Indian women officers took centre stage at the 66th Republic Day celebrations, but how much freedom do they really enjoy?
Before the small matter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pin striped suit captured the imagination of netizens, our social media feeds were awash with “Women Lead From the Front” & “Feeling Proud of Naari Shakti” messages. The most dazzling act in India’s 66th Republic Day celebrations wasn’t the aerial stunts of our fighter aircrafts, the BSF’s motorcycling daredevilry or even Obama’s Beast – it was the sight of three all-women contingents of our armed forces marching down Rajpath (one each from the Army, Navy and Air Force), of Lieutenant Hoabam Bella Devi unfurling the national flag for President Pranab Mukherjee and of Wing Commander Pooja Thakur leading the ceremonial Guard of Honour to welcome POTUS to India.In a country where female foeticide is still widespread and it is considered okay for a man to beat his wife, the sight of these marching women sent out a powerful message of hope and freedom. Then why was our pride tinged with uneasiness?
For one, we are not getting any better at addressing gender disparity – on the contrary, India is second from bottom in the world on the Health & Survival Index of the Global Gender Gap Report. Then there is the fact that India’s sex ratio is amongst the highest in the world. But the most compelling evidence comes from the experiences of the average Indian woman – of travels in segregated Pink Coaches and overcrowded buses, of battles with patriarchy at home and stereotypes at work, of the shadow of dread that accompanies her every time she is in in a bar, car or her own home.
Also Read: India and the Global Gender Gap Report 2014
So while we admired these brave women for storming yet another male bastion, we couldn’t help wonder if their lives are any better than that of the ordinary Indian woman. In today’s Your Daily Read, journalist Harinder Baweja went searching for the real story behind the impressive display of woman power. Not surprisingly, his findings reveal that wearing army fatigues does not insulate a woman against the biases and discriminations that are rampant across our society. Here are a few:
1. “Do they even know how to fire?”
This should come as no surprise to any woman who has held down a job – a woman has to repeatedly prove that she is as good as her male colleagues, whether it’s snagging a multi million dollar deal or holding your fifth drink. And in a profession that places a premium on physical strength and male bonding, gender biases are likely to be much more deeply entrenched. In the words of Major Shradha Bhatt, who quit after 8 years of service:
I had all the josh and even did field postings but found that we had to prove ourselves for everything….Most commanding officers think we are liabilities.
2. Unequal employment opportunities
Again, not a surprise. Women are recruited into the armed forces as Short Service Commissioned (SSC) officers and serve for a maximum of 14 years, retiring without any pension or medical benefits. It took years of campaigning and the intervention of the High Court for the Defence Ministry to amend its laws and start offering Permanent Commission to serving women a few years ago, and even that is only for officers in the education and law fields. More often than not, the sexist attitudes forces many women to quit the forces in the midst of their SSC. Major Sneha Susan Itty, who quit after 8 years of service, declares:
I am willing to rejoin the army if I get permanent commission. How can we wait for 14 years only to be told, you are not required, your services are not required. Why don’t our seniors understand that we gave up our families to be a part of the Army? It’s they who treat us differently. Please address the issue of why women leave every single year. We don’t want to just be showcased at Republic Day parades. Do not mock us by inducting us, training us and then discarding us as garbage. It was painful for me to leave the Army but what choice did I have?
Also Read: The Gender Gap in Technology
3. No women in combat roles
Women may be considered good enough to perform medical, educational, legal or administrative functions, but our Generals definitely do not consider them good enough to fight in the trenches. Attempts to get women into combat roles have been repeatedly turned down by the Chiefs of the Army, Navy & Air Force. In the words of IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha:
Women are by nature not physically suited for flying fighters for long hours, especially when they are pregnant or have other health problems.
Yes of course – the health problems that women constantly have, such as that big unspeakable called menstruation. But what is the big deal about women in combat roles, and how prevalent is it in the rest of the world? This Washington Post world map of women in combat roles demonstrates that it is rare to find women in combat roles outside the developed countries in the West – countries which traditionally also have the narrowest gender gaps in the world. The few other countries where women fight on the front are those that have a large military – such as Isreal, North Korea and our neighbour Pakistan.
The final word on banning women from combat roles comes from a former lady officer:
Nari Shakti is not just about us marching on the Rajpath. We are not dolls in uniform. Don’t just pay lip service.
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Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons