Japan overturned its archaic exclusion of women from certain sections of the armed forces by appointing Misa Matsushima, its first female fighter pilot in August this year. Ms. Matsushima may be an anomaly in Japan, but she is one of the few distinguished victors of the struggle for female representation in the military. The systematic exclusion of women from the sector has been fraught with preconceived notions of the female body and feminine emotionality. The history of women’s participation in the military has been dismally lacking in radical paradigmatic shifts.
It was announced in 2017 that the Indian Army would open its doors to women in combat roles. This was a giant leap in the history of overcoming gender barriers in India. Women were usually pushed to the periphery and considered able enough to only tend to the wounded (not that they didn’t do great work in the medical corps). Despite these well meaning developments, the proportion of women in the Indian Armed Forces is abysmally low.
This systematic exclusion of women has been fraught with preconceived notions of the female body and feminine emotionality.
The hesitancy to take women into the military could be taken as arising from the fear of losing them to the enemy during combat. Their emotional vulnerability is seen as a liability rather than a strength. Women’s psychological state has historically been seen as susceptible to hysteria. They have also been painted as untrustworthy and disloyal by major discourses governing our lives (read religion). It is only natural then for generations to stick to these stereotypes and institutionalise them by limiting women’s participation in fields that require utmost secrecy.
The US Army, today, excludes women from ground combat. A female veteran from the American forces wrote in the New York Times about the ground realities of having women fight a war. According to her, women’s contingents are attacked more frequently. The enemy camps consider women a soft target to hit the ‘American morale’. Along with such pointed schemes she also believes that physical shortcomings, the threat of rape, and pregnancy also make it difficult for a military unit to work coherently.
In Israel, conscription is compulsory for both men and women although the tenure is shorter for the latter. On the other hand, in South Korea, women are exempt from conscription. Recruitment posters during the World War Era jauntily called for ‘young men’ over the age of eighteen. There was no recognition at all of the the combat abilities of the other half of society. Capitalising on the fragile image of the woman, the Allies employed them as spies and snipers. Their unassuming presence served to disguise their lethal intentions.
There is no dearth of examples from early modern history, though, of women who have broken the mirage of cowardice surrounding the gender. Joan of Arc easily swept across France, possibly becoming more popular than the king she was serving. Unfortunately, her canonisation reduced her heroism on the battlefield to sainthood. England’s Boudicca led her Celtic male force against the invading Romans and was hailed as the queen who saved the nation.
The defence of women’s honour is considered men’s duty and a challenge to these set beliefs questions their masculinity .
Hua Mulan, immortalised by Disney on the silver screen, took her father’s place in the Chinese army. Her contributions too were taken as merely a sign of her filial piety rather than her competence. Closer to home, Rani Lakshmibai single-handedly held the British at bay during the First War of Independence. Rani Kittur Chennamma of Kittur spearheaded a rebellion against the Doctrine of Lapse. The Naga leader, Rani Gaidinliu, captained an armed resistance against India’s colonial masters in the jungles of the north-east.
The movement for the inclusion of women into the armed forces made most headway during the world wars. The women’s wing of the Indian National Army – the Rani of Jhansi Regiment – was a beacon of hope for the recognition of women’s contributions to the independence movement. The female soldiers were complicit in the attack on Imphal. But women were recruited only if they had their male guardian’s permission.
Communism provided another reprieve from the exclusion. The ideals of equality cocooned within socialism, moved young socialist states to implement policies of gender equality in all spheres. Under Mao, the People’s Liberation Army did include female cadets. They not only fought against the invading Japanese but also participated in the Long March. Their successful completion of the latter was considered evidence of the physical strength and endurance women possessed.
The continued exclusion of women from the armed forces is reinforcing several stereotypes. These include notions of sexual division of labour, masculinity being attached to physical strength, and conceptions of female emotionality. The most insidious of these may be the relation of women’s honour to the nation’s honour. The defence of women’s honour is considered the onus of the men and a challenge to these set beliefs, through women in combat, questions both their masculinity and the embodiment of the nation.
There certainly are very real security concerns associated with the entry of women into the armed forces (much like there are for men), but it would be wrong to justify their exclusion only on the basis of a highly patronising ‘protection’ discourse. There are implicit cultural and political factors that must be given equal weightage.
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