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HomeDEFENCEWomen in combat – time for a reality check

Women in combat – time for a reality check

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Women in combat

This January, the army submitted before the Supreme Court that the process for selection of women officers to command assignments in the rank of Colonel, a major step towards bringing them on a par with their male counterparts, has been conducted. This resulted from the Supreme Court judgment of February 2020 that had ordered granting permanent commission (PC) as well as command postings to women officers in all arms and services other than combat, that is, the Infantry, Mechanised Infantry and Armoured Corps. It is unfortunate that the SC had to force the matter—it would have been better had the armed forces done it on their own initiative; but, anyway.

Taking off from this, many people like Maj. Gen. Yash Mor (Retd), hope that within a decade, they would be found in combat roles too.

In the US, in 2013, defence secretary Leon Panetta removed the military’s ban on women serving in combat roles. In December 2015, defence secretary Ashton Carter made it clear that starting in 2016 all combat jobs would open to women. By March 2016, he approved final plans from military service branches including even the US Special Operations Command to open up all combat jobs to women because exceptional situations like the big “Yomp” across East Falkland are extremely rare. In May 2020, women comprised 16% of the total workforce of the US military.

Gen. Lori Robinson – the first woman in US history to lead a combatant command

They are pilots, vehicle drivers, mechanics and infantry officers—Gen. Lori Robinson retired in 2018 as commander of the United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, becoming the first woman in US history to lead a combatant command as a four-star general.

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Actors Must Desist From Pontificating

Actress Nimrat Kaur who lost her father an Army Officer in an anti-terrorist operation in real life — plays the role of Captain Shikha Sharma who joined the Indian Army as the first-ever female combat officer in The Test Case (2018) an ALTBalaji Web series

‘Being a man is not the idea. A woman has as much right to die for the country as a man’. This powerful dialogue was spoken by Nimrat Kaur, who played the role of the only woman army officer training to join the Special Forces in the 2018 web series called The Test Case. It was titled so because she was the “test case” for women in combat roles. In one of the scenes, the instructor asks her, “We make men out of boys…What would I make out of you?” She proudly answers, “Commando, sir.” In connection with the end-of-January developments, the Times of India narrated this again on March 10 in its supplement.

Fiery sentiments! However, they look good only in films though. I am not disputing the intrinsic theoretical merit of the sentiments. I have always supported gender equality in all fields, including the armed forces and have opposed sexism. This article is, however, not about my personal views. The fact is, nobody lives in a vacuum or marooned on an island. All of us live in a society and what the society, rightly or wrongly, thinks or holds sacred cannot be ignored because the armed forces are supposed to serve the people only.

Joining the military for a man or woman is neither an exercise in self-glorification nor intended to prove a point. But, these are complex social issues and I don’t expect actors to be conversant with them. In this article, therefore, I shall discuss the effect of certain realities of the Indian society so that the not-so-informed girls dreaming of taking up rifles with fixed bayonets and shouting a lusty ‘dhaawa’ before pouncing on the enemy soldiers, are not misled by the amateurish bombast of people like Nimrat Kaur.   

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Consequences of Being Captured Alive By the Enemy Soldiers or Public

What happens when, to put it bluntly, an Indian woman combatant is captured alive by the enemy or by the enemy public? History and the historical character of our enemies dictate that they shall almost necessarily be subjected to gang rape thereafter. Remember, they would not hesitate to rape even a grievously injured woman for several reasons—first, for the sheer animalistic pleasure of it; second, to vent their frustration and hatred of us and; third, to assert their dominance over us by insulting what has traditionally been associated with the honour of society. Historically, our enemies are people who sodomize even men victims, not to talk of what they do to women victims.

For example, imagine a situation where instead of Abhinandan, there was a woman pilot captured by the Pakistani public after his jet was shot down in Pakistan. The first thing they would do before the police arrived would be to gang rape her—if she fired her pistol by any chance in self-defence, she would also be lynched after the rape. Or, suppose we mount another Uri-type surgical strike and some woman soldier is taken alive after injury. Or, even in the course of a regular war, suppose POWs are taken somewhere. After all, in the war of 1971 also, in spite of our glorious victory, some 54 Indian soldiers are suspected to have been taken POWs and we still do not know whether they are alive and in what terrible conditions they are languishing in Pak jails, if not killed brutally after torture or allowed to die of diseases. 

