Sumpolites | From Symbolism to Symbols of Power

The showcase of power that will come from seeing women march in parades to marching into battlefields will be immense and a much better way to establish Naari Shakti

Wing Cmdr. Pooja Thakur, has become the face of the Indian Armed forces for Women. She led the inter-service ceremonial guard of honour for the US President Barack Obama, the first woman to be given this honour. Wing Cmdr. Pooja Thakur is also representative of a country that is still tentatively experimenting with the idea of full equality for women in the Indian Armed Forces. As a member of the IAF’s administrative branch, Thakur works in the publicity cell under the Directorate of Personnel Officers at the Air Force Headquarters, one of the few areas in which women are allowed to serve. She is also in her final few months of 14 year short service commission. As a woman in the armed forces, she is not allowed to get permanent commission in her field and extend her service to the country.

The Indian Armed forces have been quite behind in warming up to the idea of both genders serving equally in all positions within the forces. Women have been a part of this country’s armed forces for 88 years now. The first set of women joined as part of the Military Nursing Service in 1927 and have been part of the Medical Officers Cadre since 1943.  Only since 1992, the other services started inducting women. Following Cabinet approval, induction of women officers in other branches in the three Services started in 1992. The extension of their service from 4 to 14 years took place in 2004. The extension is slightly symbolic in that, the highest rank a woman can hold would be the lieutenant general and they would not be able to command troops. The women also can serve only in female-friendly positions like the nursing, medical service, technical and non-technical ground duty, education, law and logistics. Even flying is restricted to transport and helicopters

One of the notable breakthroughs came in 2008 when, after a prolonged court battle, the government allowed permanent commission to officers of all three services. The Government of India granted the commission to branches that

include Judge Advocate General, Army Education Corps and its corresponding branches in Navy and Air Force, Accounts Branch of the Air Force and Naval Constructor of the Navy. The selection will be based on a common merit and eligibility criteria, which would be decided by each Service Headquarters.

A lot has changed since then. The recent positive announcements include issuing permanent commissions to officers in units like Intelligence Corps, Signals Corps, Ordnance Corps, Army Service Corps and Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Corps is a step forward. The Indian Navy is also mulling over the idea of allowing women on board warships.

A lot has also remained the same. There has been pushback from sitting ministers and officials on the idea of allowing women to play an equal role in the services. Patriarchal, myopic and often sexist reasons for the not considering women in combat roles continue to plague the system. The downside to an attitude such as this is that it undermines the the strength and resolve of the women who have elected to serve the country. Not giving women a chance to fully explore the diversity of roles in the services and by prohibiting their desire to serve their nation in every which way possible makes the system weaker too. The restrictions, rules and regulations that ensure women can only serve in a few select roles, makes the services a less than desirable work area. The Armed services from recent reports are facing a shortage of man-power, maybe women could fill the job if given a chance.

Naari Shakti (Woman Power) is the dominant theme for the 2015 Republic Day. The 145 women from the various contingents marching and commanding their troops in the midst of the other contingents, was an incredible sight. While the showcasing of this power was unique, it also highlighted the difficulty that the armed forces face in modernizing itself as far as gender equality is concerned. Ensuring equal opportunity, be it in non combat roles or combat missions is not easy to accomplish for a traditional defense establishment. India can learn from the US, Australia, Canada and many other countries who have grappled with these situations and have established rules and regulations. Opening the positions to women is not going to automatically mean weakening of requirements to join the service, or wide-spread rebellion from male junior officers, or even a deluge of women signing up. It just means that the foremost employer in the country is establishing itself as a modern, equal opportunity organization. That would be the finest symbolism for a country breaking barriers in all other fields. Just imagine the showcase of power that can come from seeing women marching in parades to women who will march into battle if required.