Women in Combat Is an Idea That’s Spreading
India will soon allow women to enlist in combat in its army, navy, and air force, making it one of just a handful of countries to do so. In an address to parliament on Tuesday, President Pranab Mukherjee suggested that recruiting women in fighting roles was the next logical step after the government had lifted a series of gender restrictions in the military, including last year’s decision to stop excluding women from the ranks of fighter pilots.
“In our country ‘Shakti,’ which means power, is the manifestation of female energy. This Shakti defines our strength,” Mukherjee said before making the announcement to legislators. He declined to provide a timeline for women’s recruitment into combat, promising only that it would happen “in the future.”
The decision has been viewed as a sign of progress in a country that only years ago was ranked the worst for women out of the world’s 20 major economies. It’s also a stark reversal of comments made by India’s Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, who last year argued that women would pose a significant risk to the military’s security and to their own safety if they were to serve in combat. “Think of what can happen if a woman is taken as a prisoner in combat operation,” he told reporters during an event in May.
Women are employed in combat roles in at least a dozen countries, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Israel, and Sweden. The United States in December overturned a rule that barred women from serving in combat, although, because of the changing nature of war fighting, many women who were trained as mechanics or other support staff have been thrust into combat roles since almost the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and throughout the Iraq war that began in 2003.
The decision to allow women into combat in India comes more than two decades after the country’s armed forces made nonmedical positions available to women on short-service commissions and just months after India’s air force announced plans to recruit female fighter pilots for the first time. The initial group of women pilots will be inducted into the fighter stream in June and could enter combat within the following year. But because of the overall restriction on women serving in combat, female officers in the navy still could not be deployed on warships, for example.
A Delhi high court ruled in September that women are entitled to a full-service term in the navy, which entitles them to the same retirement benefits as their male counterparts. According to Indian media network NDTV, the court said it would “frown upon any endeavor to block progress of women,” signaling that allowing women on board warships and in combat could soon follow.