Guts, Grit and Glory | Cadets first, Women Later

Entry of women in NDA can be the first step towards gender agnosticism in the defence services

Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)

The mildly provocative question thrown at the panel of speakers at a recent ‘Ethos of Soldiering’ symposium at the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival was by a respected veteran brigadier. “Why are girl cadets at the NDA (National Defence Academy) sporting boy’s crew cuts? They needn’t do so. Why don’t we simply accept that gender differences will remain despite haircuts?” he asked. I volunteered to answer and quoted an anecdote.

On a lecture visit to my alma mater, the Officers’ Training Academy Chennai, I walked around the barracks lost in my yesteryears when a confident, crisp greeting startled me. The person in football shorts greeting me smartly was a feisty, infectiously cheerful lady cadet (LC).

“That’s OK sir” she chuckled. “My haircut must have fooled you. We are kept busy,” she rolled her eyes, “so we have no time managing our hair and chose really short boy-cuts.”

Indian Air Force women officers
Indian Air Force women officers

The veteran questioner smilingly conveyed his satisfaction, but later a far more senior veteran confronted me, asking how was it that Sikh soldiers could manage their hair, but women cadets couldn’t.

Early in my career I had been posted as an instructor at the NDA. Queen Elizabeth visited the globally respected tri-service institution during my tenure on November 21, 1983 and she said the cadets at the passing out parade had set standards which the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst could learn from.

In May 2025, the spirited LCs of the 149th batch will set the same standards when they graduate from the NDA, matching their male colleagues step for step. The larger issue, however, goes well beyond haircuts, patriarchy, misogynistic mindsets and apex court intervention demanding a level playing field for uniformed women. There are unexplored or cursorily handled complex factors not just driven by gender differences and spiffy coping strategies by women, but deeper matters psychological and physiological that need candid, skilled and transparent handling and resolution on a practical timeline.

The NDA was born as the Joint Services Wing (JSW) in Dehradun on January 1, 1949, with the army component doing their advanced pre-commission training post JSW at the Indian Military Academy Dehradun with naval and air force cadets being directed respectively to Dartmouth and Cranwell Academies in the UK. The NDA shifted to its current location at Khadakvasla, Pune, in January 1955. It has produced 40,000 officers, including over 900 from friendly foreign countries. NDA graduates have earned three Param Vir Chakras, 12 Ashok Chakras and 32 Maha Vir Chakras besides distinguished service/other gallantry awards. It rates among the best tri-service academies worldwide. The 19 pioneering women cadets stand out for meeting impossibly high entry standards with their NDA odyssey commencing in June 2022 till June 2025, after which their advanced pre-commission training will commence at the IMA/NA/AFA.

The June 2022 reviewing officer, Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar in his address hoped the NDA could harness the vast across-gender potential of youth by giving them equal opportunities to serve in gender-neutral defence services. Jawaharlal Nehru University vice-chancellor Dr Santisree Pandit, the chief guest at the convocation, sought gender sensitivity and integrated work ethic from the graduating cadets. A woman cadet, Shanan Dhaka from the Army Public School, Chandimandir, said “we are officer cadets first women later.”

The brilliant woman cadet Sania Mirza, the daughter of a Mirzapur TV mechanic, topped the UP boards before qualifying for the NDA and will become a fighter pilot. She idolizes pioneering top gun fighter pilot Flt Lt Avani Chaturvedi and seeks to be a cut above the rest in the Indian Air Force.


Masculine Mindsets

The reality is rather different from hopes and expectations. We cannot forget that the services prevaricated on the entry of women for decades. A detailed article by journalist Snehesh Alex Philip in February 2020 gives the reasons why India is not ready for women in combat roles. He tracked the entry of women since 1993 under the Special Entry Scheme, which later became the Short Service Commission (SSC) scheme. In addition to permanent commissioned women officers in the medical and legal branches, the government added signals, engineers, army aviation, army air defence, electronics and mechanical engineers, army service corps, army ordnance corps and intelligence in 2019.

Philip noted that the government in 2020 informed the Supreme Court that women “may not be able to meet the challenges… of military service due to their psychological limitations and domestic obligations, adding that male troops predominantly drawn from rural backgrounds may be unwilling to accept women commanders. Also, women officers (WOs) occupying command slots in peace stations (since they are not permitted in combat) will be counter-discriminatory since this implies that men would continue to remain on hard postings.” As for women in combat roles (infantry/armoured corps), Philip opined that “no matter how much you romanticise this, it’s practically impossible, especially in India.”

He was, in effect, putting across the majority male view. This view is that women have physiological issues resulting in special logistical requirements, need privacy, will be unbale to do their share of physical work, need long maternity leave, and, not the least, will be a distraction for men during combat tasks. This male mindset clearly runs counter to the demands of gender equality in the military forces.

