Advancing women’s role in Indian military through progressive reforms

There are important questions for most militaries, including the Indian one as to how best to improve the status of women in their ranks. No less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognized the importance of this issue and his ongoing commitment to such in his recent Navy Day speech. While the percentage of women have […]

There are important questions for most militaries, including the Indian one as to how best to improve the status of women in their ranks. No less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognized the importance of this issue and his ongoing commitment to such in his recent Navy Day speech. While the percentage of women have been traditionally low, new advances have been observed along many dimensions in recent years. This year, “Nearly 80 women officers in the Army have been cleared so far for the rank of Colonel (selection grade), making them eligible to command units in their respective arms and services for the first time, The Indian Express has learnt.” Also, women are eligible to attend military academies a fairly recent development. The list goes on with many breakthroughs but with more needed.
In this article, a number of foreign examples will be especially looked at to provide possible insights from which India might further gain or expand its ideas on how to improve the status of women in its forces, where appropriate and for the future.
Such improvements can have a large follow through, encouraging females in general, having a better image of their overall status and potential and promoting visibly, equality between the genders as done in appropriate ways.
Firstly, let us look to Israel. This includes looking at the recent attack by Hamas which appears to have lessons learned on the need for better integration of female inputs into decision making as a positive for improving national security. One view is that warnings of an attack by female Israeli border guards were ignored because of discrimination.
Yet, how so could this happen with an Israeli army considered one of the most advanced in integrating women? After all, “The IDF (Israel Defence Force) stands out among other militaries because of its high representation of women. In addition to requiring women to enlist, the IDF boasts high participation of women in command roles. Thirty-four percent of those serving in the IDF are women, including 23% of all officers. Ninety-two percent of the IDF’s jobs are open to women.” (International Cooperation) Interestingly, it is added that women generally serve in separate units not mixed in with males.
Despite these encouraging statistics, which help to make Israel seem advanced on women issues worldwide, Politico reports some very troubling concerns. “Did Israel’s security chiefs brush off warnings from women border surveillance soldiers who had evidence that something was brewing in Gaza ahead of the murderous attacks by Hamas militants on October 7?”
This situation may demonstrate how women in the military should not just be about their participating numbers which are of course, important but not an end- all. It should be also about whether their voices are being listened to and respected enough by largely male, high- level commanders, some of whom may have too much bias against women’s serious involvement in and contributing to key decision making.
Then, there are too many cases of sexual abuses and bullying of women with cases well documented in the US armed forces, but not exclusively to that country. According to the Washington Examiner headlines in 2022, “Women in military report highest sexual assault totals since tracking began in 2006.” The issue has been so acute that it may explain why US President Biden just in July of this year signed into new rules regarding treatment of sexual assaults in the US defence forces. Further according to rollcall.com, “Under the changes, prosecution of sexual and related crimes will be handled by special victims’ units in the services, outside the military chain of command.” This seems like a better independent approach to seeing the victim getting justice against a perpetrator.
Now is the issue of women being conscripted especially in war. This is timely for examination as Ukrainian authorities are seemingly pressing away most recently, for many more women to be conscripted to join the battlefront as the Ukraine military gets severely shrunken due to heavy losses against fighting the Russian military.
“Politically correct” zealots might have large numbers of women fighting in the trenches side-by-side with men? But psychology studies show that makes soldiers highly demoralized when seeing women killed, wounded or even seriously maimed in battle before their eyes. So what can be learned from all this? Keep women from the direct combat lines?
Or should one remember that even at the height of Russia defending its very existence against the fascist Nazi army invading Russia that five percent of the army was represented by women. (Wikipedia) These women though mostly provided important support roles especially in the medical side though some did very efficient sniper work. And Ukraine is not pushing women conscripts to join the combat but to be available for nursing and other medical roles. Phew? Maybe not?
But some might say that the situation in Russia during World War II was then back in the early to mid-1940s.That times have changed in modern society especially in developed countries but not only there. That women at even a large scale should be permitted to combat in even the most violent ways as a reflection of progress in equality?
According to the Times of Israel, in that country women in some of the greatest numbers ever are volunteering to join the war against Hamas with the paper showing photographs of women army soldiers in full combat uniform holding heavy weapons. From the same source: “The army said it has seen a draft turnout above 100 percent — meaning the numbers it had initially planned for — and that 12% of women now joining combat units had asked to change their placement to those fighting roles during the war.”
What night be learned or reinforced in India’s military which still needs to grow its ranks significantly with women? Looking at Israel, when women get combat roles, they should fight in all female units but that decision to fight should be up to the individual female’s choice and being fit for such duty as all soldiers must be. The level of participation in that army shows the potential for many more women being part of the military as a percentage though each country, including India has their own particular circumstances and culture for considering exact roles and numbers.
Importantly, as reported by The Hindu and earlier referenced, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 4 said the government was committed to increasing the strength of women in the armed forces. ‘Today, India is setting bigger targets for itself and is utilising its full potential to achieve those targets,’ said the PM, speaking …on the occasion of Navy Day.” That is encouraging.
This is also another clear example of the Modi way of sensible modernity on inclusion, while preserving sensible traditions of having a strong military to protect the nation. Practical reforms are gaining momentum and exchanges of ideas between India and countries like Israel on status of women issues in the military may add to New Delhi’s heightened and likely clear commitment. That Indian women will break, if not shatter the glass ceiling seriously in the Indian defence forces more sooner than later without shattering India as a top fighting force.

Peter Dash, former university lecturer in West and East Asia is a past Associate at Harvard.