By Malvika Verma
Edited by Anandita Malhotra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
The only thing that came close to matching the excitement surrounding US President Barack Obama’s presence at the Republic Day parade this year was the fact that a woman officer led the guard of honour for a dignitary. Creating history, Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Pooja Thakur became the subject of most trending news on leading media networks. It is indeed a big moment for Indian citizens, seeing how women are more often than not at the receiving end of subjugation and gender bias. Instances such as this are used to help imbibe a sense of pride and infuse a certain enthusiasm in the masses.
But one thing that everyone is conveniently ignoring is the fact that Pooja Thakur is first and foremost an OFFICER. How her gender plays into the picture, is a puzzle. Must we always define a person by their gender? Is gender identity the only identity? The event could have occurred in the usual way despite gender being dragged into the whole matter. When it comes to delivering the service, how does the gender matter? Why do we bring in a sexist angle to every empowering incident? Both men and women are given the same training in the armed forces, as they are treated as equals. Had a man been in Pooja Thakur’s position, he would not have received the same attention and this is a fact that none can deny. Is this not sexism?
Even equality in our country finds a way to be biased.
Having women in positions of combat is normality for Israel, with the defence army having 88% to 92% of all roles open to female candidates, while women can be found in 69% of all positions. Why can’t India aim for this normalcy? Why does every achievement of a woman have a tagline of ‘despite being a woman she accomplished the task that was seemingly difficult’? Gender roles are so deeply entrenched in our society that it is almost impossible to find a way past them. The root of the problem here lies in the persistence of differentiation based on gender and the subsequent gender inequality. We as citizens of a progressive and modern nation need to move past these shallow and limited definitions of gender.
Another issue at hand here is the trifling of a matter that concerns the well being and the war-potential of a nation’s armed forces. Armed forces have been constituted with the sole purpose of ensuring defence of the country and all policy decisions should be guided by this overriding factor. All matters concerning defence of the country have to be considered in a dispassionate manner. No decision should be taken which even remotely affects the cohesiveness and efficiency of the military. Concern for equality of sexes or political expediency should not influence defence policies. This is not to say that entry into the armed forces should be altogether denied to women, no. It should be purely voluntary as is the case in several developed countries. But the authorities do need to keep in mind the fact that India has limited experience as regards to induction of women in the armed forces. The first batch had joined in 1992. Therefore, our knowledge of the complexities and long-term effects of the issues involved is highly limited. On the other hand, women have been serving in the militaries of developed countries for a long time. These countries have acquired a deep understanding of all the issues involved.
We cannot hope to achieve gender parity on the combat fields while our streets are reeking of inequality. Bringing about a change at the grass root level is a skill that the Indian state is yet to master. Till this skill is mastered, I believe, we as responsible citizens of the nation should consider it our duty to look beyond the narrow definitions of gender that society has enforced upon us. A woman in an army parade should not be treated as a spectacle. The presence of women in positions of power should become as normal as the absence of men from it. It is time we let the sexes be.