With most of the combat positions being overwhelmingly male, women for a long part of the history were missing from the armed forces around the globe. There have been multitude of reasons mentioned for the lack of a decent ratio – women being physically weaker, psychologically more emotional or tactically less strategic but there have been no scientific proofs for any of that.
There are enough records of women leading large battles and showing the world that they have got it in them to be a ferocious leader and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with other men and women in times of need. The list is quite long – be it Queen Boudica who led the Britons against Rome, or Joan of Arc who led French forces in the battle against Britain and is now considered as a symbol of French nationalism, or our very own Jhansi ki Rani Lakshmi Bai who led Indian forces in the rebellion of 1857 against Britishers along with Jhalkari Bai and became a symbol of pride. The ballad “Khoob ladi mardaani, vo to Jhansi waali rani thi“, written on Lakshmi Bai, however, still throws a light on the patriarchal dominance in our society, where even to praise a woman for her bravery, we require a comparison to a man or say that they were brave like men.
Fast forwarding to modern times, Indian women have been showing their prowess in combat roles since the time they were allowed to be inducted. There have been some marvelous, inspiring role-models who have proved that nothing is beyond their reach and sky is no limit. Being a defence brat myself, I have always been in awe of women in uniform and I think there’s a huge role that they have played in instilling that confidence and bring-it-on attitude that I have. Below are some of these women in Indian defence forces whose stories have been my inspiration.
1. Lt. General Punita Arora
Lt. General Punita Arora was the first woman in the Indian armed forces to be promoted to a three-star rank, a highly coveted position for anyone in the armed forces. She donned the position of Lieutenant General of Indian Armed Forces as well as the Vice Admiral of Indian Navy. She joined the armed forces via Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the country, and the entry into the armed forces’ medical field. She stood out not just as a topper of her batch at AFMC, but also received a Sena Medal for pioneering invitro-fertilisation and assisted reproductive techniques for infertile and childless couples in military hospitals. Apart from the Sena Medal, she has also been awarded Vishisht Seva Medal, Param Vishisht Seva Medal, totaling up to 15 medals and awards for her contribution across. Let alone women, there are hardly a handful of men who have such impressive credits to their name.
2. Air Marshal Padmavathy Bandopadhyay
Following Lt. General Punita Arora, Air Marshal Padmavathy Bandopadhyay became the second woman in the Indian Armed Forces to be promoted to a three-star rank and the first woman Air Marshal of the Indian Force, the third highest rank in the Indian Air Force. For her invaluable contribution during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, she was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM), an award that is given to recognize distinguished service of an exceptional order to all ranks of the Indian armed forces. She is also the first woman to have conducted scientific research at the North Pole, where she joined an Indo-Russian physiology experiment to study the ease of acclimatization of people from tropical Indian climates to extreme cold conditions. To add to a long list of honors and awards, she also became the first Indian woman office to have completed the Defence Service Staff College course. She is an aviation medicine specialist and a member of the Indian Society of Aerospace Medicines, International Medical Society and New York Academy of Sciences. Her list of accomplishments is quite long, with a total of 23 research projects and 27 publications to her credit. To top it all, she is the first Lady Honorary Surgeon to the President of India. Now, if that’s not impressive and inspirational, I can’t imagine what is!
3. Shanti Tigga
Shanti Tigga was in no way an ordinary woman! An epitome of perseverance and excellence, she outperformed all her male contemporaries to become India’s first woman jawan at the age of 35, a position that wasn’t deemed fit for women. She broke all sorts of barriers and stereotypes that existed around women in our country. Former Indian president, Ms. Pratibha Patil honored her for her extraordinary achievements. She had achieved a feat that was considered impossible for women. Although she met an unfortunate death, her contribution to the armed forces inspired the women all across the nation and gave them the confidence of taking any challenge head-on.
4. Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena
This is the name that people who think women aren’t made for combat zones should look up for. During the Indo-Pakistan Kargil war of 1999, Gunjan Saxena flew her Cheetah helicopter right through the extremely hostile terrains of Kargil to retrieve injured soldiers, proving her mettle in Operation Vijay. She became the first ever woman pilot of Indian Air Force to fly in a combat zone. She also proved that age is no barrier when you are passionate about your dreams, being just 24 years old with 3 years experience in the Indian Air Force. She was, in fact, from the first ever women trainee pilots batch of Indian Air Force. She truly redefined empowerment, breaking into the male bastion and setting an example for millions of Indians.
