People are bound by culture in terms of temporal as well as a spatial understanding of the environment they live in, and, they feel a sense of belonging towards it. Most of their everyday practices and beliefs are deeply rooted in culture, and there is a shared sense of understanding towards the issues that concern that particular community or society. One such culture is the military culture (specifically within the airforce), the discourse around which is limited to the experiences of serving personnel of the institution and that too in a very obscure manner.
Not many people talk about the experiences of partners of serving officers and how their identity in the military culture and space shape their sense of self. Till date, the experiences of a military wife are heavily influenced by the ideas of Victorian era morality and the military culture, which is archaic and colonial. There are different rituals and practices in a military culture of which women automatically become part of, once they are married to officers in the armed forces.
Also read: Military And Its Inherent Hypermasculinity
There is nothing voluntary or choice-based in the totalitarian institutions, not even for a ‘lady’ (as the wife is called) who is not an employee of the organisation. The practice of this incorporation of a lady into the airforce military culture begins from a ceremony called “WELCOME” where the wife is subjected to extreme mental and emotional distress as part of the prank which is played by the wives and officers of her husband’s squadron. In the military culture and spaces it is often said that this practice is crucial to making the lady feel a sense of belonging so that she also has a story to share-the story of her welcome.
The idea of playing a prank to welcome a person in the institution can be fun if the prank is light and heart-warming experience for the individual. However, the kind of harassment and bullying that happens in a military culture is not the kind of prank one could be happy about or have a laugh over, and the least is we raise a concern about it. We don’t know what people go through in their profoundly emotional and intimate lives and the mental health concerns that these kinds of experiences can give rise to. The prank goes on for three-four hours and goes on until the officer’s wife breaks down completely. The idea is that the lady should cry out loud in her helplessness and distress, and only then the prank ends. Some infamous pranks are: An officer’s wife being told that her partner has been having an affair; some being told that their husbands were already married, that they were their respective partners’ second wives, and hence, their marriages were ‘null and void’ (if not a Muslim).
Different people have different histories, and based on that, they have various vulnerabilities and fears, which the military culture preys on. Most military wives have a fear of death, and that is exacerbated by the media representation of military life, news and everyday conversations that takes place in their setting. The newly married person can be even more apprehensive of this way of life as she is new to the organisation. There have been cases where the pranks have been around this deep-rooted fear of them-the death of their partner in a plane crash.
Imagine, when for three hours you are made to believe that your partner is no more, women are crying around you saying things like “Abhi to shadi hui thi”, “Will likh di thi kya usne” and “Remember the case of Mr X, no one could be saved in that crash”. Imagine the distress of the person if the person was already struggling with mental health issues, one of their fears being that of losing their partner to a plane crash as part of the profession of the officer. The fear of being in the military and the fear of the death of a partner is very common among the wives.
Totalitarian institutions such as the military culture are not family-friendly and there is a general sense of marital discord due to the challenging and demanding nature of the job. In the initial days of marriage, the wife mostly struggles with issues of adjustment in terms of the general military culture and environment as well as the shift timings of her partner. Adding to this, the person is subjected to this kind of trauma, I really can’t help but ask: Who will take accountability if the person does not recover from the distress situation? I know someone who, after this prank was not able to differentiate between the real and the perceived and was not able to believe that her partner is alive even after meeting him, living with him for weeks and is taking therapy to recover from the trauma. She says that she can only see her partner’s flesh and not a real person.
Three hours of institutional trauma-infliction, with 15-20 people involved in that drama, taking pleasure in someone’s pain, all as part of the airforce military culture, can do horrible things to a person during and after the episode. Worse, when this person that I know, was anxiously waiting for the body of her partner to be ‘recovered from the crash site’, some women were discussing real-life crashes and were crying (read acting). I don’t know if this is even ethical; to use someone’s death and the suffering of families in the real world as content to play pranks. The cruelty of the military culture can’t even be comprehended because there are layers of insensitivity to this.
Some women have been kidnapped by ‘terrorists’ as part of the prank and have been threatened for hours, tortured and harassed. If I was kidnapped, the first thought in my mind would have been around the bodily integrity and the threat of being raped. Let that sink in! This military culture, in my opinion is institutional ragging and should be stopped.
Meanwhile, the welcome event does not stop here. Once the person breaks down, sometimes even faint, then she is told that all of this was a prank. Imagine yourself in a distress state for 3-4 hours? Would it just vanish in a minute? It takes hours for a person to recover and reconcile with the reality, but guess what, she is not given that time. She is told to go back to her home with her partner, dress up like a newlywed with ‘sindoor’, bangles and wear a sari. Then she has to visit the station commander’s home along with the squadron members and has to treat the station commander’s wife as her mother-in-law. Now it is up to the commander’s wife what she wants this new person to do.
Minimum expectations in the military culture from the new wife are that she covers her head, touches the feet of the commander’s wife, serves tea to all the members of the squadron and makes a dessert. Imagine engaging in such patriarchal practices (another trauma for many) after going through a traumatic experience of the prank as part of the military culture. Because for many sexism can be fun, so they will gaslight the person and make her feel that all of this was done for her happiness and will tell her how much effort goes into this welcoming ceremony in the military culture, all so that they could create a ‘beautiful story’.
Post the mother-in-law ritual in the airforce military culture, there is a party where highly sexist games are played (to the extent of asking the couple to enact their sex life through a bottle and thread game), the husband is asked to tell ‘non-veg’ jokes out loud and the wife is expected to just smile and behave like a lady in that sexist environment.
The entire day seems like a darker version of reality to live in. Starting from distress, trauma to having to smile on casual sexism and horrible jokes, the military culture of ‘welcoming’ a new wife can be a lot to take for a person. Unfortunately, there have also been cases when the death pranks have turned out to be true sometime later in life.
Now if one was to think about the supposed intention behind the military culture of welcoming a new wife, it is quite ironical, considering its dictionary meaning is “greeting someone politely” or to “gladly receive” someone.
Featured Image Source: Chandamama
Update: The author wants to state that she does not mean any specific armed force but asserts that the culture exists till date in the Indian Airforce and is writing from her personal experience.
The article has been updated to specify air force military as the one being referred to here.