Women in the Armed Forces: Misconceptions and Facts


Senior Member
Aug 28, 2009
Women in the Armed Forces: Misconceptions and Facts

Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM, PhD

(Indian Defence Review Jan-Mar 2010)

The recent debate about the induction of women in the armed
forces has been highly skewed and shallow. An issue that
critically affects the fighting potential of the armed forces has
been reduced to 'equality of sexes' and'women's liberation'. Many
ill-informed observers have trifled such a sensitive matter by terming
it as 'conquering the last male bastion'. Sadly, stances have been
taken more on the basis of personal views and mind-sets rather than
on well evolved logic. Both military and
non-military experts are equally guilty in this regard. In the
recent past, the nation was shocked to hear a retired senior Army
officer recommending constitution of all women battalions in the
Indian Army. There cannot be a more preposterous and perilous
proposition. It is equally common t to hear the argument that if the
Naxalites and LTTE can have women fighters, why the Indian armed
forces should be reluctant to do so. Often
people quote the number of American women fighting war in
Iraq and Afghanistan to question India's stance against
allowing women in combat. This article endeavours to remove
some common misconceptions and put all issues in their
proper perspective.

To start with, it needs to be stressed that the services
carry no male chauvinistic mindset. The very fact that
daughters of service officers have excelled in all fields
proves that service officers do not suffer from any gender
bias and are very supportive of women's advancement.
However, the issue of women's induction in the services
warrants singular treatment.

It will be instructive to take a look at the genesis of the
issue. Earlier, entry of women was limited to the Army
Medical Corps, the Army Dental Corps and the Military
Nursing Service. In the early 90s, a service Chief visited
the United States and saw women participating in Guards of
Honour. He was suitably
impressed and wondered why India should lag behind in this
aspect. Thus the decision to induct women was neither
need-based nor well thought-through. The first batch of
women Short Service Commission (SSC) officers joined in
1992. No attempt was made to study likely long term
implications of multiple issues involved and their effect on
the fighting potential of the services. In other words, a
decision of colossal significance was taken in a totally
cavalier, slapdash and hasty manner. As the other two
services did not want to be seen as 'male-chauvinists',
they followed suit. Soon a race got underway between the
three services to induct women in maximum number of fields.
It is only now that a plethora of complex issues are getting
thrown up with resultant adverse fall-out.

Presently, the Indian Army counts 2.44 percent women in its
ranks, the Indian Navy 3.0 percent and the Indian Air Force
6.7 percent. The
tenure of women SSC officers has since been increased to
14 years. The Government has also approved grant of
Permanent Commission to SSC (Women) officers prospectively
in Judge Advocate General (JAG) Department and Army
Education Corps (AEC) of Army and their corresponding
Branch/Cadre in Navy and Air Force, Accounts Branch of the
Air Force and Corps of Naval Constructors of the Navy.

Common Misconceptions and Facts

"¢ Women
must get equal opportunities in the services

The concept of equality of sexes is unquestionable. Its
application should, however, never affect the fighting
potential of the armed forces. Two points need to be
highlighted here. First, the armed forces are constituted
for national defence and there can be no compromise on that
issue. Secondly, the armed forces are not a 'Rozgar
Yojana' to provide employment to all segments of the
society in equal proportion. As it is a question of
nation's defence, the best man or woman should be selected
for every job. In other words, women should be inducted in
the services only if they add value or at least not affect
it adversely. No right thinking individual can advocate
women's induction at the cost of the fighting potential.
That would be disastrous for the

Interestingly, demand for equal opportunities is selective
in nature. Women want to join only as officers and not as
soldiers. Additionally, the concept of equality is given a
go-by soon after commissioning. Applications for peace
postings and other special dispensations proliferate. They
join the military on the plank of equality of sexes but this
plank vanishes the day they join the training academy.
Thereafter, they again become the weaker sex needing special

"¢ Women
can perform all physical tasks as well as men

Standards of physical fitness of women can never be the
same as those of men. It is a biological reality and is true
for all fields including sports. In the case of women
officers, Indian army has lowered the standards to
appallingly low levels. Even then many women fail to qualify
during their pre-commission training. Whereas male cadets
are required to run 5 km in 28 minutes, women are given 40
minutes. Similarly, males are required to jump across a 9
feet wide ditch with full equipment and personal weapon;
women have to negotiate only a 5 feet wide ditch. Worse,
most women fail in the test.

All male officers and soldiers are subjected to annual
Battle Physical Efficiency Tests till they attain the age of
45 years. No such tests have been prescribed for women
officers to avoid embarrassment to them in front of the
troops. Concerns have also been expressed about the
susceptibility of Indian women to frequent back problems,
pelvic injuries and stress fractures.

