Dear Bipin Rawat, Let’s Talk About Strong Women

Army chief Bipin Rawat, in a recently held interview with News18, said that women are best suited for non-combat roles and childcare. He then unleashed a series of sexist remarks about women in war zones, saying that women are physically incapable of leading troops and even mocking a woman’s need for maternity leave. Rawat didn’t limit himself to women in the army, but included all women in his assessment that they’re unfit to handle challenging or conflict situations.

Rawat said that India, as a country, is not ready to see women’s corpses returning from war zones, implicitly saying women are only meant for delicate tasks. He added, “What will happen if there is just one woman and rest around her are just jawans. She is very much a commander so she has to do everything. She will have to go for operations. But even today we don’t have that acceptance. Even today our jawans come from villages, so that acceptance will take time.”

This is not the first time that an army officer has disparaged the idea of women in combat zones. Back in 2016, when the president approved the induction of women as short service commission officers, a group of armed officers expressed skepticism over the decision. “Even the US and the UK do not have women in front-line ground combat as of now. Gender equality is fine, but you may have to draw the line somewhere in the armed forces,” an army officer told the Hindustan Times.

General Mukesh Sabharwal even wrote an article titled ‘Women Officers in the Indian Army: A Reality Check’, in the military journal Indian Defence Review, to “debunk” the myth around women in combat roles. “It is a biologically established fact that women would be manifestly challenged in physical and psychological aspects and will be seriously hampered to lead soldiers into battle.”

“It can be stated without apprehension that when it comes to physical combat with the adversary, the performance of women officers in actual combat conditions is likely to be comparatively lower than their male counterparts,” Sabharwal added.

Sabharwal’s arguments are based on the same patriarchal mindset which prompted Rawat’s comments. Contrary to this popular belief, women officers have a well-established track record of exhibiting bravery, even in extreme conditions. For instance, officer Mitali Madhumita risked her life when she saved several injured civilians and army personnel in the 2010 Kabul embassy attack. Flight officer Gunjan Saxena and flight lieutenant Srividya became the first women pilots to fly into a combat zone during the Kargil war. They flew their Cheetah helicopters to rescue wounded soldiers from the war zone.

Besides, several studies have shown that women are not actually biologically weaker than men. Instead, it is social conditioning which makes them feel inferior to men, and men feel superior to them. Rawat, Sabharwal and many others are hampered by the very same conditioning which tells us that women are meant to be caregivers, they are fragile and to be protected.

Besides, he tends to normalise privacy intrusion of women when General Rawat makes a statement like, “Our orders are that a lady officer will get a hut in the COB, then there are orders that we have to cocoon her separately. She will say somebody is peeping, so we will have to give a sheet around her.”

Instead of allowing, even welcoming, women who want to work in war zones, the army chief is promoting a culture which dismisses and objectifies women in as many ways possible. However, women on social media didn’t take his statements lying down.

It’s not that our country isn’t ready to see women soldiers’ corpses, our country isn’t ready to accept that women are capable of protecting the nation. And our national imagination (and its limitations) are clear if you run through the long list of Bollywood war films – not one features women in leadership roles.

In these movies, women are either shown as the wilting lover desperately waiting for her man to return from the war, or just as a war journalist who is nothing but a love interest for the hero. From Border, which released in 1997, and Lakshya in 2004, and later to Uri (which is set to release in January 2019), women are never seen on the forefront taking tough decisions.

The films we make and watch are just a reflection of the existing reality – so the change has to start in real life, by pushing back against men like Rawat and showing them what women are made of.


Feature image credit: PTI