aren't emotionally strong enough to be able to kill on battlefield. This is an assumption that needs much research before anything can be said about the claim. On the contrary, there are researches and studies that attempt to prove, an also commonly held belief, that women are emotionally stronger and more stable than men. There is then also another view that there is no considerable difference between the psychological strength of the two sexes. None of these have been proven beyond doubt. How can the right of women to equal opportunities in occupational fields be challenged on the basis of a mere assumption, when there is ample proof to discount any such claim in the form of women in the past who have killed in various situations; whether in self-defence, righteous conviction or just blind rage, or even contemplated murder. Two famous women warriors from India's past are Rani Laxmi Bai and Rani Chennamma of Kittur, who not only fought but even led armies.
Women, in the army, are most commonly deployed in the medical corps, as nurses or doctors, who have had to see the devastation of war compounded, with injured, barely alive and even dead soldiers being brought in to the minute. I will not here include the gory details of the physical state of the soldiers, but these women have to not only treat them but also, to quote a cliché, hold their hand on their deathbeds, which, to say the least, is emotionally draining. If women can take on so much trauma and be applauded for being 'nurturers', then surely they can take on the enemy in the battlefield and be none the worse for the wear (at least not much worse than their male counterparts!).
c) Separate spheres argument-
This argument tries to base its foundation on the assumption that women and men belong to separate spheres. They have different likes and dislikes and have different strengths. There are tasks that women perform, the so called 'womanly traits' and then there are tasks that men perform, the 'manly' tasks. These tasks they not only ought to perform, but they are naturally inclined towards choosing tasks from their respective spheres even when given the choice. Defence and combat definitely do fall under the male sphere.
If women are naturally inclined towards non-combative roles then why not give them the choice, unless the spheres aren't as watertight as the proponents of this theory would have us believe. The fact that this whole debate is raised and there are countries that have successfully deployed women in their infantry, artillery, air-force and other direct combat fields is sufficient to prove that women not only want to join the combat forces but that they do so quite successfully.
d) Traditionalist view of men as soldiers-
This view very plainly holds that traditionally men are the soldiers and that women ought to be protected and not be the protector. Firstly, just to say that men are the soldiers does not offer any reasoning as to why that should be so. There have been countless women in the past and even in present armies that allow women in combat, who have accomplished much on the battlefield. A case in point being Capt. Nichola Goddard of the Canadian Army, who died in the Canadian operations in Afghanistan and became the first female soldier to attain martyrdom and whose husband became the first 'widower' to receive the Memorial Cross that has been traditionally presented to the widows and mothers of the Canadian war dead. This view also states that since men are supposed to be the soldiers, they would not take very kindly to being made the subordinates, juniors and also being kept under the command of women. Again, there have been women in the past who have commanded not just armies but also countries. Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Joan of Arc, to cite a few examples. Even if some men do stick to their stand that they would not be commanded by women then it is not fair to bar women from the service, just as it would not have been right to not abolish slavery and apartheid just because there were sections of the society who genuinely thought that whites were superior. In fact, measures must be taken to counsel men that it is not healthy to keep such discriminatory attitudes.
e) Paternalistic argument-
This argument states that combat is a high-risk field and exposes women to situations that may be fatal and also involve the risk of being captured and sexually exploited. Hence for their own good, women must not entertain thoughts of joining the active combat arms of the military.
Firstly, men are as much in danger as women are when under such circumstances. That women are weaker than men and hence under more risk, is a statement that would not hold as the fact that they are there in the capacity of soldiers means that they have been trained on par with the men. Furthermore, any woman who joins service would be aware of the risks and would accept them. Secondly, if the danger of sexual exploitation is from its own troops then there would have to be stringent laws that would apply in a case of sexual harassment as there would be in any other place of employment. Also, if such is the case then we must look again at what’s being said and decide for ourselves if the fair course of action would be to prevent sexual exploitation and the sheer depravity that causes such personal violation or to limit the freedom and rights of women. Sexual Exploitation is also a long standing though ugly tradition of the forces. The fact that we have so far mostly chosen to close our eyes to the kind of sexual and physical abuse that the “men” often fall victim to does not mean that it does not happen and if the induction of women into the combative forces is going to sensitise the powers that be to the issue of sexual and physical abuse in the army and cause stringent laws and precautions as well as preventive measures to be put in place, it can only be a step forward in preserving the health and dignity of our troops, be it men or women, and that of the establishment and a Nation deluding themselves on all matters concerning sexuality.
