Advances like these are always worthy of immediate congratulation, and a recent development in the Indian Army has garnered a lot of attention in pretty much the same way.
On 4 June, Army General Bipin Rawat said that the process to allow women in combat positions in the Indian Army is now underway — women will initially be recruited to the military police, and then into other positions. Currently, women are allowed in legal, medical, educational, signals and engineering wings of the Army, but not in active combat roles. This move is working to change that.
This move isn’t totally out of the blue. We’ve been hearing a lot of similar things lately. Last month, the government announced that it would raise all-woman battalions of police as a direct response to the viral images of girls throwing stones in Kashmir. On 30 December, it was reported that Karnataka would form an all-women battalion of police to deal especially with “riot control”. Last month saw reports that the Air Force was “wooing” women recruits with new ads.
Maybe it’s because I work at a feminist magazine and spend a good portion of my day trawling through the comments that misogynists leave on feminist Facebook posts, but the first thought that came to mind when I saw this new move was that Men’s Rights Activists would probably be happy to hear this. Every Indian MRA has memorised a list of seven complaints to “prove” that the world is actually biased against men, and right after they talk about men committing suicide more often than women, and before they get to how the laws concerning evidence in rape cases are unfairly biased against them, they faithfully spout a line or two about how only men die in wars and only men are assigned to active combat duty. It wasn’t just MRAs who were happy with this move: There have been think pieces written in the past lobbying for it, and the mainstream media is hailing this move as a sign of women breaking gender barriers. Nowhere is there a hint of a suggestion that this could be anything but a good thing.
But as a general rule, when a move concerning women seems like it will satisfy MRAs, it’s a good idea to take two steps back and think about the whole issue just a little bit deeper. And unlike the Bharat Mata Ki Jai brigade would have you believe, issues involving the army are never just plain black and white.
So can feminism and the armed forces ever go hand-in-hand? Should we celebrate it with the ease and uncomplicated feelings with which we celebrate women driving all the vehicles and going up in space?
This is where I start to feel a bit confused. While I’m all for women being represented in fields that are currently dominated by men, there’s a strong voice in my heart that says that war and feminism are pretty much incompatible. Some of the most basic principles of feminism are based on ideas of peace, community, cooperation, freedom, autonomy, non-violence and the breaking down of power structures. Just as importantly, wars have always had a disproportionately horrifying impact on women, and there are gruesome stories from Kashmir, Manipur, Assam, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, South Sudan, the CAR, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to prove it. This is not a statement without exception, but feminism is supposed to be inherently suspicious of things that bring on violence — patriarchy, jingoism, power hierarchies, militarisation.
The army, on the other hand, is designed for war — it was their original purpose and continues to be what they are trained and prepared for. Even in times of peace, they are tools in the nationalist project; another idea that doesn’t bode well for women and is firmly rooted in patriarchal ideas of conquering and belonging. Like the name implies, none of the Armed Forces are peaceful bodies: from police to the para-military to the military, being in any armed force implies having violent power and control over a subject, and even when that power lies dormant or unused, the idea of someone having it at all is something that should make feminists pretty uncomfortable.
It’s not like that power actually does lie unused, though. We don’t like to see ourselves as a particularly militarised country, but that could just be because we like to pretend that we’re blind sometimes. India is extremely militarised for a democracy: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives disproportionate powers and impunity to the army, is in place in eight states in our republic, with drastic consequences for women, including rape and murder at the hands of the army.
In India, we have a rich tradition of women spearheading movements to protest army excesses through AFSPA. The most famous were of the ‘Manipuri Mothers’, who took off their clothes in public in 2004 to stage a protest against the murder and possible rape of Thangjam Manorama, a young Manipuri woman who was murdered by the Armed Forces. Irom Sharmila went on hunger strike for over 16 years to protest AFSPA after 13 members of her village were murdered by the Armed Forces. Throughout those 16 years, she was continually arrested and force-fed through a tube shoved up her nose. In the aftermath of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape, women took to the streets of Delhi in protest against state inaction around public safety of women, where they were beaten, lathi-charged and blasted with water cannons by the police.
