The armed forces need to study the role of women — thoroughly but quietly
Lieutenant-General S Pattabhiraman should have known better than to step on a minefield. His public comments on the role of women in the Indian army — whether or not they were accurately reported — were put across with a lack of finesse and sensitivity that is unbecoming in a senior army officer. Soldiers (and engineers, and he is both) can be expected to be straight-talking, no doubt, but General Staff are both leaders of troops and their ambassadors in the court of public opinion. He put his boot in his mouth and was soundly punished for stepping out of line.
The women have forced the general to retreat and apologise. But amid calls for ‘mindset change’ and ‘gender sensitisation of the armed forces’, it is equally important to study whether the General had a point — however politically incorrect and unpalatable it may be.
“Feedback from lower formations suggests that comfort levels with lady officers are low,” the general added. “We can do without them.” [The Guardian]
Gen Pattabhiraman’s comment has two parts — first, a statement of fact that units are not entirely comfortable with female officers, and second, his opinion that therefore they were not needed. He can be faulted for his conclusion — but it would be dangerously irresponsible to leave the fact unaddressed. Fixed mindsets and chauvinism are easily identifiable culprits, even if the army is somehow expected to be less chauvinistic than the society from which it is drawn. But is that all there is to it?
“Part of the resentment against women can be attributed to the attitude of senior officers who have preconceived and archaic notions about the capabilities of women and their role in the military,” (Capt Deepanjali Bakshi, a retired officer) wrote in a recent issue of the United Service Institution of India Journal.[The Guardian emphasis added]
The political reaction to the general’s remarks has been partisan and the editorial comment superficial. It is not a question of whether women are unsuited for the forces or whether the male officers need a mindset change. Rather it is one about how armed forces and women must adapt to each other without diluting their essence. More than knee-jerk reactions, apologies and politically correct recipes, it is important for the service headquarters to conduct an thorough internal study of the role of women in the armed forces. Gender sensitisation is certainly a solution for mindset change, but there may be other problems out there that may need, perhaps, even more urgent solution. For the sake of the morale of the women in uniform, as indeed the men, it makes good sense to move beyond both politicisation and political correctness in the armed forces.