Women officers, who were relieved of duties after completing 14 years in short service commission in the Indian Air Force, have won an important legal battle. Following a Delhi High Court decision, they can now look forward to have a longer career in the IAF as permanent commissioned officers. On February 20, the Union government agreed to take back 14 women officers who were released during pendency of the petition in the HC, which had ordered the Centre to grant permanent commission to women officers in armed forces. The IAF was the first among the three Services to implement the HC judgment.
But can a woman officer become a fighter pilot in the IAF, flying sophisticated fighter planes, which India has been buying in hundreds of crores of rupees per piece? “No”, said IAF Chief N A K Browne the other day during the aero- show at Bengaluru in his interactions with the media persons. This columnist was present on that occasion. “In the IAF, women pilots are even flying transport helicopters. But we are not prepared to give them the combat role”, Browne underlined. Of course, Browne added that it was his personal opinion and that the last official word on the subject as far as the three armed services were concerned would be that of the Chiefs of Staff Committee of which he is the Chairman. However, he indicated that his counterparts in the Army and Navy shared his views on keeping the women out of active combat roles. All the three Chiefs, in other words, will like more and more women join the armed forces in various important positions, save the roles that involve direct fighting.
India is not the only country which, while allowing them to join armed forces, restricts women officers to non-combat roles, triggering debates why it should be so. But the decision of the outgoing US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on January 24 to lift the 1994 military ban on women serving in combat will cheer the cause of all those all over the world who want women not to be discriminated in the armed forces. As it is, the United States has been extremely cautious in opening the military to women. Until the Vietnam War, it limited women to 2 per cent of total active personnel. In 1994, it formally banned women in combat. But, it slowly opened up roles for them in front-line units. Last year, it dropped gender restrictions on 14,000 combat-related jobs. Women can now work in combat battalions as chaplains, intelligence and logistics specialists, tank and artillery mechanics, and even rocket-launcher crew members.
Of course, the implementation of Panetta’s decision will need the approval of the US Congress where the armed services could place their objections for the law-makers to ponder over. But what Panetta has done is a reflection of women already fighting in combat in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of them brilliantly. There is that notable example in 2005 of Army National Guard sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, who was assigned to a protection detail for a military convoy, landing in a firefight with Afghanistan insurgents. Jumping from her Humvee, she ran to a ditch where several Americans were pinned down and about to be taken hostage. Opening fire with her M-4, she held off the insurgents, killing three and helping to rescue the men. In fact, Hester became the first woman in the United States to receive a Silver Star for a direct engagement with the enemy.
Let us go to history as far as the issue of women in armed forces is concerned. Every major country has instances of women fighters playing important roles in the course of its history. There have been queens who led armies in the roughly 2,000 years from classical antiquity through the end of the Middle Ages. By and large, circumstances thrust these women into command. Often they were widows of kings or feudal lords and inherited their armies. We in India even worship Goddesses such as Durga, Kali and Chamunda, all famous for their valour. We have also our legendary historical figures such as Razia Sultana, Chand Bibi and Rani Laxmi Bai, who had proved in the battlefield that they were second to none.
However, all these great women warriors were exceptions to the rule. Wars, until the World War I, were essentially “men’s business”. It was during the World War I that major countries realised that they were fighting a war that was getting more complex due to not only the vast areas in land, water and air that it involved but also the technological transformations that it had undergone. They needed bigger troops as well as a large number of planners, logisticians, transport specialists, and supply clerks. But then there were not enough men around. It was thus felt that women should contribute to the war efforts. And this explains how and why between the start of World War I and the end of World War II, many of the combatants—including Germany, Britain, the United States, Australia, Finland, and Poland—created auxiliary branches of their armed forces in which women served as nurses, typists, cooks, and the like. When the wars stretched on and losses grew, their work brought them closer to the action. In fact, Britain was the first of the Allies to put women into formal military service for anything other than duty as nurses.
During World War II, Britain needed more and more its women’s auxiliaries. It began conscripting unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30 and its auxiliary ranks eventually totaled 640,000—more than 10 per cent of British armed forces. Serving in all theaters, these women manned jobs directly related to combat—as mechanics, radar and telegraph operators, torpedo handlers, intelligence officers, and more. A handful of them even flew aircraft from factories to bases. And later, General Sir Frederick Pile, who led the British anti-aircraft command, brought women who could serve with men in AA crews. They would load the guns, fuse shells, track aircraft, and operate searchlights—virtually everything, save pull the gun lanyard itself. In fact, Mary, the daughter of the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, chose to become such a “gunner girl” during the War!
Similarly, the United States enlisted more than 350,000 women to work in some 400 military specialties during the World War II. Communist Soviet Union went one step further during the War. It deployed about 320,000 women fighters on the front and that too into infantry, armour, and artillery units. They were trained to drive tanks and fly planes and fire weapons—including rifles, light and heavy machine guns, mortars, and bazookas. And they were asked to kill. In fact, in October 1941, the Soviet Union created three all-women air force regiments, becoming the first nation to send women pilots into combat.
But despite this history, the fact remains that there are still different treatments of women combatants in major countries, including Russia. Going by Wikipedia, countries which permit women to fill active combat roles without any exceptions are only New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Serbia and Israel. Arguments that have been cited against women doing active combat are many, but noteworthy among them are that physically the women do not have the same stamina and strength as that of men; that their requirements of more space and separate toilets create problems in combat zones and platforms; that wounded women soldiers and prisoners of wars are likely to be molested by the enemy; that women could ruin male-bonding by being the targets for wooing by male soldiers; that women require more holidays and rest if pregnant and mothers of young children; and that women, by nature, are less aggressive as they love preserving lives rather than taking them away, something soldiers are trained for. Though women activists contest these arguments, there are elements of truth in them. And this is precisely the reason why the likes of Browne have a point when they say that while the women must be welcome in the armed forces on a permanent basis, they could be spared of some roles. Even if they take up the combat roles, it is not necessary that they will be doing what their male counterparts do. For in stance, they need not be crews inside a tank but very much be there in the battle zone to facilitate the combat readiness and performance of the tanks.
All told, Indian armed forces do not have enough officers. The Army is short of 10,100 officers; the Navy 1,996 and the IAF 962; totaling 13,058 officers. Excluding doctors and nurses, women officers comprise a mere 3.3 per cent (1214) of the officer strength in the Army; 3.9 per cent (302) in the Navy and 10 per cent (1079) in the Air Force. Therefore, the first priority, following the latest government decision, is to attract more and more women officers into the forces on a permanent basis. Any conclusion on their playing direct combat roles can wait for the time being.
By Prakash Nanda