Change is too early for a country like India, which has just begun the conversations around gendering public and workplaces
New Delhi: When Sandhya Suri joined the Navy in 1994, there were just two women in her ship, which had 250 men including officers and sailors. Suri, who served as Logistics Officer on a warship in the days when women were still allowed on these by the Navy, knew what she was getting into.
It was not going to be easy, but having an easy job was not her plan either. She worked harder, said no to nothing and didn’t ask for special privileges; yet, she was always addressed as a lady, not an officer. And without any hesitation, in every meeting, she said: “Since all of us are in the uniform, we are all officers. Please don’t bring in my gender.”
That was 1990s for India. What stands out in recent public memory when it comes to women in armed forces is the sight of an all-women contingent from the Army, Air Force and Navy — marching down the majestic Rajpath on Republic Day in 2015. Six days ahead of it, the Navy announced that it is working on a policy to allow women officers on warships soon, and that ships will be modified and designed as per “the conditions required for women officers”. In fact, in 2017, India had its first-ever female crew circumnavigate the globe. But in the same year, Navy decided to discharge a serving Navy sailor, who underwent gender reassignment surgery because as an August 2017 India Today report says, “females cannot work in defence services as soldiers.”
Even though there are other issues in the case, like undergoing the surgery without informing the Navy, it is the first time that Indian Navy received such a case. In January this year, Delhi high court issued notice to the central government and the Navy to “showcause why the sailor’s plea against dismissal from service be not admitted”. The Navy had earlier told the court that even though there was no job in the naval force for the sailor, it could facilitate her to get employed in a private company.
“I don’t think Navy or the ministry of defence should wash their hands of this case. They need to do what we call lateral induction. Rather than creating upheaval in the system, the easiest way should be chosen. But she can’t continue working as a sailor now that she is a woman. It involves too many operational and administrative changes,” says Major General (Retd) Mrinal Suman who retired from the Indian Army in 2003.
Till 1992, women were accepted only in medical and paramedical roles in the armed forces. After that, they were allowed to enter the naval forces on Short Service Commissions (SSC). Seven women who joined in 2008-09 were granted permanent commission in April 2016. Apart from doctors, today there are around 570 women officers in branches such as education, logistics, ATC and as observers on maritime reconnaissance aircraft.
“In all these years, things have changed. If the all-women crew that was sent was not just a goodwill expedition, then a lot more needs to be done now. What we are struggling with is a culture not ready to treat women equally —and that is not just in Navy,” says Suri, who worked in the Navy till 2001.
In a March interview in The Hindu last year, Admiral Sunil Lanba said: “We have identified ships on which (billeting) facilities are available for women officers and are working on the modalities of their induction on board ships. We need some minimum numbers (of women) on each ship. We are also going to do a survey and ask them if they want to serve on board ships. And then, we will take a call and take this proposal forward.”
While former officers like Suri keep reiterating that there is a need for “men in Navy to treat women as colleagues and stop protecting them”, the other argument, like what Mrinal Suman says, is that “Navy has no facilities to adjust women.”
Space is an important consideration when designing any ship. As a former naval officer explains, “Everyone has just a bunk size space for themselves. Partitioning is also done to optimize whatever space is available. Ships are generally divided into 2-3 categories. A ship is close to having 200 people. In this, we have say 2 or 3 women officers. And since as part of our culture, it is essential for women to be given space and privacy, they’d need a separate category. More segregation means more space is required.”
Suri says those who join Navy know very well what they are signing up for. “Joining Navy means being ready for small spaces. The small spaces wouldn’t bother us only if men start treating women as colleagues and look beyond the gender. Redesigning and all will just be a waste of space in the ship and men, and rightly so, will complain that women are getting special treatment.”
While space optimization is one of the explanations cited, the rest are the same reasons brought up when talking about why women are missing in other professions. As Suman says, “By the time a lady becomes a SSC officer, she is 23 or 24, and that in India is the marriageable age. So basically in her 10 years, six years she is either on pre- or post-natal leave. You can’t blame her for being a mother. But the services can’t suffer because of this either. Armed forces is not a rozgar yojna or job that can work on quota system. The forces are meant to defend the country, and the best, if it is a man or woman, should be given the job.”
Even though Lt. Commander Vartika Joshi, who led the all-female crew said, “The sea does not discriminate between genders,” change is too early for a country like India which has just begun the conversations around gendering public and workplaces.