I do not have any problem with women in combat roles but I do not want a situation where the Indian people and the entire media collectively start screaming at the top of their voices that by raping a brave Indian woman (Veerangana), the enemy has insulted the very ‘honour of India’ and we must avenge the insult by immediately nuking Pakistan back to Stone Age.

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The clarion call would be, “Modi ji, desh kee bahadur betiyon kee izzat loot lee hai in haiwanon ne; missiles maar kar Pakistan ko tabah kar dijiye.” That is, Modi ji, these beasts have raped brave daughters of India, please unleash our nuclear missiles and raze Pakistan to ground to avenge this insult to the nation’s ‘ultimate’ honour! That would place any leader on the horns of a dilemma—if he ignores public outrage, he would be doing so at the cost of his popularity and possibility of re-election; if he gives in to public pressure, he could be guilty of starting a nuclear war or, at least, escalating a war!

We are a country where the identity of a rape victim is supposed to be kept secret and the trials are also held on camera, that is, not open to the public. Why? Because the legislature and the judiciary acknowledged the fact that in Indian society after the initial bout of sympathy is over, the rape victim is likely to face social ridicule and discrimination and runs the risk of even being ostracized if her identity gets revealed.

If a woman soldier is captured, you can rest assured that, quite like Abhinandan, she would be all over the enemy TV and videos of her being assaulted by the public would also go viral over social media—viewers’ imagination would fill in the ‘not shown’ part, that is, the rape. Thus, her identity would be revealed anyway, more so if she was an officer. Imagine her life after that when she comes home—no Vir Chakra would make her life easier!

Also do not forget that even in the ‘liberal-minded’ West; there were many who had blamed Jessica Lynch for ending up getting raped and embarrassing the country (discussed below). Ridiculing her authorized biography ‘I am a Soldier Too’ wherein she has described her ordeal at the hands of her Iraqi captors, Timothy G. Chilman, who has taught in universities from Bangkok to Prague, wrote an article titled “I’m a Soldier Too… but the Silly Bitch Didn’t Clean Her Weapon”—the title itself says it all!

Even if the women combatants are made to sign an affidavit beforehand that they are aware of the possible consequences of combat and assume full responsibility for any untoward happening, it would only absolve the government of a legal responsibility towards them. I am, on the other hand, talking of social repercussions over which no government can have any control.

The Case of Jessica Lynch

Private First Class Jessica Lynch who served in the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Jessica Lynch was a Private (Jawan in our parlance) in the US army who had been deployed in Iraq during the 2003 invasion. On March 23, 2003, their convoy was ambushed. Eleven soldiers were killed and an injured Jessica, along with six others was taken, prisoner. US military records state that Jessica was subjected to repeated gang rapes—both vaginal and anal—by barbarous Iraqi soldiers and even officers. Eight days after their capture, the Americans mounted a brilliant rescue operation. The Marines and the Navy SEALs first mounted a diversionary attack so as to divert Iraqi forces from the Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah where the POWs were kept. Simultaneously, the Green Berets, Army Rangers and Delta Force stormed the hospital in a Rambo-style night-time raid, successfully rescuing Jessica and the bodies of eight other American soldiers. The raid was so heroic that by November 2003, they made a Hollywood film on it called ‘Saving Jessica Lynch’.

Many had doubted the rape but given the historical character of the people of that region and their notorious record, rape was a foregone conclusion and doubting it is absurd. Many people doubted even the rescue and claimed that it was staged, with soldiers firing blanks. The ignoramuses do not know that blanks cannot be fired on automatic mode without special muzzle adapters and in the official footage of the night-vision body cameras, no such adapters are visible.

Lesser Physical Strength Is Not a Significant Handicap

Before the ignoramuses amongst the self-styled feminists start jumping, I must inform them that the issue here is not what women in combat can do; the issue is what women should do. For their edification, in modern armies and combat, the weaponry is such that they do not demand any such physical strength to operate them that only men could possess. It was only in an earlier era that weapons (whether guns, swords, battle axes or spears) used to be heavy, or soldiers had to engage in direct physical combat (such as the famous British infantry technique of crossing bayonets and pushing), had to scale fort walls with ropes, or had to drag or push heavy cannon, etc. Now, most of the shooting takes place at distances where the target enemy is often not even clearly visible.

