Sexism Keeps Women Out Of Combat Roles In The Army

05 Mar 2020 4 min read  Share

The Supreme Court decision to allow women to hold permanent commissions and command roles in the army is the beginning of a larger fight to fully integrate women—including in combat, writes a former US Marine of Indian origin

Anuradha Bhagwati (extreme right) with fellow Marines in Okinawa, Japan.

New York: The Supreme Court of India dealt a blow to misogyny when it ruled on 17 February that women officers should be allowed to hold command positions and have permanent commissions in the Armed Forces. The decision has been a long time coming—since December 2018 when 11 women army officers first went to court for parity—but it’s only the beginning of a much longer fight to fully integrate women into the Indian military.

India has no legitimate excuse to not fully integrate women into all assignments for which they qualify, including combat jobs. As an officer in the United States Marine Corps, I spent five years battling an institution that refused to allow me and other women to try out for the jobs we wanted to do. Back then that meant the combat arms—assignments like artillery, armour, reconnaissance and infantry.

After leaving the Marines in 2004 because of discrimination, I spent a decade advocating to dismantle the barriers to women’s full participation in military service. The organisation I led, Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), joined forces with four courageous service women—all veterans of our current wars, including two who’d been wounded on the battlefield—in suing the U.S. Department of Defense to open up all combat assignments to women. In large part because of that lawsuit, American service women today can be assigned to any job for which they qualify, including special forces.

A dramatic change is occurring in the U.S. military, and its end is nowhere in sight.

As I write this, the first enlisted woman in history is getting set to complete the elite Army Special Forces, or Green Beret training. Another female officer has already been assigned to an Army infantry unit. Yet another has been assigned to the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. The courses which qualified them for these positions test a human being’s limits. They are physically gruelling and mentally arduous. No standards have been altered.

Hundreds of women in the Army and Marine Corps have proven that if given the opportunity to try combat assignments, they can meet the standards. We should applaud these women for going all out, for electing to try out for exhausting, life-threatening jobs while 99% of Americans—men and women—enjoy the privilege of not being forced into military service. Indians ought to honour their own gutsy service women with the same fair treatment and equal opportunities.

There are several things I’ve learned from our long fight to bring meritocracy to the U.S. military. The first is, the primary barrier preventing governments from fully integrating women into the Armed Forces fully is, quite simply, sexism. Allow me to dismantle some of the key arguments used to keep women from full military integration:

1. Women Are Inherently Weaker Than Men

This is the argument that societies waste the most time obsessing about. We are not talking about the average man, and the average woman. The average woman couldn’t pass special operations training and neither could the average man.

What we’re talking about is extraordinary women. Think of Mary Kom and Vinesh Phogat. Think of Olympians. CrossFit champions. What we commonly refer to as badass women. Women who do not require double standards but, rather, meet the standards that have been laid out for male candidates for years. Women who are qualified to do the job that exceptional men are doing.

The question shouldn’t be how many women could possibly do those jobs? It is really, why is India preventing the few women who want to, and can, from doing them?

2. When Women Serve Alongside Men, Sexual Assault Is Bound To Rise

What we found after years of highlighting the pervasive presence of sexual violence in the Armed Forces is that sexual violence has little to do with whether men or women are assigned to the same unit, but, rather, the attitudes that are allowed to exist within that unit, which result in the breakdown of “good order and discipline”.

Historically, it is men who are the vast majority of sexual assault victims in the U.S. military. As more women entered the force, more women became victims. And, in some cases perpetrators.

Today, about half of the victims of military sexual assault in the U.S. context remain men. The bottom line is, sexual violence has always been a matter of power and predation, not sex. And governments have the ability to influence culture by demanding leadership from the top. “Rural men” do not make an institution sexist.

Maintaining a professional force that does not commit sex crimes is a matter of leadership. If India’s generals aren’t up to the task, they shouldn’t be generals.

3. Where Will Women Go To The Bathroom?

It may sound ludicrous, but bathrooms are practically an obsession for military leaders. According to some experts, there simply aren’t enough segregated toilets for women on submarines and ships, in barracks and anywhere else soldiers operate these days. And apparently, without separate bathrooms, service women’s professional advancement should come to a grinding halt.

I personally never had an issue dropping trousers and squatting in the woods in exercises with Marine men, because we were all professionals, and too busy or tired to care whose butt was facing which way, but for those who are concerned with lack of professionalism in the Indian Armed Forces, I turn to the Prime Minister. From what I’ve read about Narendra Modi’s obsession with toilets, he should have no problem building a few more for service women. Problem solved.

The Supreme Court of India was able to distill the government’s unwillingness to treat Indian service women on par with men to a matter of sexism. The same unwillingness to discriminate on the basis of sex should justify the changes every true democracy requires—allowing all women and men to try out for the jobs for which they qualify, no matter how close to the front lines.

Heroic jobs call for exceptional volunteers. Indian women should have the right to prove themselves.

(Anuradha Bhagwati is a former captain in the United States Marine Corps, and the author of the critically acclaimed book, Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience.)

Previously on Article14:

Excluding Women From Top Army Job is Illegal:

How 11 Women Officers Made Army History:

Why the SC Saluted These Women Army Officers: