Role Of Women In The Indian Armed Forces History Essay

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1st Jan 1970 History Reference this

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In recorded human history women soldiers have been part of each and every campaign, performing variety of tasks such as ammunition carriers, picking up a weapon of a fallen soldier, washing, mending and cooking. World war II, Vietnam war and technological revolutions affected intake of male recruits in Europe, Asian armies and USA that led to induction of women soldiers to fill the vacancies. The USA has the highest representation of nearly 14 percent women soldiers today, many of whom participated in the Gulf wars. Other European armies also have a healthy number of women soldiers in the armed forces. China has also integrated women into the military over the last 50 years. The pioneers of the integration of the women in South Asia, both in officers and ranks was the Sri Lankan armed forces in year 1984 , followed by India in officers rank in 1991 and Nepal in 2003. India’s decision to induct women officers was based on populist consideration than military necessities. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan employ women basically in medical role. [1] 

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The recent SC ruling and HC judgement to allow permanent commission [2] to women has made all the three services to think as to the future role of women in Indian Armed Forces. The induction of women in Indian Army started with the Grant of Short Service Commission (SSC) for 5 years in the year 1991. Then the time limit for them to serve in the army as been increased over the years and is presently at 14 years. Presently women officers are getting commissioned into the services ie ASC, AOC, EME and combat support arms of Engrs, Signals and AAD, in addition to the Medical Corps. In accordance with the ruling of the apex court the Indian Army has agreed to grant permanent commission to women officers in JAG branch, Army Education Corps and Medical Corps of the Army. However, a number of litigation has been filed for grant of permanent commission into fighting arms like infantry and comb support arm such as Engineers, Artillery, AAD etc. However, before any decision is taken we need to carry out a holistic vew of the integration of women into the Army with two important guiding factors.

3. The debate to integrate women into in more “non-traditional” roles in the military have been raging since ages. Both for or against this topic have iron clad reasons. [3] On one hand some people believe that the increased power of military technology and Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) have led to the realisation that actual confrontation between major powers to be avoided, however any future conflicts would be under the umbrella of technology. This would involve a tech savy force and hence larger employment for women. Also the role of women in our society has changed over time. Also women have served in armed forces since ancient times and the chorus for their integration have only grown louder. In Indian history also numerous examples of women soldiers and officers exists. Rani of Jhansi Brigade of Indian National Army (INA) was formed on 9 Sep 1943 in Singapore under Capt Lakshmi Swaminathan Sehgal who was a doctor by profession. This force operated in the jungles of Malay and was very effective. Also the Nursing Corps of the Indian Army was raised in march 1889 and by 1939-40 their strength grew to 6000 trained nurses. These nurses had served British and Indian troops in India, Aden, Mesopotamia and Egypt during World War I and during World War II they served exceptionally well in different theatres of war in Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Far East. History is replete with stories of women in battle. [4] Not only in the western world, but also in the eastern, several examples of the battle are there where women have actively participated. Indian sub-continent also has an age long of history of battles participated by women. Although military profession is considered as the male-dominated occupation, women have also played such a diverse role that possibility of their involvement in any military duties can not be neglected.

4. Society has traditionally viewed women as out of place both in organisations responsible for the implementation of military force and in applying lethal force as individuals. The use of lethal force is so strongly associated with the ideas of masculinity that the ability to use it is one of the defining traits of mankind. War is traditionally viewed as a masculine enterprise in this man dominated society. Military service has long been a masculine rite of passage. Men have traditionally sought to idealistically fight for peace, home and family. They want to protect women and not to compete with them. The soldier’s world has traditionally been a masculine haven. Their accession into a predominantly gender segregated institution like military has been protected by both law and cultural tradition in most of the countries.

5. The human achievements in the field of science and technology has changed not only the human lifestyle but has also helped to change the world order. Military activities including the organisations, roles, responsibilities and threats have also been changed with the changes that have taken place in various other sectors of life. There are lots of roles that can be played equally or even more efficiently by women in the armed forces in comparison with the men. [5] This study will try to find out the most suitable roles for the women in the armed forces and suggest whether the women could be employed as combatants in the armed forces or not.

6. With the induction of women the Services are now coming in line with the main stream, where social change in favour of the female gender began with the freedom movement. Yet, at the same time, it cannot be ignored that since the Armed Forces are extremely high-profiled, a dramatic change like this would indeed filter down to the common masses of India. There could not be a more positive experiment than this, for it has not only professional advantages for many women but also sociological benefits for them and the nation as a whole. Of course like anything new it would have teething problems. However, a mature democracy like India and it’s people know that given time any experiment can be molded to the advantage of everyone.

