Lieutenant Colonel Shubhada Naik remembers the challenge of joining the Indian Army at the age of 21 in 2001. “I always knew this is a male-dominated force, and I have to adapt and make a place for myself. My work was to pave the way for the coming generation, so I was clear this was not going to be easy,” she told VICE News.
Naik joined the Indian Army with high ambitions and a strong purpose to serve the nation. The Indian Army is one of the three services under the Indian armed forces. The other two are the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF).
Like many women officers, she also knew that the conversation of gender equality in the armed forces is not an easy one. The Indian armed forces are routinely questioned for its lack of representation of women officers, in comparison to their male counterparts.
The Indian armed forces are predominantly male. According to data released by the Ministry of Defence in March 2020, there are 6,892 women in the Indian Army; 1,878 in the IAF; and 685 in the Navy. These are out of a total of approximately 1.2 million personnel in the Army; 141,606 in the IAF; and 69,052 in the Navy.
Despite the unequal recruitment of male and women officers, the three forces have seen positive changes.
Naik, who retired in 2017 after 16 years of serving, noted, “In the last 20 years, the Indian Army has gradually but definitely opened more and more for women officers.”
On September 21, the Indian Navy made a historic announcement for Indian naval aviation.
For the first time, two women officers will operate flying missions from warships. The Navy already deploys women employees in logistics and medical wings on fleet tankers. But the two women officers are the first airborne combatants on Naval warships.
The national media described this development as a moment that will “redefine gender equality” in the Indian Navy. Until now, women employees in the institution were not a part of the crew aboard warships because of reasons ranging from the lack of privacy in male-dominated crew quarters, or the availability of bathroom facilities for women.
Sub Lieutenant Riti Singh, one of the two women officers to become airborne combatants on warships, told NDTV, “Yes, we're breaking barriers every day but there are a lot of opportunities coming up every day.”
Before the Indian Navy, the IAF—which was the first to put women in combat roles—was reportedly set to deploy the first woman fighter pilot to join the “Golden Arrows” squadron that operates the newly inducted Rafale fighter jets.
In the Indian Army, a significant move came early this week with the commencement of screening women officers for permanent commission for the first time. Until now, women officers were only allowed short service commission—a service of not more than 14 years. Women officers in the Indian Army were demanding permanent commission, which was only allowed for male officers.
Experts note that the positive developments go hand in hand with the ongoing struggle to achieve much more in terms of gender equality.
Naik said the many firsts indicate more women taking initiative and that the force is growing. “But there is an unprecedented responsibility on women officers,” she added. “Because one mistake will take the whole struggle back by at least five years.”
Chitrangda Rastravara, an advocate at the Supreme Court of India, who is handling the case of permanent commission for women officers in the armed forces, told VICE News that a lot of work needs to be done to attain gender equality in the armed forces.
In February this year, the Indian government maintained that women officers are unfit for leadership posts since male troops “are not mentally schooled to accept women officers in command.” It also stated that male and female officers cannot be treated equally because of their different “physical standards and exposures”. That women are limited by the “challenges of confinement, motherhood and childcare.”
The same month, the Supreme Court ruled that women officers should be given commanding roles and permanent commissions. This landmark ruling opens doors for benefits like promotions, pensions, longer tenures, and opportunities like combat roles.
“When I represent women officers in cases or through petitions, I have come across the stereotypical aspersions of Indian armed forces to diminish causes of gender equality,” said Rastravara. “Their mindset and opinions are steeped in the deep-rooted patriarchy in India.”
Early this year, a Netflix film titled Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl set off a debate around sexism in the Indian armed forces. The film’s scenes depicting male IAF officers refusing Saxena a level-playing field because of her gender, invited strong criticism, calls for a boycott and trolling.
“To deny [the bias] completely speaks of a feudal mindset and undermines the grit of women officers,” Gunjan Saxena, the protagonist of the film, wrote in response to the criticism towards Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. “I also combated the difficulties of prejudice and discrimination at the hands of a few individuals for being a woman.”
Naik said that the struggle of women officers is significant “for the entire womankind”. “How can you keep 50 percent (approximately, if you ignore the gender-based killings) away from playing their part in serving the nation?” she said. “Army is no more just about basketballs in your arms. You need brains to handle sophisticated equipment, strategy and leadership. Women have proven themselves, adequately.”
In the meanwhile, women continue to break the glass ceiling, especially for combat roles.
“Women have been able to break the male bastions in almost all fields,” said Rastravara. “The face of combat and warfare is changing and it no longer includes just man-to-man attack with the aid of arms. It also involves intellect to control and coordinate command actions from a closed space.”
Naik added that the struggle to attain gender equality will take some time. “One whole generation of gentlemen will have to be educated,” she said. “It’s not just in the Army, it’s true everywhere.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.