It was as if while inducting women into the forces, the system had forgotten that women do get pregnant.
Twenty-five years ago, in June 1992, the first batch of 12 women officers landed at the Air Force Academy, Hyderabad. I was part of this batch. The same year, the Army and the Navy also inducted women officers. A year later, all 12 were commissioned as pilot officers. I served the Indian Air Force (IAF) for 11 years after commissioning, before opting for premature retirement as Squadron Leader.
In all the three services, the women were taken in as short service commission (SSC) officers. The plan was to offer them permanent commission on completion of SSC. However, though SSC was extended twice, permanent commission was never offered even after completion of 15 years of service. When women officers were asked to leave after 15 years of service, without any retirement benefits, some of them went to court, which decided in their favour and ruled that they be taken back. That is when permanent commission was announced for subsequent batches.
Though women officers started flying transport aircraft and helicopters for the IAF in 1994, they were not offered the fighter stream till last year. Recently, the Army Chief announced that women officers will be given combat roles in the Army soon. This is a welcome decision although it has come late since women have been part of the defence forces as medical and nursing officers for half a century now.
When I was serving in the IAF, one event that bothered the system most was pregnancy of a woman officer in the flying branch. Pregnancy meant the officer was not fit to fly for almost two years. Though many male officers get grounded for months and years because they are medically unfit for flying, a lot of hue and cry was made of a woman officer getting grounded due to pregnancy.
It was as if while inducting women into the forces, the system had forgotten that women do get pregnant. By the time women officers completed 15 years of service, they were done with pregnancy and were ready to give their best to the organisation. Why should they have been denied permanent commission at this point of time? The organisation denied them the opportunity to make use of their 15 years of experience and capability.
A question that has been hanging in the air for long is: when will women be inducted into the ranks? Will it be easy? Of course not. People in the forces come from the same society that expects women to be the primary caregiver for children. Hence a working woman has to multitask. But this cannot be a reason to deny her opportunities in the defence forces.
The other argument is: what if a women soldier/officer gets captured during war? Well, the answer is that women are emotionally much stronger than men. As for physical strength, that can be improved with rigorous training. The traditional hand-to-hand combat war is any way very unlikely in today’s world. Women who join the defence forces know what they are getting into. So if at all they get captured during war, they will deal with it like any other soldier.
Many wonder if men will obey women leaders. I served in the IAF for 11 years. I do not remember even one incidence of disobedience. Indians have always bowed before authority and competence whosoever it comes from — male or female.
Another question I am asked is, will women face gender bias or sexual harassment? And my answer is YES. Most women by a certain age learn to deal with it in their own unique way. The defence services in fact may provide them a far safer environment because of its disciplined nature.
There is no limitation on women serving in the military in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Israel etc. It’s time India allowed its women equal opportunity in the defence forces. By offering only short service opportunities, and entry in non-combat roles till now, women have been prevented from attaining higher ranks, which is unfair. I applaud the recent decision of the services chiefs allowing women into the fighter stream and combat roles. I am also looking forward to the announcement of women's entry into the ranks.
Still out of bounds
Israel: Excluding submarines, women can serve anywhere in navy and artillery.
France: Women can serve in any armed post, except in submarines and marine commando branches.
(Deepa Nailwal is a retired Squadron Leader of the Indian Air Force)