Statement of Problem

7. To study and analyse the role of women in Infantry and effect on morale and op effectiveness of frontline units.

Justification of the Study

8. The role of women in the armed forces for a long time, was limited to the medical profession i.e. doctors and nurses. In 1992, the doors were thrown open for women entry as regular officers in aviation, logistics, law, engineering and executive cadres. Thousands of spirited young women applied against advertisements and it was a turning point in the history of time. These women chose a new field where they had to painstakingly pave a path for the others to follow. The initial adjustment problems weren’t as much for the women as it was for the men. Wrapped in their tradition of chivalry and respect to women, most gentlemen officers could not treat their female counterparts at par with themselves. [6] Their subordinates too, were men who came from conservative families where they saw women playing only traditional roles. The emergence of these women into totally male dominated bastions did initially create embarrassing moments for both. Men hushed their talks and behaved courteously, while women had to do with makeshift arrangements to suit their needs within units. Over the years and having come a long way now, men have realized that these women in uniform are their efficient and able co-workers. The time is not far when we may use the term ‘sisters-in-arms’ as equivalent to ‘brothers-in-arms’.

9. Currently, women in the non-medical cadre, serve as Short Service Commissioned (SSC) officers. Under this type of commission, they can serve in the armed forces for a period ranging from 5-14 years. On release they can pursue a career in the civil sector. Now women have start clamouring for opening up of the permanent commission in the armed forces and also to be part of Infantry units to ensure equality of opportunity. Employment of women in combat has become a hot issue at present. Two different schools of thought do exist amongst the scholars. The first claim that women are equally capable of men to perform the job and it’s the matter of equality also, whereas the supporters of latter idea claim that it is the exploitation of women to employ in combat because they are not physically and psychologically fit to perform the job. This debate needs to be carried out in detail.

10. There are numerous examples of women taking part in battles in the past. Indeed, throughout human history, most societies have kept women from fighting with the frontline troops. Those women who fought were often forced by circumstances or were given a chance only when men were in short supply. In essence, most societies have restricted women from serving in the military as they have restricted them from other male-dominated occupations. [7] 

11. This study is prompted by a soldier scholar’s long abiding interest in the subject triggered off by great interaction with some ardent feminists of the National Cadet Corps during his college years. The aim of this study is to analyse the issues involved in the Indian context on the induction of women as personal below officers rank in the Army, blanking out the interference of noise and dust raised by over enthusiastic social scientists, ivory tower scholars and militant feminists, to bring out the core issues involved.


12. In this study a brief historical perspective of women in combat roles will be discussed followed by roles performed by the women in the armed forces. Women’s involvement in insurgency and the requirement and employment of women in combat will be the major aspect of the study.

Methods of Data Collection

13. The research methodology adopted for this study is by descriptive and analytical method. The sources of this study are the books, periodicals and newspapers available in the Defence Services Staff College library. Similarly the other sources include internet web pages, previous studies in the similar field and some informal interaction with the student officers from various countries attending the 68th staff course. The Bibliography of sources is appended at the end of text.

Organisation of the Study

14. The study is presented in nine chapters as under:-


Historical Perspective

Issues involved in inducting women in the frontlines units in armed forces.

Expanded role prospects.

Experiences of women in combat.

Summary and recommendations.




” As the ladies clad in their saries marched past to the sound of the bugle and the beatings of the drum, there could be traced not a touch of all the frailties that are so commonly attributed to them. No faltering, no hesitancy, no softness associated in popular minds with the womanhood of Bengal but chivalry written on every face and manifest in every movement.”

Colonel Latika Ghosh.

15. Mythology is replete with instances of warrior women who were revered, worshipped like the `Shakti’, consort of Shiva the Destroyer, mother of all warriors, and who manifested herself as Durga the warrior goddess, to fight and destroy evil. The Greek Goddess Athena, the Roman Diana, the Nordic Valkyries and the Amazons are cases in point.

