Free human beings have a dignity that deserves respect from legal and social institutions. The idea of human dignity usually involves an idea of equal worth: rich and poor; urban and rural; male and female are equally deserving of respect just by virtue of being human. This respect should not be compromised on any characteristic especially those dictated by the whims of nature. But in today’s world human dignity is frequently compromised on grounds of sex. Many women find themselves treated unequally in respect of employment, physical safety and integrity. In many cases discrimination is caused by their being women and in some other cases institutions construct or perpetuate inequality.

All over the world women have registered their protest over such inequality and claim the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Equality in the armed forces is a little different because the argument here is not about rights; it is about having a duty, an obligation towards one’s country. It does not seem morally fair for women in the armed forces to say that “I want equal wages and facilities, but you go and fight the wars for me”. In Germany men have initiated reverse discrimination cases arguing that men should not be singled out for frontline military duty. In India, women do not serve in the Combat Arms nor do they fly fighter aircrafts.

Against all odds, women were allowed entry into different branches of the Indian Armed forces in 1992. There was a lot of criticism, many negative predictions were made and the general belief was that induction of women would decrease, if not nullify the effectiveness of the forces. Years down the line the criticisms have metamorphosed into appreciation, the predictions are now more positive, and more branches have been opened for women induction. Since the overall feedback has been more positive than otherwise, the obvious question is, why are women not inducted into combat units?

To begin with the word combat deserves a closer look. Traditionally combat would mean direct hand-to hand human fight which involves deliberate offensive actions i.e. engaging an enemy while being exposed to direct enemy fire. In times of war, combat duties are duties requiring a person to personally commit an act of violence against the enemy. The 21st century military operations are conducted differently. There is an increased reliance on high-tech weaponry. With this dependency on technology, the uncertainty levels have dramatically reduced and the use of brute force has been relegated.

The old definition of combat is thus fairly archaic and worn out. The initial induction of women in the Armed forces was more from necessity than the philosophy of gender equality. But now when the induction of women in combat units is being proposed, the biggest question is ‘Can women fight as well as men?’ History is replete with instances when women have had to pick up arms to defend their nations. In this world of technological warfare the actual question is of capabilities, about intelligent training and self-discipline. Equality never advocates special treatment.

Induction should be regardless of gender. Selecting those who are best suited for their jobs is the basis for the capabilities approach to the question of equality. If men, some of whom are not capable enough, are offered the dignity of choice, then why deny this choice to women who may be equally or more capable?

The other argument is from culture. Traditional cultures contain their own norms of what a woman’s life should be. These are mainly norms of female modesty, deference, obedience and self-sacrifice. There is a general belief that women who claim equality are merely aping a Western agenda, which is against the norms of their local culture; Western because they involve an emphasis on choice and opportunity. But then culture has always been a seat of debate and contestation. In any culture it would be unfair to say that women are striving for equal opportunities, under the influence of any Western/ alien agency. Clearly women prefer equality as it gives them a richer sense of their self, of their possibilities and equal worth. What is indeed western about this argument is the arrogant presumption that choice and economic agency are solely for men. Allowing women into other units of the armed forces did not compromise culture, so there is no basis for the presumption that the introduction of women into combat units will in any way corrupt culture.

The choice, of being in the direct line of fire, should be theirs and theirs alone. Interestingly, keeping women away from combat units is no guarantee that they will not be in the direct line of fire. Support and supply units containing many women would be choice targets for enemy air attacks in any major war, as would be military hospitals with women nurses and doctors. Refreshing concepts are evolving in our culture which emphasise that women can no longer be brainwashed with the culture theory. The third argument is that of ‘long medical leave, which women need for pregnancy/ child birth’.

There is little evidence to indicate that such leave gives rise to serious problems for the employers. As far as costs are concerned, a well-planned parental leave policy ensuring equal reassignment of the duties amongst the remaining employees, would indeed be much more cost effective. Surveys in a broad spectrum of work places have shown that almost 33 per cent of men spend unproductive time at work because of child-care concerns. The reasons given for absence or unproductive time at work are, medical appointments, teacher conferences, taking care of a sick child, telephone calls to children who are alone at home and mostly stress about children’s future in general.

The military’s records show that male troops average more time lost due to drunkenness, going AWOL, and other infractions of discipline than women do. Overall a female soldier is more likely to be fit and productive than a male one, even when pregnancy rates are taken into account. Any combat unit depends on its ‘team spirit’ to maintain its effectiveness.

Combat troops would happily lay down their lives for their comrades. Some argue that this spirit may break down with the induction of women. Non-combat units, which also need comradeship and loyalty to sustain their effectiveness have contained men and women for years without becoming worthless. When people are fighting for their lives, the bonding is irrespective of gender.

To what extent is the military losing eligible personnel due to its policy of keeping women out of combat units is the question for policy makers to answer. Military units containing both men and women have performed well and in cohesion, in many recent wars and insurgencies. There is no rational reasoning for stopping women from serving their country on an equal basis.

War is no longer a predominantly male activity. To be optimally effective, the forces require the best of men and women. Women may or may not be best suited to discharge traditional roles, but the point of contention is that it should be their choice. She should not play a role by default but by choice. Any law, tradition or institution should not cloud her horizons. As a free human being, she should be able to soar as high as she pleases to. All she needs is the freedom and dignity of choice.

(The writer was part of the second batch of woman officers inducted in the Indian Navy in the Logistics Cadre in 1993. She retired in 2000, after completing seven years of short service commission.)