Mohana Singh Jitarwal, Avani Chaturvedi and Bhawana Kanth
Mohana Singh Jitarwal, Avani Chaturvedi and Bhawana Kanth


Change Coming

It was left to the Supreme Court to break the glass ceiling when it passed interim directions on 21 August 2021, permitting women’s entry into the NDA. A citadel considered an exclusive male preserve was now open as a visible example of court directed gender equality.

To the credit of the government and certainly the armed forces, the government on September 21, 2021, announced an experts study group to adapt building, training and safety infrastructure, create syllabi for moderated physical and endurance training and for teaching/demonstrating military subjects, including firing, field craft and tactics. Medical inclusions would include gynaecologists, female attendants and counsellors. Out of the total 6.6 lakh who applied for the NDA for the June 2022 batch, a staggering 1.78 lakh were girls. There were 370 seats for boys and 19 for girls. Four years from now (three in the NDA), these girls will be first batch of permanent commissioned officers graduating from a world class academy.

There is positive news coming from the NDA. Reports suggest that the 18 women cadets (one having left for personal reasons) and their instructional staff are upbeat about their training. In January 2023 these cadets will enter the second term while another batch of 19 girls will join the NDA.

Let’s sample other women-related developments across the services. Third generation short-service entry Capt Jayanti Sharma of the Army Service Corp served at the NDA as an additional catering officer. She never felt out of place at an institution where over 2,000 cadets dine simultaneously with clockwork catering efficiency. She candidly admitted that she and other women colleagues “occasionally faced deep-rooted gender-based prejudices.” She said equal does not necessarily mean identical so women should realise their own potential rather than match their male counterparts. “Gender has no uniform,” she summed up.

Trailblazing fourth generation officer Capt Tania Shergill, Signals, selected as the parade adjutant for the Army Day parade 2020, said she was delighted to be the first woman since 1947 to be so honoured. “When we don the uniform, we are officers, gender is immaterial; all that matters is merit,” the dynamic, confident communications engineering topper said.

The Indian Navy in an unexpected December 2022 announcement opened its marine commando force (Marcos) to eligible women officers. The IAF followed suit and opened its Garud commando force to enlisted women. “I never wanted to do a desk job so I decided to be a fighter pilot,” said the recently commissioned Flying Officer Arti Tomar, now in the IAF’s fighter pilot ranks. Her father is a CISF constable. Lt Divya Sharma, Shubhangi Swaroop and Shivangi of the navy fly complex Dornier maritime reconnaissance aircraft routinely.

INSV Tarini Expedition with two women officers in December 2022
INSV Tarini Expedition with two women officers in December 2022

Finally, we have Lt Gen. (Dr) Madhuri Kanitkar, who says: “A soldier doesn’t have a gender. Gender is in our minds and our gender is our power…we have an extra X chromosome. We have the ability to multitask and a fire in our belly and we are here to prove that we can do everything alongside (following) our dream.” Surely change is the flavour of the day and it is infectious.

There are excellent examples of men who see women in uniform with respect, even admiration. Col Reji Koduvath is an ex-NDA gunner veteran settled in Canada and an inveterate blogger. He pointed out recently that it was parochial veterans who opposed women joining the NDA. When he was in Class XI decades ago, his prescient former IAF headmaster had asked him to speak in the assembly on girl cadets joining Sainik Schools. Col Koduvath prophetically pointed out that boys would behave with more dignity, they would turn out better, their academic performance would improve, cadets would develop empathy for girl cadets and they would become more aware of their physiology-related problems. The grapevine has it that this much desired effect is emerging among male cadets at the NDA even though gender contact between them and their women peers is currently limited to joint academic classes.

Citing his observations and experiences in Canada, Col Koduvath added in his blogs that he had spoken up for women. Since 1959 Canada’s Royal Military College has been training Royal Canadian Air Force, Navy and Army officers. Women cadets must meet the same exacting standards as gentleman cadets. They run the same obstacle course and compete in mixed inter-squadron sports. Col Koduvath said it was educative to read The Stone Frigate: The Royal Military College’s First Female Cadet Speaks Out by Kate Armstrong. Her memoir captures the dominating, misogynistic world of one of Canada’s most patriarchal institutions and her experiences in challenging it.

Col Koduvath added that Canadian women have since 1989 been permitted in combat-related military occupations in all the three services. In 2001 they were permitted employment in submarines. As on date the army has 13.50 per cent representation of women officers/soldiers, the navy 20.60 per cent and the air force 19.80 per cent.