Modern weaponry, by itself, does not impose any restraints upon women and their lesser upper body strength in comparison to men (though not so much in the lower body) is no significant handicap for most of the soldierly duties. The X-95 rifle, for example, weighs just about 3.5 kg and is just a little longer than two feet. There is practically no recoil and the trigger is so light that even a healthy six-year-old kid can pull it. Compare it with the British muskets of the 19th century (such as the famous Brown Bess) and the French muskets of the Napoleonic era (such as the Charleville), which typically weighed 4.8 kg and were nearly five feet long, that is, actually bigger than the minimum height requirement of four feet and ten inches for girls from certain regions in India!

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Anybody who argues to the contrary would be under an obligation to prove it by scientific arguments. However, to end the debate quickly, I must tell them that the army’s arguments regarding the physiological limitations of women before the Supreme Court in 2020 were rejected.

It also follows from the above that exceptional feats of endurance or strength by some athletic women must not be used to further the case of women in general for combat roles. Good soldiering is not strictly synonymous with physical standards—the British army used to have the minimum height requirement as five feet six inches in the 19th century, which was relaxed to five feet three inches during the First World War to meet the requirement of a greater number of soldiers. There is not a single instance that they were found to be poorer soldiers in any way because of their poorer physique. Audie L. Murphy, when he could finally enlist in the US army in 1942 after having been turned down by the Marine Corps and the Navy, was only 1.66 m tall and 50.8 kg in weight. This slightly built boy of 17 years went on to kill as many as 240 German soldiers in documented firefights. He won the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Silver Star (twice), and the Bronze Medal (twice). He was also awarded the Purple Heart three times for combat injuries plus a variety of other honours totalling some 32 medals, making him  America’s most decorated WWII combat veteran. In the present age, US Marine Corps Colonel Amy Ebitz proudly recalls, “In combat, my female Marines, alongside their brothers, manned machine guns and fought bravely. And no one by their side questioned their role.”

Why USA and Israel Are Not Comparable To Our Situation

Ever since the induction of women in the military, the USA has never fought any war with a country of comparable strength that would be hell-bent upon humiliating it out of sheer spite. It has been fighting opponents that are so weak that are steamrollered under the might of the US war machine. Iraq was not comparable in strength but they hated the Americans and that resulted in the rape of Jessica Lynch.  

Infantry instructor during field training in southern Israel, 2006

So is the case with Israel. We have all heard the stories of women in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Military training is compulsory for girls and women comprise 18% of their combat force. The most notable combat option for women is the light-infantry Caracal Battalion, in which women comprise 70 per cent of the troop strength. In June 2022, the IDF announced opening more combat roles to female fighters including the elite search and rescue units besides the above.

However, they too are not comparable cases for two reasons. First, Israel has to keep women in the army perforce because they are a small nation and they are facing an existential crisis with respect to their enemy nations, who would given a chance, would do things to them, infinitely worse than what the Nazis did to them in the concentration camps. We are not facing an existential crisis. Second, they too have never had a chance to fight a significant war since 1973—presently, their military is basically performing counterinsurgency or policing duties against the Palestinian terrorists, and they are absolutely dominant over them, thereby entailing no real risk.

Women in the Israel Defense Forces. Pic Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_Israel_Defense_Forces

Issue Not Comparable To Police or Paramilitary Either

The police and paramilitary have different roles and sets of responsibilities. Yes, even cops and paramilitary personnel could be captured by riotous mobs or insurgents and terrorists and raped or molested. For example, during the Azad Maidan riots (organized by Raza Academy and Madina Tul Ilm Foundation to protest the violence against Muslims in Assam and Myanmar) in Mumbai in august 2012, seven women cops were assaulted and molested by the mob. They were so deeply traumatised that they had to be counselled by senior women officers to come forward and even identify the accused. However, we must understand that there is something called xenophobia—if a woman cop becomes a rape or molestation victim in the line of duty, a call for blasting the houses of the rioters is unlikely because the public does not perceive them as ‘enemies’! The extents of public outrage in the two cases are entirely different.

The first entry-level enlisted women to complete the Marine Corps infantry training. (photos by Sgt. Tyler L. Main and CWO2 Paul S. Mancuso)


Dear Ms Nimrat Kaur, a soldier fights to defend his or her country and its people in the first place—earning medals is secondary. Your countrymen would be proud of you if you got martyred for the country; however, the very same people would be deeply hurt if you got raped for the country. Associating the rape with nation’s honour might create complications for the country. Hope you and the likes of you understand the complexity of the issue.     

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 56 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.



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