Women in combat roles: Army is designed for war, something that is incompatible with feminism

By Sharanya Gopinathan

Every time women make some headway into a generally male-dominated field, we all feel nice and satisfied, and the reportage around it gives us clear feel-good vibes. Like when we read about Madhya Pradesh’s first female truck driver, or Lalitpur’s only female tractor driver, or Karnataka’s first female bus driver (yes, we’re seeing a weird pattern too…).

Advances like these are always worthy of immediate congratulation, and a recent development in the Indian Army has garnered a lot of attention in pretty much the same way.

On 4 June, Army General Bipin Rawat said that the process to allow women in combat positions in the Indian Army is now underway — women will initially be recruited to the military police, and then into other positions. Currently, women are allowed in legal, medical, educational, signals and engineering wings of the Army, but not in active combat roles. This move is working to change that.

 Women in combat roles: Army is designed for war, something that is incompatible with feminism

Representational image. PTI

This move isn’t totally out of the blue. We’ve been hearing a lot of similar things lately. Last month, the government announced that it would raise all-woman battalions of police as a direct response to the viral images of girls throwing stones in Kashmir. On 30 December, it was reported that Karnataka would form an all-women battalion of police to deal especially with “riot control”. Last month saw reports that the Air Force was "wooing" women recruits with new ads.

Maybe it’s because I work at a feminist magazine and spend a good portion of my day trawling through the comments that misogynists leave on feminist Facebook posts, but the first thought that came to mind when I saw this new move was that Men’s Rights Activists would probably be happy to hear this. Every Indian MRA has memorised a list of seven complaints to “prove” that the world is actually biased against men, and right after they talk about men committing suicide more often than women, and before they get to how the laws concerning evidence in rape cases are unfairly biased against them, they faithfully spout a line or two about how only men die in wars and only men are assigned to active combat duty. It wasn’t just MRAs who were happy with this move: There have been think pieces written in the past lobbying for it, and the mainstream media is hailing this move as a sign of women breaking gender barriers. Nowhere is there a hint of a suggestion that this could be anything but a good thing.

But as a general rule, when a move concerning women seems like it will satisfy MRAs, it’s a good idea to take two steps back and think about the whole issue just a little bit deeper. And unlike the Bharat Mata Ki Jai brigade would have you believe, issues involving the army are never just plain black and white.

So can feminism and the armed forces ever go hand-in-hand? Should we celebrate it with the ease and uncomplicated feelings with which we celebrate women driving all the vehicles and going up in space?

This is where I start to feel a bit confused. While I’m all for women being represented in fields that are currently dominated by men, there’s a strong voice in my heart that says that war and feminism are pretty much incompatible. Some of the most basic principles of feminism are based on ideas of peace, community, cooperation, freedom, autonomy, non-violence and the breaking down of power structures. Just as importantly, wars have always had a disproportionately horrifying impact on women, and there are gruesome stories from  Kashmir, Manipur, Assam, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, South Sudan, the CAR, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to prove it. This is not a statement without exception, but feminism is supposed to be inherently suspicious of things that bring on violence — patriarchy, jingoism, power hierarchies, militarisation.

The army, on the other hand, is designed for war — it was their original purpose and continues to be what they are trained and prepared for. Even in times of peace, they are tools in the nationalist project; another idea that doesn’t bode well for women and is firmly rooted in patriarchal ideas of conquering and belonging. Like the name implies, none of the Armed Forces are peaceful bodies: from police to the para-military to the military, being in any armed force implies having violent power and control over a subject, and even when that power lies dormant or unused, the idea of someone having it at all is something that should make feminists pretty uncomfortable.

It’s not like that power actually does lie unused, though. We don’t like to see ourselves as a particularly militarised country, but that could just be because we like to pretend that we’re blind sometimes. India is extremely militarised for a democracy: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives disproportionate powers and impunity to the army, is in place in eight states in our republic, with drastic consequences for women, including rape and murder at the hands of the army.

In India, we have a rich tradition of women spearheading movements to protest army excesses through AFSPA. The most famous were of the ‘Manipuri Mothers’, who took off their clothes in public in 2004 to stage a protest against the murder and possible rape of Thangjam Manorama, a young Manipuri woman who was murdered by the Armed Forces. Irom Sharmila went on hunger strike for over 16 years to protest AFSPA after 13 members of her village were murdered by the Armed Forces. Throughout those 16 years, she was continually arrested and force-fed through a tube shoved up her nose. In the aftermath of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape, women took to the streets of Delhi in protest against state inaction around public safety of women, where they were beaten, lathi-charged and blasted with water cannons by the police.

At this point, it’s doubly important to revisit the fact that violent tools of the State are not necessarily our friends. Nobody could have expected the Delhi police to turn on women protesting in the aftermath of a rape. The women of Iraq never imagined a violent invasion by the US army that led to the creation of their worst nightmare, Islamic State . The existence of armed forces is an inherent threat of violence waiting to happen against women. The Indian police, but also police worldwide, are no strangers to actively participating in violence against women, whether by tacit acceptance of the actions of others, or by actively participating in violence against women themselves. This is the truth about any armed body that imagines itself to be in the service of the state, and the army is no exception.

Of course, it’s a complex issue, and nothing about the military, the state and women is as cut and dried. It remains a discriminatory fact that there are no women in active combat roles in the armed forces, and it’s true that there are women who want to be in these roles. There are women already serving in the CRPF and police forces, for reasons from as diverse as patriotism to the prospect of a good salary and pension. We cannot say that these women are antithetical to feminism, nor is it fair to label them deluded victims of patriarchy, who don’t know any better and have no agency of their own.

But when we celebrate the entry of women in the armed forces as a larger, socio-political move that is a positive step for all women, perhaps we’re forgetting to look at the big picture, and to think of what this means in the long term. If we take this step as a good one, what happens when we take it to its logical extreme: If we were to imagine a future 10 years from now, would we be excited to think of all-woman battalions oppressing the people of Manipur, Assam and Kashmir? The thought doesn’t strike me as palatable or desirable. How does it make you feel to imagine such a future? Does it feel like we’re winning the battle but losing the war?

Violence, by the way, isn’t purely the State’s domain, although the State does have legal monopoly over it. While the right-wing frequently lauds the State’s violence, or at least its potential violence, the left-wing is sympathetic to the violence of insurgents and rebel forces. Just like violence has different effects on different people, it takes on different meanings depending on who exercises it.

If the inherent nature of the army is violence, and if violence is something that is both incompatible with feminism and that has uniquely horrifying effects on women, what does it mean to enlist more women in such an organisation? There’s a lot here to unpack before we throw a party celebrating women’s entry into this traditionally male field. We’re all for women facing better employment prospects, but do we really need them to be hired as agents of violence and the patriarchy?

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.

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Updated Date: Jun 06, 2017 16:44:28 IST