A recent review conducted by the British army concluded
that women have neither the upper-body strength nor the
physical resilience to withstand intensive combat. Tests in
2000 respondents found that women were eight times more
likely than men to sustain injuries other than wounds in

"¢ Physical
fitness is of lesser importance in modern fighting

Need for physical effort is dictated by two factors - level
of technological development and nature of military's
involvement. Requirement for physical prowess undoubtedly
reduces as the armies advance technologically. In other
words, quantum of physical effort needed is inversely
proportional to technological progression. Thus, as an army
technologically, more high-tech jobs get generated where
technically qualified women can be gainfully employed. In a
high-tech army like the US, a woman sitting in the US
mainland can effectively guide drone attacks in Afghanistan.
India on the other hand is still a second generation
technology force which is trying desperately to graduate to
the third generation. Indian defence forces are man-power
intensive needing physical ground effort. India has very few
high-tech jobs.

As regards degree and extent of a military's involvement
in active combat duties, countries like Canada and Australia
face no internal or external threat and their militaries are
generally in peacetime mode with routine passive duties.
They can certainly afford to have a larger percentage of
women in their forces. Contrast this with India where the
majority of Army troops are deployed on active combat duties
in remote, inhospitable and uncongenial areas. Only
physically fit and tough troops can survive. Worse, peace
tenures are short and there are very few periods of
comparative lull.

Therefore, the Indian services continue to be
physical-power intensive and will remain so in the near
future. Only the very fit can survive to deliver in
India's hostile environment.

"¢ The US
has deployed a large number of women soldiers for fighting
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Although a large number of women have been deployed in Iraq
and Afghanistan, their employment has been confined to
support functions. Although till the end of 2009, the US and
allies had suffered a total of 4689 casualties, there has
not been a single woman war casualty. Similarly, despite the
fact that the US and allies have suffered 1555 casualties,
not a single woman has lost her life in the Afghanistan war
so far. Many people tend to confuse
casualties due to hostile action with combat casualties.
The US has lost 19 female servicemen in Iraq to hostile
activities like car bombs, IED blasts and helicopter crashes
since the beginning of 2007, but there has been no combat
casualty. It is simply because of the fact no women are
deployed in combat duties. As a matter of fact, they are
forbidden to be placed in direct ground combat with enemy.
They generally perform medical, intelligence, logistic and
traffic control duties. Women are thus kept sheltered in
safe appointments, away from the risk of capture by the

Even in Israel which has conscription for women (as well as
men), women are not allotted active battle field duties.
They serve in technical, administrative and training posts
to release men for active duty.

"¢ If BSF
can have an all women battalion to guard border, why not the
Indian Army

The Border Security Force (BSF) has certainly raised an all
women battalion and deployed it on the international border.
However, the following important facts need to be
highlighted: -

"¢ The
battalion is led by male officers and subordinate
"¢ The
battalion has not been positioned on the Line of Control
where firing and infiltration attempts are frequent.
Instead, it has been deployed near Ferozepur on the
International Border (IB) which is totally peaceful and
where Indian and Pak troops routinely exchange sweets on
"¢ Even on
IB no independent sector has been entrusted to the women
battalion. It has been superimposed on an existing male
battalion. Importantly, women perform no night guard duties
– these are performed by males.

Earlier, village women were not allowed to go across the
border fence to cultivate their fields as no women sentries
were available to frisk them. It was a sore point with the
border folks. The sole purpose of raising the women
battalion is to redress this long standing grievance. Their
task is akin to what CISF women have been carrying out at
the airports for long – frisking of women. Therefore, it
will be incorrect to call the BSF battalion a fighting

"¢ Women
officers help overcome the shortage of officers in the

It is an erroneous impression that there is a shortage of
male volunteers for the services. As per the report of the
Union Public Service Commission for 2006-07, there were a
total of 5,49,365 candidates for 1724 vacancies for all
civil services examinations with an Applicants to Post
Ratio (APR) of 319. On the other hand, 3,41,818
candidates applied for 793 vacancies in the National
Defence Academy (NDA), maintaining APR at a healthy 431. It
implies that for every seat in NDA there were 431
applicants. Therefore, it is a fallacy that male volunteers
are insufficient. It is just that the services seek very
exacting standards for males while women are accepted with
abysmally low standards.

"¢ Short
service commission for women has proved highly productive

As a matter of fact, short service commission (normally
extended to 10 years) has proved to be a totally wasteful
and counter-productive exercise. Women normally get
commissioned at the age of 23 to 25 years. Within two to
three years of their commission, they get married, mostly to
colleague male officers. Soon thereafter they start applying
for peace postings on compassionate grounds to be with their
husbands. Every pregnancy means three years'
exemption from physical activities – one year pre-natal
and two years post-delivery. With the standard two-child
norm, a women officer remains physically inactive for close
to six years. It implies that after the first
post-commission tenure, a woman officer is rarely in a
position to participate in field exercises and has to be
exempted all out-door work. Thus the services gain little.

In an informal interaction, a senior Junior Commissioned
Officer (JCO) questioned the rationale of granting SSC to
women. "In the case of men, 25 to 35 years age span is
most productive and grant of SSC is understandable. On the
other hand, women have to raise their families during that
period. By granting SSC to women, we have achieved nothing
except increase the load on maternity wards of military
hospitals," he opined.

