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Posted by Aparna Asokan

The Apex Court in India recently gave a judgement noting that women cannot be excluded from command positions in the Indian army. This judgement, in Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya & Ors (2020 SCC OnLine 200) may be regarded as a watershed moment in the history of the Indian army. The judgement also allows granting permanent commission for women officers in ten streams where women were only granted short service commission previously. This decision basically guarantees long term job security and equal opportunity for women in the Indian army. 

Justice D.Y Chandrachud’s judgement in the case is remarkable as it calls out the deep-seated gender stereotypes that have always kept women from entering the mainstream in the profession. Gender stereotype simply refers to a preconceived notion about characteristics or roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by persons belonging to a particular gender. Gender stereotypes result in creating social and psychological barriers for women in professional spaces and it also deepens gender divisions at work. 

In Babita Puniya, many of the appellant’s arguments stem from the idea that women constitute the ‘weaker’ sex and by default they are ineligible to take command positions. In the case, the appellant submits that the office creates greater challenges for women officers because of their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards children and family. The submissions note that it is especially true in cases where both husband and wife happen to be service officers. Appellant also talks about ‘inherent physiological differences’ between men and women and indicates that it results in lower physical standards. They noted that physical capacity of women officers remains a challenge for command of units. 

The judgement also allows granting permanent commission for women officers in ten streams where women were only granted short service commission previously. This decision basically guarantees long term job security and equal opportunity for women in the Indian army. 

Such statements are apparent examples of gender stereotypes deeply embedded in our minds. The statement on exigencies of service emanates from the idea that childcare and domestic obligations are solely the responsibility of women. It also questions the employability and capability of women in army officer roles. The stereotypical thought of ‘inherent physiological differences’ simply indicates that all men are physically stronger than women and that all women are physically weak.

Also read: Capt. Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal: Officer Of The Indian National Army|#IndianWomenInHistory

The problem with such notions is that they tend to generalize certain characteristics as essential and, therefore, applicable to all. This tends to exclude everyone who does not fit the conventional ideology. For example, there may be women without domestic obligations and women who are physically stronger than the average man. Even disregarding such exceptions, a selection criterion must simply ensure that all persons be afforded the same opportunity. In finding someone fit for duty, one must only examine individual merit irrespective of their gender or sex.

One problem with gender stereotyping in the workspace is that it affects the individuals on a personal level where they feel discriminated against. Further it results in loss of opportunity, which affects one’s career advancement. However, the root issue in gender stereotyping in workspaces, as noted by Susan Fiske, is that stereotypes associated with the non-dominant groups are traits that are not highly valued in an establishment.

For example, when women are generally perceived to be ‘nice’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘caring’, such a stereotype result in the belief that they are incompetent in command positions and better off in care-giving roles. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995 has also identified the issue of negative stereotyping being detrimental to women as it keeps women from positions of power and decision making. The judgement is notable as it has rightly gauged the issue of gender stereotype in a male dominant establishment like the Indian Army.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995 has also identified the issue of negative stereotyping being detrimental to women as it keeps women from positions of power and decision making. The judgement is notable as it has rightly gauged the issue of gender stereotype in a male dominant establishment like the Indian Army.

The Indian Army is a highly revered establishment in the eyes of the public. Improved visibility of women in command positions within the army would, therefore, help strengthen the feminist narrative in the public sphere. The judgement, however, does not rule on the question of whether women can serve in combat units.

Also read: My Struggles To Battle Gender Roles In Indian Administrative Services

This question was specifically excluded from the purview of the judgement as it was not a subject matter of the appeal before the Court. This is also an issue arising from the stereotypical idea that women are not efficient enough to fight and are incapable of enduring strenuous situations. In the light of the decision in Babita Puniya, one could hope progressive measures will be taken in the near future in such matters. 


Aparna Asokan is a legal academic and an independent researcher. She is a graduate of New York University, School of Law. She has previously taught at Tamil Nadu National Law University (TNNLU), Trichy and IFIM Law School, Bangalore. You can find her on LinkedIn.

Featured Image Source: BBC

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