Combating women

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.

Update: GreatBong exposes why looking at the issue from an outright female-chauvinistic perspective is faulty.

10 thoughts on “Combating women”

  1. Maybe we should look how Pakistan is handling this issue. If I am not mistaken PAF has women fighter pilots while our women are restricted to flying chopper sorties during floods.
    In the land of Rani of Jhansi, we should treat our women at par with men.

  2. RS,

    Pakistan has only recently admitted women into the armed forces. The first women entered Indian armed forces over a decade ago. As with any novelty, there is a peak of inflated expectations, a trough of disappointment followed by the plateau of performance and stability.

    It appears that in India’s case, we are at the second phase; the trough of disappointment resulting from earlier expectations encountering reality. So it is appropriate that a review is conducted.

  3. “As with any novelty, there is a peak of inflated expectations, a trough of disappointment followed by the plateau of performance and stability.”

    Nitin, I am sure you don’t mean it, but that was a pretty bad comment. Women are not novelty – most are very hardworking, proportionally, surely more than man, and equally intelligent. Every post that doesn’t need brute physical force should be open to women (I’d say all the positions should be open and let the women have the choice, if they qualify in open competition). You are talking about half of India’s population.

    If the army reviews the entire genders performance because one person from the gender committed suicide or kills in depressive rage, we won’t have an Army. Causes for suicide and depression needs to be addressed. But those incidents should not to be used to make sweeping statements clubbing all women together. It high time Indian men get over their laad sahib mentality when it comes to women.

  4. Chandra,

    Women, or women in the workforce, can hardly be a “novelty”.

    I used the word “novelty” to describe the ‘hype’ cycle of a new product, innovation or idea. So when women entered the forces in the early 1990s they were indeed a ‘novelty’ (in the context of the armed forces). At that phase there was inflated expectation — among the public, among the women officers themselves and quite likely among the decision makers. We are now in the second ‘mugged by reality’ phase.

    I’m surprised and disappointed that I have to be told (that too, by a regular reader) that women are not a novelty, but are hardworking etc. (some related links).

  5. Well said Nitin. Both should adapt to each other. Women should stop asking for special priviliges and Men should stop treating Women in a patronising manner.

  6. Nitin, I didn’t want to sound smug. But when the General talks about the role of women at such an inopportune time – it was like blame the victim type “Rang De Basanti” unfolding in real life – I was bit irate.

    There was an article in India Today few weeks ago that talks about all these women in Air Force whose dreams of becoming pilots are dashed because some generals, not all (some are very supportive), use the usual gender difference excuses to deny them what should be every qualifying Indian’s right.

    http://www.indiatoday.com/itoday/20060522/defence.shtml&SET=T

  7. Just a thought – Greatbong’s post is not on why a feminist perspective is wrong – instead it exposes the hypocrisy in someone else’s post who may or may not be using a feminist perspective. For the record, I agree with Greatbong. But the perspective he critiques has little to do with feminism. Feminism by definition is NOT the female equivalent of chauvinism. However – like any framework – it is abused relentlessly.

  8. Neha,

    Fair enough. While I am unaware of authoritative definitions of feminism, I recognise your point that it is possible to identify chauvinism as distinct from a stand in favour of equality. I’ve changed the phrase accordingly.

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