At this point, it’s doubly important to revisit the fact that violent tools of the State are not necessarily our friends. Nobody could have expected the Delhi police to turn on women protesting in the aftermath of a rape. The women of Iraq never imagined a violent invasion by the US army that led to the creation of their worst nightmare, Islamic State . The existence of armed forces is an inherent threat of violence waiting to happen against women. The Indian police, but also police worldwide, are no strangers to actively participating in violence against women, whether by tacit acceptance of the actions of others, or by actively participating in violence against women themselves. This is the truth about any armed body that imagines itself to be in the service of the state, and the army is no exception.
Of course, it’s a complex issue, and nothing about the military, the state and women is as cut and dried. It remains a discriminatory fact that there are no women in active combat roles in the armed forces, and it’s true that there are women who want to be in these roles. There are women already serving in the CRPF and police forces, for reasons from as diverse as patriotism to the prospect of a good salary and pension. We cannot say that these women are antithetical to feminism, nor is it fair to label them deluded victims of patriarchy, who don’t know any better and have no agency of their own.
But when we celebrate the entry of women in the armed forces as a larger, socio-political move that is a positive step for all women, perhaps we’re forgetting to look at the big picture, and to think of what this means in the long term. If we take this step as a good one, what happens when we take it to its logical extreme: If we were to imagine a future 10 years from now, would we be excited to think of all-woman battalions oppressing the people of Manipur, Assam and Kashmir? The thought doesn’t strike me as palatable or desirable. How does it make you feel to imagine such a future? Does it feel like we’re winning the battle but losing the war?
Violence, by the way, isn’t purely the State’s domain, although the State does have legal monopoly over it. While the right-wing frequently lauds the State’s violence, or at least its potential violence, the left-wing is sympathetic to the violence of insurgents and rebel forces. Just like violence has different effects on different people, it takes on different meanings depending on who exercises it.
If the inherent nature of the army is violent, and if violence is something that is both incompatible with feminism and that has uniquely horrifying effects on women, what does it mean to enlist more women in such an organisation? There’s a lot here to unpack before we throw a party celebrating women’s entry into this traditionally male field. We’re all for women facing better employment prospects, but do we really need them to be hired as agents of violence and the patriarchy?
June 6, 2017 at 6:11 pm
Very well written and nuanced article Sharanya. However, I wish you had researched a little on combative careers of women in other countries in the West and non-West. We could have learnt more about how those countries have, over the ages, dealt with their women combatants. Images from Iraq and Guantanamo have raised this issue frequently.
Moreover, let’s not forget the role of class in this issue. If you remember Om Puri’s TV interview, he raised a
very valid point, as the son of an army man. It’s always the poorest of the poor who line up for these jobs. Why have them killed in in the name of politics, he asked.
Similarly, even for these new active service related jobs for women in the Indian context, there will be mostly women from the lower classes who will line up for these jobs. That would be another level of victimisation: poor, woman, and trained to kill. Do share your thoughts on these.
June 6, 2017 at 7:51 pm
What do you want Nilakshi, compulsory Military service, won’t be a bad idea. But the left will be up in arms against this. India has large class of these breaking India forces.
However certainly India needs to learn from the studies taken by European and US armies in this context. Those lessons are important lessons for India too.
June 6, 2017 at 11:04 pm
So unfortunate that women whoes feminism is limited to Twitter tweets and whoes feminist ideals are Emma Watson and Angelina Jolie are obfuscating the achievements of real indian women in India’s Police and military. Such a shame .. I have women friends in the army and police and they are greater inspiration than these complain boxes .
June 7, 2017 at 11:19 am
“there’s a strong voice in my heart that says that war and feminism are pretty much incompatible. Some of the most basic principles of feminism are based on ideas of peace, community, cooperation, freedom, autonomy, non-violence and the breaking down of power structures”
are you sure you are not confusing feminism with femininity ??
June 7, 2017 at 11:22 am
The Author is painting a idealistic picture of women by saying women and violence do not go together. I agree that
army, no matter of which country, is always better in barracks and not on streets. And women do suffer during wars.
But, men also suffer equally, humanity suffers! If men are susceptible to committing violence, so are women, they are
humans too and not very different. In fact by pointing out the difference, your are deliberately saying that men and women
differ in capabilities. Which I do not agree to. So I don’t see how they joining the Army is against the idea of feminism.
The whole article smacks of personal bias. I think you are doing big disservice to the women folks out there.
June 7, 2017 at 4:08 pm
After crowing from every rooftop that feminism implies equality, now this specimen of the fairer sex backtracks? And the reason? Men’s rights activists agree with her for once, and it makes her suspicious? And she is openly implying that men and women aren’t the same after all! Woah! Wonder if the author is battling against patriarchy or Men’s rights activists? Also, this article is an insult to many other countries that have inducted women into their services into combat roles. Who’s holding them back now, eh?