"¢ If women
can fight as soldiers in LTTE and Naxalite outfits, why
not in the services

Comparing irregular outfits with constitutionally created
regular forces shows speciousness of the logic. In any case,
even LTTE recruited women only after it fell short of male
volunteers. Moreover, women held no high appointments and
were generally used as pawns in indoctrinated suicide
squads. If one was to carry the comparison forward, LTTE had
recruited boys of 15 years to take up arms and act as human
bombs. A lawfully structured formal organisation cannot be
expected to follow suit.

"¢ Indian
women officers have proved themselves and established their
credibility as leaders

Not withstanding the public posturing of the services top
brass, the experience so far has been highly discouraging.
Superior male officers admire their enthusiasm despite the
environmental difficulties, but are faced with the twin
problems of their safety and
useful employment. Additionally, as many duties (like
night duty officer) cannot be assigned to women, male
officers have to be given additional work load, which they
resent. There are also concerns, based on Israeli studies,
that soldiers first instinct may be to defend the women in
their ranks rather than to fight the enemy.

Male officers also question the logic of having women only
as officer. Indian officers pride themselves in the fact
that they lead from the front and hence have to be better
than their soldiers both physically and professionally. But,
by having women only in the officer cadre an impression gets
conveyed to the environment that officers' duties are
softer and can be carried out by women as well, thereby
lowering their standing.

As per an informal survey carried out, 81 percent of the
troops were convinced that women officers could never lead
them in war efficiently. The balance 19 percent were unsure
of their response. Acceptability of women as leaders was
thus very poor. Another segment of respondents viewed the
whole issue as a political gimmick which did not warrant
serious attention. "How can the Government be naïve
enough to think that a leader who cannot run, train and
exercise with troops and lacks required physical fitness can
lead them in war?" they query.

"¢ Women in
Western forces are well accepted and adjusted

It is a fallacy. Acceptance of women in the military has
not been smooth in any country. Despite efforts made to
sensitise the environment, they continue to be confronted
with social, behavioural and psychological problems at all
levels. To date most countries do not allow women tank crews
because of the cramped conditions and lack of privacy. There
are also concerns about cramped living conditions on board
submarines and dangers posed by fumes
inside the submarine to a foetus if a woman becomes

Sexual harassment and assaults of women soldiers is known
to be blatant and quite prevalent in the US forces. A sexual
harassment hotline set up at Aberdeen received 6,825 calls
from women from all branches of the military in just two
months. Hundreds of women are said to have complained of
sexual assault in the forces since the beginning of Iraq war
in 2003. Level of moral degradation can be gauged from the
fact that 'command rape' has come to be accepted as a
common phenomenon in the military - a superior official,
under the might of his command authority, can force a
subordinate woman soldier to accede to his sexual demands.
A joint survey carried out in 2006 in the UK by the
Ministry of Defence and the Equal Opportunities Commission
found that 67% of the respondents had experienced sexualised
behaviour directed at them personally in the previous 12
months. Worse,
over half of those who made a formal complaint stated that
there had been negative consequences as a result of which
64% were considering leaving the services.
On the other hand, Indian armed forces can be rightfully
proud of their record which is far better than that of any
advanced nation in the world. Women are treated in a manner
befitting their dignity and their safety is ensured.

India Needs to Exercise Caution

It is universally accepted that induction of women in the
services should be dictated by the level of technology,
prevailing security environment and the nature of likely
deployment. Availability of adequate number of male
volunteers is another major consideration.

India should follow a graduated approach. Women's
expertise, talent and competence should be profitably
utilised in areas which are totally non-combat in nature.
For the present, women must continue to play their
established role in the medical, dental and nursing
services, both as short service and permanent commission
officers. However, they should not be granted short service
commission in any other branch. The Government has rightly
approved grant of permanent commission to women in legal and
education departments of the three services, accounts branch
of the Air Force and constructors of the Navy. Grant of
permanent commission should also be considered for women in
Survey of India, Military Engineering Service Militarised
Cadre and Director General Quality Assurance.

The current policy of non-induction of women in combat arms
should continue. Additionally, their entry into Engineers,
Signals, Supply Corps, Ordnance and EME (Electrical and
Mechanical Engineers) should be deferred till infusion of
technology generates adequate number of high-tech jobs.

Finally, it should never be forgotten that the raison
d'être for the
constitution of the armed forces is to ensure security of
the country. Decisions which have a far reaching effect on
the defence potential of the armed forces must be taken with
due diligence. Instead of replicating a model, India must
chart its own policy. It has an experience of 18 years.
Honest feedback must be sought to appreciate the true ground
situation and initiate corrective measures. Most
importantly, the military brass must show moral courage to
admit that the present mess demands a holistic review of the
policy, protestations of self-styled champions of
gender-parity not withstanding. Decisions taken as a matter
of political and populist expediency can prove disastrous
for the nation in the long run. Defence matters cannot be
treated as publicity gimmick to flaunt sexual equality.

Global Defence

New threads