16. The ancient Greeks, for example, Amazons so dedicated to warfare that each one of hem cut off one of their breast to improve her ability to shoot and throw spears. The Americans can point to colonist Margaret Corbin who, during the British attack on Fort Washington in the Revolutionary War, operated a cannon until she was seriously wounded. In the history of women in battle there is a combination of myth and exaggeration, sprinkled with a few true heroic accounts of unique women. Through out history, most societies have banned women from military service. As was the case in Soviet Union during World War II. . [8] 

17. Instances of warrior women are scattered all over history. The Celtic Queen Boadicea, Joan of Arc of France and nearer home Razia Sultan, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Kittur Chinnamma Rani Durgawati of Gondwana, Chand bibi of Ahmednagar are good examples of women fighters. Our freedon movement is replete with examples of courageous women leaving the “Chaar Diwari” of their household to secure freedom from the British – Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Devi Chattopadhya, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kriplani, revolutionaries like Durga Bhabhi, Bina Das, Shanti Gosh and Suniti Chaudhary2 and in the Indian National Army, ‘Colonel’ Latika Ghosh and ‘Captain’ Lakshmi Sah­gal Kshatriya are just a few of the prominent names.

18. But despite all the above, the number of women warriors is minuscule. This highlights the fact that due to whatever physiological or sociological reasons, society at large evolved a role for the women in professions of nurture and culture rather than soldiering. We hear of women, as great mothers, wives and sisters who have nurtured famous warriors more than as famous generals or leaders of men in battle. This becomes obvious when one notices that no force of soldiery ever travelled far without its detachment of wives, concubines and hangers on, who cheerfully shouldered the burdens of washing, mending, cooking and generally pandering to the creature comforts, which have been the indispensable requirement of contended troops.

19. Nations world over have in recent times taken the momentous decision to admit women into the regular cadres of the armed forces. This raises the query of why women are being brought into the realms of soldiery. One does not have to look deep to fathom the reasons for this development. The increasing presence of women in the Armed Forces can be traced to the beginning of this century in European history, wherein, the World Wars created an acute shortage of manpower, forcing nations to call upon their women to supplement their forces. Women were inducted in large numbers into the softer military specialities like ordinance factory workers, rear area services, logistic support, nurses, doctors, staff car driver, et al; relieving the able bodied men to ‘feed the cannons’.

20. In Britain women gained recognition in Women’s Auxiliary Service as early as 1916 upto the midst of World War I. The erstwhile Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Vietnam have permitted uninhibited participation of women in combat. Amongst the western countries, Canada, Australia, and Denmark are the most liberal in induction of women in their Armed Forces even for combat roles. In Netherlands all posts are optional for women. The Dutch have had to impose demanding physical standards for some “men’s only” jobs. [9] 

21. Canada opened its Armed Forces to women at the behest of Royal commission on status of women in 1970. A five-year programme called ‘SWINTER’ (Service Women In Non Traditional Environment and Roles), launched to assess their suitability in combat roles demolished many myths and inhibitions which led to Canada’s Human rights Tribunal to demand full integration for women and abolish 10% quota of vacancies reserved for them.

22. In Soviet Russia, where all kinds of feminine labour prevailed, out of sheer imbalance in sex ratio, a bulk of women were allowed to join the Army. A welcome side effect of this enforced “equality” was improved physical strength of Russian women and their robust character. In China the anti-female practices abetted by Confucius, Liu Shao Chi and Lin Piao were denounced as ‘archaic’ and to ensure equality to women the Chinese leadership promoted their wide participation in women’s militia, who provided armed support to political leadership against any possible counter revolution from ‘old vested interests’. [10] 

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23. In more recent times the Israelis pressed by sheer paucity of numbers have enforced a virtual draft on unmarried women to occupy posts from where men could be released to move to front positions. In France the intake of women is divided into combat and non-combat roles in the three services and the Gendarmerie on long-term contract. Turkey, which is predominantly Islamic, has women in her regular Armed Forces. In Sep 90 King Fahd of Saudi Arabia approved a role for women in the Saudi Armed Forces.This has been followed by United Arab Emirates.10 In Iraq too, during the Iran-Iraq war, President Saddam Hussain, in an effort to strengthen more loyal Baathist Militias, enlisted some quarter million women into their women’s wings. Arming them much against the wishes of religious factions, he proudly hailed this force as the most liberated in the muslim world.