Thirdly, this is not the only field where there is risk of life and limb. As statistics prove, commercial or heavy vehicle driving on the highways with cargo or passengers, is as much if not more dangerous. As is the likelihood of getting killed in an accident than that of being hit by a bullet. Not only the frequency of such incidents is more but the frequency with which the women would be exposed to high risk conditions is more in case of highway driving than in the army or the air-force as not only do they not engage in operations on a daily basis when in the field area but they also get 'peace station' postings at regular intervals. Hence, considering the risks there should also be laws prohibiting women from such occupations, which clearly isn't the case. As an example of which, I would like to mention the Vanita Transport Coperative society, Thrissur. Here they have an all women governing body, with the drivers, conductors and the cleaners also all being women.
f) Concerns of favouritism because of sexual reasons-
This argument states that since in the defence the promotion of officers is dependent on appraisal reports (called the ACR's) that the senior officer has to write for the junior based on his personal assessment, women may be placed in a position where they may offer sexual favours in order to gain favour of the senior or use her sexuality in any other way that would put her in the seniors 'good books'. The situation may also be reversed if the woman is the senior.
This argument more than being a genuine objection seems to be a complaint on behalf of the men officers that they don’t have the tool of sexuality in order to gain favour! The fact that women might use sex as a ladder to higher ranks is secondary, where as the primary concern is that the ACR's must not reflect the seniors favoritism because of something that has nothing to do with the junior officers performance in the work field. This would put a woman propositioning or being propositioned on the same level, morally speaking, as a male officer sucking up to the boss and throwing parties etc or the senior official asking for a non-sexual favour in return of writing him a good ACR. Also, that there is this risk should imply strict employment of rules and laws taking care of the innocent's interest should a situation like this arise and the building up of the moral fibre of all officers right from the training level and not that the risk should be eliminated by eliminating the possibility of a situation like this arising. For example, the Norwegian government has set a target of 15% of their armed forces to consist of women by 2008, from the 2006 value of 6.6%.These aims are accompanied with efforts to increase the awareness of sexual exploitation and gender issues within the armed forces.
Also, if this approach is taken seriously, it would imply that women must be barred from all occupations that have a male-female association of any form, thus including almost all fields of occupation and so we would either get back to the pre-women's liberation conditions or have separate sectors for men and women i.e all-male or all-female corporations, shops, medical institutes, law firms etc.
g) Women will be more a liability than an asset-
This argument states that since field is not suitable for women because of the harsh conditions, women will be more a liability than an asset. The men, added to the perils of combat, would have to worry about the women with them. Women would need step up's and special considerations and concessions, like maternity leave etc that would leave then not available for the work. If the women are captured the enemy would have an upper hand in the dealings. They will require separate facilities that would cost the government more money but will not be more productive than the men.
This argument would have no basis if women are considered to be on par with the men. A woman should not be any more of a liability on battle field if she is wounded and has to be rescued by the fellow officer than any other male officer would be. As long as there remains the divide that women have to be treated differently there cannot be successful induction of women in the forces. Treating the same does not mean treating without respect, not does equality equate equity. If men were able to conceive children they would have been given a year's maternity leave, now that women can and the men cant does not mean that the women are being less productive by not being there for that duration. If women and men have to share the same lodging and toilets under conditions that leave no choice, then men and women would have to adjust to the situation. This however does not mean that the women and men show no concern for the other being there. Also, if women are considered equal citizens then proper working conditions where they can be provided (it might not be possible in field operations and such) is their right and not a favour granted to them, despite the money it costs the government. This is a field where mutual respect and camaraderie is a necessity for fellow officers have to depend on each other for their lives. If resentful and non-adjusting attitudes are kept up from either side, the situation is not workable.
h) Empirical problems-
This is the argument that states that even if women are allowed to the active combat arms, the situation is just not workable as the differences in men and women are too vast to be bridged in this field where they would have to work in close association. All facilities, rules, regulations, standards, everything is men oriented and it would be a herculean task to turn things around.
