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Bhuj: His-Story Glorifies Only Men Even As Women’s Work And Lives Are Sacrificed For War

His-story has effectively erased her-story all these centuries, discounting the work of women in war, with men claiming all the glory. New film Bhuj brings back all these discussions.

His-story has effectively erased her-story all these centuries, discounting the work of women in war, with men claiming all the glory. New film Bhuj brings back all these discussions.

I am writing this fresh from watching Bhuj: The Pride of India, and I will only put on record that if Independence Day triggers a need to indulge in chest-thumping, tear-jerking jingoism and cringeworthy stereotypes of nationhood, religion and mass massacre, knock yourself out. This is your film.

The movie got me thinking, though. About the role women play in the theater of war. The sliver of choice they have, within which they exert their agency.

The story shares the 1971 incident of 300 women in Bhuj, Gujarat, who worked night and day under threat of enemy attack to rebuild a bombed airplane runway for the Indian air force. As untrained civilians, they swept in to save the day, and the movie is ostensibly about this little-known act of heroism.

Women were only considered a ‘support system’ of war

Except, in war, the guns and glory belong primarily to men. And women have historically been welcomed as supporting actors—spies, informants, nurses, auxiliary drivers, code transmitters, laundresses, ‘comfort women’ and stepping into what were traditionally men’s jobs to keep the home fires burning.

For every Gunjan Saxena and Noor Inayat Khan, there are thousands of women whose services are the backbone of a war effort, but history’s spotlight shines solely on victorious men. It would appear that keeping things humming quietly and efficiently in the background is our forte. But is it? Could it just be that in yet another hugely male-dominated field, our labour is useful until we can go back to our ‘rightful place’?

Over a hundred years ago, more than 400 women were recruited as translators and switchboard operators overseas in World War I. Following army regulations and wearing uniforms, they were dismissively labeled ‘Hello Girls’ and it wasn’t until 60 years after the war that their efforts were recognized.

The efforts of women in World War I led to much higher female participation in World War II. Women were called to duty to in large numbers—and show up they did—only to be expected to return to home, hearth and domesticity after the war was over. Jobs were now scarce, so over to the men, and back to the kitchen for our heroines.

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The American Civil War proved to be a point of inflection for the feminist movement in the country. One of the more intriguing stories of this war was the hundreds of women who fought on the frontlines dressed as men. Some women who were discovered were institutionalized or faced imprisonment. Most others were merely packed off home. None were permitted to stay on, once their gender was revealed.

Indian women denied a claim to their place in the sun till recently

Closer home in India, the Indian Military Nursing Service permitted women roles only in nursing care, and it wasn’t until 1992 that women were inducted into roles outside the medical sphere. Women could apply to become fighter pilots in the Indian air force only as recently as 2015!

The doors have barely creaked open for our gender. And, as expected, the resistance comes from within the system.

Early last year, the Supreme Court was informed by the Indian military that women were not fit to serve in ground combat roles because “male soldiers are not yet schooled to accept women officers in command.” Sounds like our old familiar friend, Patriarchy with a capital P, doesn’t it?

Most military structures around the world stick to gender-based exclusion unless it suits them, with these beliefs clearly stemming from the top and permeating all the way down. In 2018, India’s Chief of Defence Staff went on record to state that “women aren’t at the frontlines because they would feel uncomfortable there.” Tell us again which gender pushes a watermelon out of a keyhole?

Women’s skills are not just in housekeeping and office spaces

In typical paternalistic fashion, the conversation revolves narrowly around only physical strength and combat, rather than how to make a military more effective with a range of other skills. The forces don’t only fight wars—they are also peacekeepers and intelligence gatherers.

I am by no means discounting the very real need for physical strength, stamina, and sheer rigour in battle. It would be foolhardy to compromise the security of a nation for optics. But what patriarchy does is overlook opportunity solely based on gender. If a woman can prove equal to the task, and so many have, through history, she must have the right to avail of the opportunity. It’s 2021, for crying out loud. Enough with the background scores and scuttling back into forgotten history.

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About the Author

Dilnavaz Bamboat

Dilnavaz Bamboat's heart occupies prime South Mumbai real estate. The rest of her lives in Silicon Valley, California, where she hikes, reads, hugs redwood read more...

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