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Women Can Now Be Commanding Officers In Indian Military, But I’m Not Cheering Yet!

A woman officer still walks the tight rope between professional duties and gendered expectations. She may be an army/ air force/ navy officer, but at home she is still expected to look after the home, oversee the kids’ requirements and the demands of in-laws, etc.

Remember Florence Nightingale who assiduously nursed those wounded in battle? For a long time, women in the military were confined to roles like the nursing and clerical duties. We have come a long way since then. As a fauji wife, I’ve had a ringside view to the unfolding changes in the Indian defence services.

Over the years I have seen a heartening increase in the number of women officers in the Air Force.  Women have slowly but surely made place for themselves, but each step along the road has been hard won.

The army’s selection board has cleared 108 women for the rank of Colonel in the army earlier in January 2023. This will make women eligible for commanding roles in various branches of the army such as the Ordnance Corps, Army Air Defence, Engineers, Signals, Electrical and Mechanical engineers and so on.

108 Indian Army women officers to be promoted to full Colonel rank for command role.

Times Network's @srinjoyc1 reports | #Gender #IndianArmy #Women pic.twitter.com/7cJ8jZxfd4

— Mirror Now (@MirrorNow) January 20, 2023

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The door is now open for women in command roles in the army. While this is a very progressive step, I would hesitate to announce victory for women officers just yet.

Tracing the role of women in the military

Typically, commanding officers leading army units (squadrons in the Air Force) are of the Colonel rank (Group Captain in the Air Force).

Women in the higher echelons of the defence services are still very rare. So far, only three women have reached the three-star rank in the Indian military: Lt. Gen. Dr. Madhuri Kanitkar, Surgeon Vice Admiral Punita Arora and Surgeon Air Marshal Padma Bandopadhyay.  These have all been doctors, and senior women officers in the other branches are few if any.

Women entered the military in 1992 as officers. Women became fighter pilots in the IAF as late as 2016. We saw a move towards inducting women soldiers (other than officer ranks) in 2019. Women breached that last remaining male bastion; the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, Pune only last year. The first batch of 19 girls were enrolled at the NDA in 2022 at the premier officers’ training institute.

Why has this been so hard for women?

Women in the military have always had a tough road to tread – from battling systemic hurdles to social attitudes to overcoming entrenched mind-sets of senior officers. I had always noted how there were many women officers in the education, engineering and administrative roles in the Air Force, but the elite squadrons remained all-male. Only now do we have women in fighter squadrons as well as the top transport squadrons.

When I asked senior officers about this, I was told that women are seen as inadequate ROI (return on investment). Since women officers bear children and take leave, this is a problem for the institution and other male officers are required to pick up the slack, I was informed. Also, a lot of women officers are SSC (Short Service Commission) officers, so it is not worth the while of the services to invest in their training. Permanent Commission is still something that women have to fight for as evidenced by the many times the Supreme Court has had to intervene.

The same old same old for women everywhere, corporates or armed forces

The woman officer typically has to walk the tight rope between her professional duties and gendered expectations that persist in our society. She may be an army/air force/navy officer, but at home she is still expected to look after the running of the home, oversee the kids’ requirements and the demands of in-laws, such as they may be. If she sometimes prioritises her family over her work, she is accused of asking for ‘special treatment’ or favours.

So, I shall celebrate when I actually see a woman commanding an elite squadron or army unit. Until then, I shall curb my enthusiasm in response to the news about women in command roles in the Indian military.

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