Equal roles for women in Indian army is not a feminist victory

Giving women commanding roles in the armed forces does not erase the harm done by militarised masculinity.

India female officer
An Indian female military officer gives instructions to a group of army truck drivers beside a queue of trucks May 13, 2002 [Fayaz Kabli/Reuters]

On February 17, the Supreme Court of India passed a ruling that will enable women to serve as army commanders. The court also extended permanent service – which has only applied to men so far – to all women officers. Following the court’s ruling, women will now be allowed to command entire military units. However, they will still not be permitted to serve in army combat units, like the infantry or artillery corps.

Before the Supreme Court reached its decision, India’s central government opposed women being granted command positions in the army by drawing on age-old gender stereotypes about the physical limitations of women. It also made the incredulous argument that women should not be appointed to top roles such as colonels or brigadiers, because most soldiers are men from rural backgrounds who are not “mentally schooled to accept women officers in command”.

The Supreme Court, however, strongly rebuked the government for its blatant gender bias and ordered it to implement its ruling within the next three months. 

The top court’s move has been lauded by most commentators as a move towards “gender equality“, with women now being able to get the same opportunities and benefits as their male colleagues, including ranks, promotions and pensions, and being allowed to serve longer tenures.

Indeed, the court’s strong statements against the gender stereotypes employed by the government come as a welcome relief. Equally, ensuring that women can hold permanent commissions in the army recognises the equal effort and service that they put in. 

However, to brand this move as “feminist” would be fallacious at best. While the court’s decision creates parity between men and women, it leaves aside deeper questions about the army itself and the forms of masculinity that it creates and supports. Moreover, while promoting a liberal understanding of gender equality, it brushes over the excesses by the armed forces that disproportionately harm women, such as the use of sexual violence to control and subdue certain populations. 

Militaries as sites of overt hyper-masculinity

Militaries across the world help entrench hegemonic masculine notions of aggressiveness, strength and heterosexual prowess in and outside their barracks. 

Feminist scholar Sandra Whitworth argues that in order to enable conscripts to survive the tough conditions of military life and to be able to kill without guilt, military training focuses on tearing down their old connections and creating new bonds of brotherhood and camaraderie between them based on militarised masculinity. To create these new bonds, militaries construct a racial, sexual, gendered “other”, attributes of whom the soldier must routinely and emphatically reject. As a result, militaries are masculine, heteronormative spaces devoid of all traces of femininity where the words “woman”, “girl” and “gay” are routinely used as slurs. 

To then simply add women to this existing patriarchal setup, without challenging the underpinning notions of masculinity, can hardly be seen as “gender advancement”. 

In fact, in order to succeed within the army, women are forced to deride their femininity and work harder than men to establish parity in the eyes of their counterparts. They are forced to blend in, while standing out for their exceptional work in order to be taken seriously. Sneha Susan Itty, a Major in the Indian army, explained this in a 2015 interview with the Hindustan Times. “The training killed all my femininity,” she said. “I was serving while I was pregnant and not for a day was I given any relaxation, nor did I ask for it.”

This superficial approach to gender equality, which defines parity solely based on the opportunity to participate, also fails to address the fallouts of propagating the aggression and sense of entitlement that is central to militarised masculinity, most notable of which is sexual harassment and abuse. Sexual harassment faced by women military officers is a global phenomenon which remains largely unaddressed, and women often face retaliation when they do complain. 

In 2017, India’s Ministry of Defence revealed that a dozen women officers in the armed forces lodged complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination in the preceding two years. The number is significant given the overall trend of low reporting of sexual harassment generally and the fact that women constitute a minuscule minority in the overwhelmingly male-dominated Indian military. 

Extensive and rigorous data on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the Indian armed forces is not available. However, a relatively small 2015 study, which questioned 450 members of the armed forces on sexual discrimination in their workplace, found that sexual harassment is rampant in the military. 

Therefore, women’s inclusion in the military is just another manoeuvre to camouflage women’s subjugation and service as women’s liberation. In reality, there are several non-feminist reasons behind the decision to include women (and progressively queer people) in the armed forces, including using the illusion of gender progressiveness within the army to shame populations for their gender inequities, brand them as backward and use this to justify military control.

‘Gender equality’ for whom?

Women officers, celebrating the victory, termed the Supreme Court’s decision as one that would “uplift women across the country and not just in the armed forces“. However, military interventions have had less than desirable impacts on women in the past, especially in terms of the trail of gendered and sexual violence they left in their wake. 

There are widespread accusations of sexual violence against the Indian armed forces by those groups over whom it maintains strict control. In the 2013 report on her mission to India, for example, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo said, “[W]omen living in militarised regions, such as Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern states, live in a constant state of siege and surveillance, whether in their homes or in public. Information received through both written and oral testimonies highlighted the use of mass rape, allegedly by members of the State security forces, as well as acts of enforced disappearance, killings and acts of torture and ill-treatment, which were used to intimidate and to counteract political opposition and insurgency.” Similar allegations of sexual violence have been levelled by male survivors of sexual assault against the Indian army as well. 

The military and the hyper-masculinity that it promotes also harm women who do not live in areas under military control. A 2004 study revealed that the rates of domestic violence are three to five times higher among military couples than among civilian ones. Catherine Lutz, the author of the study, argues that “the military as an institution promotes the idea of heterosexual male supremacy, glorifies power and control or discipline, and suggests that violence is often a necessary means to one’s ends”. This entrenched feeling permeates behaviour at the domestic level as well, where control and obedience is sought and violence is used as a means to extract obedience.

It is apparent that the widespread hyper-masculinity, sexism and sexual violence in which the military is embroiled, will not correct itself through the tokenistic involvement of women or by according them commanding positions. As Noura Erakat notes, the superficial involvement of women in armed forces far from actually advancing gender equality “makes the system subjugating us stronger and more difficult to fight. Our historical exclusion makes it [appear] desirable to achieve [inclusion] but that’s a lack of imagination. Our historical exclusion should push us to imagine a better system and another world that’s possible.” A feminist vision, therefore, calls for critical engagement with the institution of armed forces, which goes beyond a liberal imperial notion of “gender equality”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.