June 11, 2017 at 8:28 am
“The army, on the other hand, is designed for war — it was their original purpose and continues to be what they are trained and prepared for.”
The army is designed to defend against territorial aggression.
Although you rightly point out the bad apples in the army, you fail to acknowledge any good that the army does.
By recommending women stay away from the army, you seem to be intent to keep men in the evil bracket as if to justify that evil exists only on one side of the gender.
How about you write a single article (if it is even possible) in praise of men in the army?
June 11, 2017 at 12:36 pm
I have to disagree with many of the assertions made in this piece. First, I do not subscribe to the view that violence is somehow inherently anti-feminist. As one of the comments above me mentioned, feminism, in my cis-gendered, high-caste male outlook, is not the same as femininity. The hunter-gatherer societies in which humanity evolved had women and men hunt together and while they are very few and far between, there are historical precedents for women warriors, right from Boadicea to the Rani of Jhansi.
Furthermore, the role of the armed forces is more than just acting as a violent arm of the state; their primary role is to defend the citizenry against external aggression and this is doubly true for India, where, let’s face it, all our neighbors are potential threats. Just because MRA scum agree with this move doesn’t instantly make it bad. I think we have to be way of groupthink here. I identify as a feminist, though that’s a pretty empty statement coming from a man, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everyone else who identifies as one. Similarly, if MRAs are happy with women entering into combat roles, it doesn’t instantly mean the decision is wrong.
But, again, those are just my thoughts.
June 12, 2017 at 12:18 pm
Wonderfully said, Sharanya. I’m glad that there is a sobering voice in all the celebration. It is easy to forget the real role of armed forces.
It is, as you said, a complex issue with no right answers. More women anywhere is probably better for everyone. It won’t stop the army from being a force of violence, but perhaps at some future point, with enough women in the forces, one can move the conversation away from glorifying men dying for the nation to why men n women should die for the nation. Or perhaps it won’t, but like some of the men have pointed out, there’ll at least be a skewed idea of “equality” for whatever that’s worth.
June 14, 2017 at 10:14 am
This is a disappointing article. I love a lot of the articles here but I tend to assume that they come from a rational point of view. If the reason you’re suspicious of this move is because mens rights activists support it, then it’s not really well thought out, is it? As a daughter of an armed forces personnel, believe me- none of us want war. We are not the blood thirsty organisations that you make us out to be. In an ideal world, we would never need to be at war. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. I know a lot of smart, talented, strong woman who are a part of the forces and love their jobs. With women being allowed in combat roles, now that’s true equality. Feminism for me has always been about equal opportunity, that is what we need to fight for. To assume that feminism = non violence is mixing two separate ideologies. You are a feminist pacifist and I’m not, that doesn’t make me any less of a feminist. Let’s give credit where due and not very foul for the sake of it. Peace! 😉
June 21, 2017 at 8:15 pm
I disagree that MRA’s support having men in combat rolls in war.
I question the intelligence of these commenters above that don’t understand the difference between men and women.
War involves fighting, hurting and killing.
I do not want a female next to me in combat.
For one ,men are inherently gynocentric, we cant help it, we love women and instinctively protect them in times of danger.
So if there were women in frontline combat positions the result would be that the males would sub-consciously be overprotective of the females and this places the regiment in a position of danger.
Also there’s physiological differences that are important to recognise. Although there are exceptions, men are far stronger, Women still get to do their pushups on their knees in the military. If I am injured, I need to know that the person next to me is physically capable of carrying me out of danger, yet no doubt many would call me a sexist for preferring to fight alongside men.
Perhaps though,there might be an unintended benefit from having female regiment in that enemy soldiers would refuse orders to fight\kill them.
But MRA’s do not want women in combat, the confusion around this is because MRA’s do often refer to the 99.9% of males that are killed in wars. We don’t want equality in this respect, we want acknowledgment that men are inherent protectors of women and children. We want to be respected for the sacrifices made instead of blamed anytime there has been a dispute between a man and a woman as is usually the case. (child custody for example)
June 21, 2017 at 8:20 pm
Please Edit the top line in the comment above, for me !
I meant to write that :
“I Disagree that MRA’s support having women in combat rolls in war.