Why our defence forces will lose to women

The recent statements by General Bipin Rawat on the issue of women being inducted into combat arms set off a firestorm. The General has one valid point: The Indian defence services would have to reboot their cultural ethos to cope with gender integration.

There would, almost certainly, be a huge number of cases of sexual harassment of women troopers by their comrades and superior officers. The US defence services, which have been gender-integrated for many years, still have numerous episodes of sexual harassment. This happens as well in Israel, Russia and other countries with gender-integrated defence forces. Given that India is, in general, a more sexist culture, this would be a serious problem. 

However, the defence forces reluctance to deal with this, shouldn't lead to the exclusion of Indian women from the services. They cannot be denied those rights because the defence services are reluctant to embrace the changes in attitude necessary to allow for their induction.

The other reasons trotted out to exclude women from combat services are all spurious, and have been known to be spurious, since World War II, if not earlier. Millions of Soviet women served in combat during The Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call it.  They actually turned out to be better snipers than the men, and also better night pilots. They served with competence in tank units, and artillery regiments. Ditto for the female cadres of the Chinese Communist party, who participated in the Long March and fought the Japanese. Ditto for women Vietcong, who went head-to-head with the United States Army.

Women have since fought in many conflicts, notably for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for various Balkan militias, and for the Kurdish Peshmerga, where they’ve been a prime factor in beating the Islamic State (ISIS). Also, of course, there have been women cadres scattered across sundry Maoist insurgencies in India.

The other huge shibboleth is that “Women POWs (prisoners of war) will be maltreated and raped.” Nobody seems to follow the Geneva Convention in fluid modern conflicts anyhow, and men POWs are just as likely to get raped, or to have pliers applied to their private parts.

Paradoxically, or maybe not, the data suggests that women in combat are actually less likely to get raped than civilians. Unlike civilians, they do carry guns and they are therefore, less vulnerable, except perhaps to the predations of superior officers. Again, arguably, it’s even possible that women participating in ground patrols in insurgency-ridden areas could reduce the incidence of atrocities against civilian women.

The defence services are fighting a losing battle by trying to keep women out of combat, if we look at emerging social and biological trends. Gender fluidity is much more common and socially acceptable in the 21st century. Best guesses suggest that close to 0.5 per cent of the United Kingdom (about 200,000 individuals) are transgender and it is a similar proportion in the US. While that is a tiny proportion of the population, it is a substantial number by itself. The Pentagon has had to cope with serving defence personnel going transgender on a regular basis — there’s plenty of literature on the subject. 

Transgenderism might take a while to catch on in terms of social acceptance in India, but catch up it will. Given a very young population, it might even become acceptable surprisingly soon. That would supersede the current binary debate about gender-integration and render it absurd.

Substantial transgender populations cause other conundrums. Should trans-athletes be allowed to compete in gender-segregated sports and should loos go unisex? These questions will be debated again and again over the next decade or two. Back in the day, Dr Renee Richards was the pioneer man-to-woman transgender tennis player. Caitlin Jenner won Olympic medals as a man before she changed her sex (though she doesn’t compete as a woman).

The Indian defence forces will have to find their own answers quite soon to gender fluidity and those will eventually have to be in sync with social attitudes. The army generals can be pro-active or they can opt to  be overtaken by change.