Domestic Scene

At the time of constitution making, the equality of women (Article 14), discrimination against them (Article 15) and equal opportunity for employment (Article 16) were thoroughly dealt with in accordance with the obtaining social ambience. It was considered prudent to insert Articles 16(3) and 33 in order to exempt our Armed Forces from the provisions of the Fundamental Rights with regard to employment of women. The contemporaneous leadership of that era accepted norms of equality. The fact that the post – Independence Indian thinking was so over optimistic about the future of non-use of army itself that any idea of women’s participation in it must have looked ludicrous to many a statesmen. That position still continues and the constitutional provision remains binding. The Army Act and the Air Force Act of 1950, the Navy act of 1957, stipulate that women are ineligible for enrolment and any deviation to this proviso could only be made through a special notification. A government sanction is thus mandatory for all cases of entry of women to our Armed Forces. Existing employment of women in the army Medical Corps (AMC) and the Army Dental corps (ADC) has been regularised. This legal barrier is not difficult to overcome but no organisation, group or a forum has so far felt any compulsion to challenge it. Absence of public opinion to modify the regulation that has over a period of time become irrelevant is only helping those who opine that we (Indians) are not ready to allow women in our Armed Forces. The constitutional allowance to keep women from joining military service has been conveniently used by our service headquarters to ward off whatever pressure there is from the hopefuls amongst female population. Thu this urge of the latter is not a recent phenomenon. [11] 

In the modern day of electronic warfare, it’s more about overcoming stress in warfare than physical combat. It has been proven scientifically that women handle stress better and are also mentally tougher. This is not to undermine a woman’s physical capability. Women have done extremely well in physical training as well. In the first few batches at the armed forces training academies women displayed more endurance and some even outran their male counterparts in cross-country runs and long distance marches. [12] They carry on this tradition and keep setting new records. As commissioned officers at the age of 22-23 years, they may often have subordinates older than their parents. Hence, from day one, it is a challenge and leadership qualities are under test. The color of their crisp uniforms and the stars/stripes they adorn differentiate them from each other. Despite the good quality of life, they may sometimes undergo hardships due to the nature of work. An officer may have to work in tough terrains or difficult circumstances. Most women however, who undergo training as cadets in various military academies, cope up with various difficult situations, easily. Being a transferable job, transfers and movements are seen as unique travel opportunities to travel to remotest locations in the country. Every unit is a mini-India with people and cultures as diverse. As most lady officers are married to gentlemen officers in the armed forces, as per government policies, they are transferred together. Women officers can also avail of maternity leave; furlough and annual leave in succession, to cater to pre and post-natal care. On retirement too, they enjoy medical facilities and coveted club memberships. They can afford to maintain the same quality of life due to the various benefits they can avail of. Their experience and qualities imbibed while in service make them much in demand in the private sector. Although the path these women have chosen is tough, they have proved that they have the spirit, the courage and the will to carry on. Presently, women do not serve in combat arms nor do they fly fighter aircrafts, but it won’t be long before these forbidden avenues are thrown open to them. [13] 



26. The Indian experiment of permitting women in the regular cadres of the three services is very recent. There is hardly any previous study on the subject of women in the Indian Army as commissioned officer in general and a permanent commissioned officer in particular, rising to the ranks of a General. Naturally, therefore any discussion on the subject has to draw upon a great deal, from the available material based on the concepts and experiences of the Western Armies. Most of the issues are not culture specific but rather gender based, hence if not all, a majority of issues concerning women in uniform are likely to apply across the board to Indian women in military services as well.

There are two points that must be analysed before we can properly address the question of whether or not women should be granted permanent commission in the officer cadre. Firstly, the nature of the army as an institution and secondly, the nature of working environment itself according to career profile. If the army was just a job, and if justice and equal opportunity was all that was at stake, there would be no opposition to opening up all opportunities to every one. After all, women have demonstrated their competence in all areas of society, from medicine and the law to business and the academies. [14] They have benefited from capitalism and technology. The lifting of legal barriers against women in the civilian workplace has merely ratified the technological advances that have rendered physical strength less important than intellect, an area in which women are equal to men. Thus today a woman, who is willing to bear the equal burden that men have traditionally borne, can achieve whatever goals she desires. [15] 

The Nature Of Army

The Army necessarily differs from civil society. A liber­al democracy like ours faces a paradox when it comes to relationship between the military situations as such and society at large. The military is not governed in accordance with prin­ciples of justice and liberalism that characterize the very society it defends. Behaviour that is acceptable, indeed even protected in civil society is prohibited in the military. The military restricts the freedom of movement of its member. It restricts speech, prohibits certain relationships between members, such as fraternization. Why? Because if the military fails, the society it protects may not survive. Experience has taught us that certain behaviour is destructive of good order, discipline and morale, without which a military organisation will certainly fail. The goal of military policy is military effectiveness.