In this case it would have to be noticed that everything is men-oriented as defence is still a completely male dominated field even though women are allowed in some capacity. If women have to be given equal opportunities then everything would indeed have to be revised to fit in the womens needs as well. The fact that is often quoted to deter women from joining the forces is that the conditions are so bad for women that they would be frustrated either because they are treated like outsiders, with hostility, or be smothered by the paternalistic attitudes, with then not being able to accomplish anything. But this is more the case of things aren't being done, rather than being the case of things can't be done. The introduction of token women into non-traditional job set ups with alien and non-supportive attitudes and work environment would produce high rate of failure and attrition and simply confirm the prior held belief that women aren't suited to 'men's jobs'. Positive effort would have to be made if this last bastion of sex discrimination has to be overcome.
There are enough examples of armies where this policy of allowing women in all fields is working quite successfully. For example, in the Finnish army, the women serve under the same conditions as men, with the exception that during the first 45 days of service they have the option to leave the military without consequences. After that, they must complete the service which lasts 6, 9 or 12 months. After the service, the women face the same reserve obligations as the males who have done the obligatory military service. If a woman in national service experiences a conscientious crisis which prevents her from fulfilling her military service or reserve obligations, she is ordered to the alternative civilian service, which lasts 13 months. All services and units in the Finnish Defence Forces and the Finnish Border Guard accept females. In garrison environment, the women are lodged in separate rooms and are given separate toilet and bath facilities. In exercises and aboard ships, women are lodged with men. The women in national service are given an extra allowance of €0,40 per diem for sanitary articles and small clothes. In 1978 in Denmark, based on the reports of studies on the topic, women were allowed to enlist in an all areas of the Danish armed forces, with combat trials in the eighties exploring the capabilities of women in combat. In 1998 laws were passed allowing women to sample military life in the same way as conscripted men, however without being completely open to conscription. Women in the Danish military come under the command of the Chief of Defence. In Germany, a female electronics operative argued her case to the European Court of Justice. The court ruled that preventing women from occupying combat roles in the armed forces was against sexual equality principles. Like many countries who have accepted women into combat roles, Germany conducts special courses on preventing sexual harassment. In Israel, they were largely barred from combat until a landmark high court appeal in 1994, which forced the Air Force to accept women air cadets. In 2001, Israel's first female combat pilot received her wings. Until 2005, up to 83% of positions in the Israeli army were open to women, and today, they serve in combat positions in the artillery, frontier guards and on Navy ships. Combat duty is voluntary for women. New Zealand has no restrictions on roles for women in its defence force. They are able to serve in the Special Air Service, infantry, armour and artillery. This came into effect in 2001 by subordinate legislation. Between 1977 and 1984, the Norwegian Parliament passed laws expanding the role of women in the Norwegian Armed Forces, and in 1985 the equal opportunities legislation was applied to the military. Norwegian women are permitted to serve in a voluntary basis, however in the event of national mobilisation they will be under the same pressures as men.
Even though all these countries have overcome this issue, major countries like the USA, Australia and Britain still allow women only in non combat roles. A major effort is required to change the prevailing attitudes towards women and move towards a more equal society. Moral values need to be inculcated in an individual from an early stage so as to set the stage for equal respect and consideration of all people in a field where colour, caste, religion, sex and such are not relevant issues (not that they are in many other). It remains to be seen when and if, India will turn to the policy of women being allowed in all fields of the defence forces.