Women fighting a war — be it on land, sea or in the skies — continues to be a problem in India. The Indian military seems to be edging towards increasing the active role of women in combat-support roles, but this is only in areas of distant or indirect fighting. So, direct fighting, together with unlimited access to military leadership or comradeship, remains practically and conceptually a no-go zone for Indian women. The army is also vague about women’s demands for gender-just, if not gender-neutral, conditions of work: it admits to “certain bindings” on allowing permanent commissions for women officers, who are therefore to remain on short-service commission. Israel, Norway, Russia and the United States of America have, in different ways and to different degrees, come close to some sort of parity for women in military service. But everywhere in the world, combat and sports are areas of human endeavour in which being gender-blind is still the stuff of fantasy.
The reasons for this are a muddle of biology and culture, which no amount of equality in other spheres of life, or political correctness, seems to be able to force to a head. First, women may not prove to be as physically strong as men in the actual ‘labour’ of battle, even if war nowadays often involves pressing switches hundreds of miles away from the actual combat zone. Second, there seems to be some sort of mysterious conflict between the discipline of licensed aggression (fighting and killing), on the one hand, and heterosexual attraction and its gratification, on the other. So, it is difficult to imagine letting a man and a woman sleep together on adjacent bunk beds, or go under the same set of showers, in the narrow confines of a submarine without causing anarchy or the dissipation of energy and alertness. What men might be up to among themselves in such intimately tense situations is even more difficult to imagine for minds that are without fear and heads that are held high. Third, can the nation’s brave really take orders from women when it comes to the challenges of actual combat? Even if the men were to be trained or persuaded to do so, would that not lead to a radical transformation in the very nature of their masculinity that would be inimical to the military ethos? New men are unlikely to make good soldiers. So, the old order of ‘protecting’ women from the harsher extremes of human conflict must prevail.