Hence two sets of values are on a collision course. Military and Civil. Equality and opportunity are noble ideals but they have no place in the battlefield where it is a question of living and dying. This was succinctly summed up by American Marine Corps General Robert Barrow in a Senate hearing, “… It is not about women’s rights, equal opportun­ity, and career assignments for enhancement purposes for selec­tion to higher work. It is about combat effectiveness, combat readiness, and so we are talking National Security”.

Nature Of Working Environment

Since the services have only seen the presence of men (except on the medical side), gentlemen officers have an attitude problem which prevents them from accepting ladies among them as co officers and this is bound to aggravate if these ladies were competing with gentlemen officers for promotions as well. However the fact that the gentlemen officers have the choice of a permanent commission gives them a professional security. Although they perceive the lady officers as a short-term threat now, it will aggravate once this threat becomes a long-term threat. Further, the socio – cultural pattern of patriarchal domination prevents the gentlemen officers from accepting lady officers as social equals. Traits that are chauvinistically associated by men for women in society are piled upon the lady officers as well. Whereas for those lady officers to whom a career in the services is what they want to do in life; the sense of job insecurity is like a Damocles Sword hanging over their heads. Many don’t know exactly what they will do after having served in a career which is high commitment and high risk one and gives them prestige, status and perks that would no longer be there once they leave the service. [16] 

Further during the service years of a gentlemen officer in the army, be it supporting arm or combat arm, he is on a whirlwind tour of the country to include the inhospitable high altitude terrain of the North, the dry sultry sand dunes of the deserts in the West, the rain and leech infested jungles of the Northeast and long tenures of deployment on the International Border or the Line of Control without even the basic necessities of life. Under such conditions when the lady officers are also expected to stand by the side of their male counterparts notwithstanding the occupational hazards draws out certain physical and physiological issues involved with their behaviour.

The issues thrown up are:-

Physical and physiological issues.

Unit Cohesion and Military Effectiveness.

Sociological issues.

Administrative issues.

Physical Issues

Women if granted commission in Infantry may be called upon to serve in combat zone sometime or the other, in her career. The most common reason for opposing women in combat is that they largely lack the physical strength to perform effectively in a combat environ­ment. Studies conducted in the United States have observed that on average men are 40 percent stronger than women. Contrary to what some seem to believe, technology has not overcome the importance of physical strength in the Army. Brawn will count for more than `computer smarts’ any day. It is felt that when women cannot meet the requirements or rigours of a job; men must take up the slack. [17] 

Body Composition / Muscular Strength / Cardio-Respiratory Capacity. The West point and General Accounting Office (GAO) studies reveal that body composition (both physical and anatomic) favors men. Specifically women experience more difficulty in lifting heavy loads, road marching, carrying loads, running and throwing than men do. Women generally require more time to perform these tasks. Additionally they must perform at higher percentage of their physical abilities, leading to earlier fatigue. The reasons are that they have less muscle mass, more fat, which accumulates on buttocks, arms and thighs which lowers the center of gravity offering more resistance when running. They have less bone mass, wider pelvic structure and lower aerobic capacity than men. [18] 

Injury. Research findings have indicated a high risk for injuries during Army basic combat training. During training, 51% of women and 27% of men were injured which was related to a lower level of fitness when compared to men and resulted in an average time loss of 13 days training. During this study, women participated in an integrated conditioning programme and completed extensive road marches wearing combat boots. Incidence of injury was related to greater body weight and body fat and limited leg strength. [19] 

Physiological Issues

Pregnancy is a major female health issue, which contributes to major attrition among women in the Army. During pregnancy, women’s duties are often severely curtailed. This curtailment typically includes: no field duty, limited physical training, limited standing at attention. Many women experience severe premenstrual syndromes. This problem can be potentially dysfunctional for units with many lady officers. This is especially true if there is an involuntary tendency for women living in close quarters to synchronize their menstrual cycles. [20] 

However in an interview during the Gulf War some women soldiers who got pregnant told no one and stuck it out because “they did not want to let their team down”. Other women soldiers had their babies and six months later rejoined their units. Women in Army advocates argue that the average woman is pregnant for a very small portion of her productive life. There are many women who never become pregnant. They argue that data are inconclusive about pain and discomfort of menstruation. Rather women are more conscious of their health problems than men which explains a higher incidence of routine medical visits by women than men. [21] 

Legal Issues

The Constitutions in most developed countries including India provide for equality in l

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