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Women Combatants: The Gender Narrative – OpEd

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In quick succession over the past few weeks, the political leadership in some major countries have indicated their commitment to bringing women in frontline combat roles in their armies. There have been statements to this effect by the US, the UK, and India. These have evinced in turn a slew of articles debating how women would affect operational efficacy and efficiency.

For the record, about three dozen countries around the world have women in their armed forces, though not necessarily in combat roles. The roles assigned to women differ from country to country, with some having passed legislation for equal rights and therefore equal roles within the armed forces, Norway and Sweden being in the forefront; while others have steadfastly held back from assigning combat duties to their women intake, notable amongst these being France and Turkey.

By virtue of its acute requirement for defence forces right from its inception, Israel has always had women employed in combat duties, and has legislated equality of women in any role in the IDF to that of men. The form of recruitment varies from the voluntary to conscription in all these countries. Similarly, they have each charted their own course for the training requirements, physical standards, mandatory term of service, roles and duties assigned to women, and inevitably the laws on sexual harassment. Given the wide spectrum of issues which likely affect and govern the intake of women in armed forces, a logical debate arises about the recent declarations by the US, UK and India. Have certain realities been overlooked? What is it that compels these leaders- is it simply a race for gender equality while disregarding facts based on reality? This analysis seeks to examine both sides of the argument to decide what the right course of action should be.

Firstly, the Israeli example. As said earlier, certain issues emanating from the its very inception required each and every able bodied individual to take up arms; this in effect made it possible for women being assigned frontline combat roles. There was simply no debate, it was the need of the hour. Throughout the history of Israel as an independent nation, virtually the same set of circumstances have pushed it in to decisions based on need. Simultaneously, its armed forces served as a giant cauldron for the rapid amalgamation of its huge and varied immigrant population. These factors made it imperative first, then simpler to continue (later) with women serving in combat roles. Yet, despite its 2000 Equality amendment to Military Service Law, only one woman serves as a Major General and sections of the establishment feel that the glass ceiling may still take some time to crumble. This notwithstanding, Israel has undergone decades of strife on its borders, giving valuable insights in to problems which women may face; it is to its credit that the country seems to have dealt with most of them successfully.

Any army seeking to bring women in to combat must also realistically examine certain other issues. Primarily these deal with the biological differences (with men), followed by psychological differences and concerns related to the likely enemy they face and tactical situations arising from it. Physically women are smaller than men, have less strength, endurance and the ability to bear punishment that the body has to face in combat regimen. They are also more prone to muscoskeletal injuries, more so after pregnancy. These factors obviously make them more prone to injury such as stress fractures, and they may not be able to endure heavy weights such as carrying a wounded comrade with his equipment over long distances. Even during training women have had to be given reduced loads to maintain the momentum of training; lower physical standards in training would result in reduced fitness for basic combat tasks. At the end of the day, it has to be remembered that ‘gear carried is gear required’. In aerial combat, it has been scientifically ascertained that the ability to withstand high gravitational forces that fighter pilots have to endure regularly, is reduced substantially in the female body. Certain armed forces have maintained the same physical standards for women as are expected from men because of these realities of combat, but at the cost of lower numbers at the recruitment stage, and increasing number of dropouts at subsequent stages.

Chief amongst the psychological reasons is the purported awkwardness or the inability associated with men taking orders from women seniors or officers. However, what is definitely worse is the debilitating effect on unit and individual morale that the sight of a wounded woman comrade would have. Most societies follow their own form of patriarchy, and deep rooted prejudices may be difficult to erase completely. Even if education and awareness were to bury these, the second factor of being witness to a wounded woman has been seen to arouse very strong protective instincts. While this may be an honourable thing in civilian life, it degrades the morale of the unit, lowers the robot like proficiency of the individual soldier and ultimately results in lower efficacy in combat. Evidence of this exists historically in the 1948 operations in Israel. Many anecdotal examples abound, where senior and experienced officers and NCOs have expressed their consternation at the decision to allow women in combat units.

While squeamishness on the part of women on seeing blood and gore in combat operations may be possible, suitable psychological training may help to reduce the shock effect associated with injuries and death. Another area of concern is the possibility of capture, torture and sexual assault by the enemy. This has been in fact expressed by women soldiers themselves. Feminism and gender equality may sound exalted as theories, but they cannot change biological realities. Also, given the degree of barbarianism shown by what these women would face, namely ISIS fighters, or other terror oriented groups of that genre, capture would almost certainly result in torture, decapitation and rape, probably on live media. Is any army ready to accept these costs? More importantly, is any political establishment ready to accept the cost?

The decision to announce the entry of women into combat roles is definitely politically motivated, aimed at achieving political correctness which seems to be in sync with the rhetoric on equality of sexes. However, this decision needs to be tempered with practicality and pragmatism. In their bid to achieve political correctness, governments may well end up making the biggest politically incorrect decision. It would take only one media recording of physical assault on a woman combatant to bring this house of cards down. What it will end up doing to the combat effectiveness of the armed forces is another story altogether.

Author: Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote, MPHIL, MA


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Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote

Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote

Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote is a Communication Professional, Research Scholar and a Defence Enthusiast. With an MA, MPHIL in International Relations, Political Science and Development Communications, Ms Hoskote regularly writes for Eurasia Review on subjects of geopolitical importance.

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