5. Squadron Leader Veena Saharan
Flying the Russian-built IL-76 or Gajraj, as it is called in India, is no easy feat for anyone. After all, it’s the heaviest and mightiest aircraft of Indian Air Force. But for Squadron Leader Veena Saharan, it wasn’t an impossible task. After having flown a Dornier and an AN-32 aircraft in Siachen, she became the first and only woman pilot in Indian Air Force to have flown the mighty IL-76. She truly does justice to the badge that she sports on her arms now that reads “mighty jets” and to her squadron with its motto of “Ishtam Yatnen Sadyet” which translates to “Achieve Goals through Perseverance”.
6. Flight Lt. Nivedita Choudhary
Ask someone who has climbed the Everest about the conditions up there, and they would swear by the life-threating moments that anyone who attempts the climb faces. With some of the harshest conditions, Mt. Everest is conquered by a mighty few. And amongst the names of those outstanding few is the name of Flight Lieutenant Nivedita Choudhary. Her name will be etched in history as the first woman from the Indian Air Force to summit the Mt. Everest, a rare achievement in itself. She was the youngest in the team of 17. Alongside that, she is the first and only Indian Air Force officer to have scaled India’s highest climbing peak – Mt. Kamet. Her story is awe-inspiring and still gives chills when you read about her memoire of Everest expedition.
7. Bhawana Kanth
Now who doesn’t know about this woman from the famous trio of 2016! The Trio of Bhawana Kanth, Avani Chaturvedi and Mohana Singh has become such a huge inspiration for every girl and woman throughout the nation. Being commissioned as one of the India’s first women fighter pilots, Bhawana has broken the ultimate glass ceiling in Indian Air Force that women have been facing since ages. So far, women have been restricted only to helicopter and transport aircraft units in Indian Air Force. Her induction with the other two amazing ladies into the fighter aircraft units has certainly become a significant milestone for Indian Armed Forces. Bhawana has dreamt of becoming a pilot in the Indian Air Force since here childhood and with her academic brilliance and unfathomable passion, it was no distant dream.
8. Avani Chaturvedi
The second name from the famous trio mentioned above is that of Avani Chaturvedi. She, along with the other two, has already been commissioned into the Indian Air Force as Officer, and is now undergoing a rigorous advanced training to prepare for her maiden flight for one of the fighter aircrafts in the Indian Air Force arsenal. With Kalpana Chawla, the Indian astronaut who made the entire nation proud, as her role model and a dream of flying like a free bird, Avani has grown up playing with choppers and air planes and she always dreamt of flying one herself. She is now on her way of becoming one of India’s first fighter pilots and being part of future combat missions.
9. Mohana Singh
Last, but not the least, is Mohana Singh who is paving her way onto becoming one of India’s first fighter pilots. She got commissioned as officer in Indian Air Force this year, along with Bhawana Kanth and Avani Chaturvedi and is now undergoing training for fighter aircrafts. Truly living by Indian Air Force’s motto, “Nabha Sparsham Deeptam“, which translates to “Touch the sky with glory”, she is indeed inspiring millions of Indians with her zeal to reach the sky and ushering in a new era of women independence, breaking the glass ceiling that has existed from the beginning of time.
These are just a handful of examples of women who have proved their mettle in armed forces. The list is much more longer than this. However, in spite of being the third largest military forces in the world, the gender ratio in Indian Armed Forces hasn’t been very admirable. In 2014, Indian army had only 3% women, the Navy had only 2.8% and the Air Force doing just a little bit better had 8.5%. Till 1992, women were confined only to medical positions in the armed forces. Last year, Indian Air Force opened its doors to women for fighter pilot positions which, in my opinion, was a huge step. Earlier this year, the Indian president’s decision of allowing women to take up combat roles in all sections of its armed forces – army, navy and air force – was like a fresh breeze of air. Though there’s a long way to go to achieve a true gender equality, these decisions from the armed forces have set a precedent for other military forces around the world.
There are some certainly some real, justified concerns around having women in the armed forces, such as their vulnerability if captured by the enemy forces. I am not denying any of those. But aren’t those concerns valid even for men? So, rather than limiting half of the population of the opportunities in the combat field, wouldn’t it be better if adequate training and support procedures be brought into place? As President Pranab Mukherjee said, “In our country Shakti, which means power, is the manifestation of female energy. This Shakti defines our strength”. So would it be fair to devoid this country of the Shakti that it deserves? Obviously, this shift wouldn’t happen overnight but we have to start somewhere, right?
Featured Image Credit: The Indian Express