Renowned iconographer and author Capt. Ashok Nath, now settled in Sweden (he is married to a Swedish diplomat), said: “I’m all for it, having seen the abilities of Swedish and Norwegian female combatants serving in their Jaeger (Light Infantry) units besides the easy, relaxed professional relationship based on mutual respect that develops between the sexes over time.” I could not agree more, having seen and admired healthy, informal cross-gender camaraderie in both the Israeli and Turkish armies during official visits abroad.

But Col Koduvath also pointed out the reasons why Canadian women leave the defence services. These are quite relevant to the attrition rate among Indian women officers. Canadian women cited family separation, urge to gain more education, raise a family, the need to seek more challenging work and conflict with spouse’s career as the reasons why they left the services. By comparison, American women leave the military because of lack of clear roles and career path, differential treatment they receive as opposed to men peers and difficulties in combining career and family.

Women officers onboard INSV Tarini along with their male counterpartsMedical Matters

While women in the NDA is a positive development, it has to be noted that even advanced countries have not begun to comprehend, leave alone cope with gender-specific medical issues and the overall physical, mental and psychological toll that a combat environment takes on women. While it has to be accepted that women can and will hold their own in the uniformed environment, the military must invest in making their experience safe for the long duration. Let’s now examine what the medical issues are by looking at western women officer/soldier concerns using a recent Australian/US medical research.

  • Pelvic stress fractures: In 1991-92, pelvic stress fracture incidence of 11.2 per cent was recorded in 143 female Australian Army recruits whereas the incidence for males was 0.1 per cent. Preventive strategies were instituted for female recruits. Route march speed was reduced from 7.5 to 5 km/h, running occurred on softer surfaces, individual step length was promoted instead of marching in step. Interval-running training replaced traditional middle-distance runs. Following this pelvic stress fracture incidence decreased significantly to 0.6 per cent. In recent years, the military started providing better gear. Kevlar protection for the pelvic area against IED blasts has been provided to soldiers across genders.
  • Pelvic floor health in female personnel: The pelvic floor encompasses the bladder, bowels, sexual and reproductive organs as well as anatomical structures that house and support these functions. Up to 30 per cent serving Australian women were found affected by genitourinary infections and urinary incontinence. Roughly 20 per cent Australian soldiers are women and need care and support for pelvic function and reproduction issues. By identifying and understanding female military personnel’s pelvic floor health needs, risk mitigation strategies can be devised and female force capability optimised.
  • Female fitness levels: In a 2022 review published in Australia, it was noted that women soldiers report injuries at higher rates compared with males. Smoking, previous injury, no history of deployment, heavy occupational tasks and lower levels of aerobic fitness were found responsible. Improvement strategies included smoking control, improving aerobic fitness and upper limb endurance, optimising rehabilitation from injuries and risk management for heavy occupational tasks. The dysfunction is accelerated by intensive, unscientific physical training activities, lifting heavy loads, uniform and equipment/protective gear design or carrying additional loads which also make toileting in the field awkward, embarrassing and dangerous.
  • Women at greater injury risk: Risk factors have been identified as anthropometric, biomechanical, and anatomical differences.
  • Self-management strategies: Female military personnel utilise a wide variety of self-management strategies to cope with their medical issues. These include maintaining genital hygiene, controlling menstruation, altering fluid intake and voiding patterns, and pelvic floor exercises to improve bladder and bowel control. In deployed areas women needed to plan ahead, bring additional supplies of self-management treatments. The military system can assist materially mentally and show deep, abiding empathy.

Women in uniform have been with us since the early 1990s. Their numbers are increasing by the day. Add to this is the fact that we have some of the best advanced medical institutions in the world in the military, civil and private space. What hurts is that whereas the west accepts having started late on uniformed women-related medical research and remedies/mitigation strategies, we are abysmally off. The NDA’s expert study group shines like a beacon in that they have made a start, but they need to go far ahead in that sphere as western medical research has shown. Our women deserve this investment in wellness.

Trust the Israelis to think out-of-the-box. Yael Katzir is a former Israeli woman officer-turned-filmmaker whose 55-minute 2001 documentary film, Company Jasmine. took the uniformed world by storm. Documenting for the first time the prestigious Women Cadet’s Field Officers School, Katzir followed five of the 50 18-year-old women cadets in training for five months. The cadets coped with pressures, challenges and fears. They discovered their limits and need for friendship as they endured to cross the finish line. Rated 8.8/10 on IMDb, it is “the best film ever made about women in the Israeli military. The personal stories of the young women are intertwined with their future professional life…” Katzir was provided unfettered access to the cadets’ most challenging struggles as they coped with pressures and fears, including handling a traditionally male club.

Women officers of the Indian Army
Women officers of the Indian Army

What is even more important is a thought-provoking 2008 thesis, which used the film as a reference point. Titled Women in the sphere of masculinity: The double-edged sword of women’s integration in the military by Dr Noya Rimalt from the Law Faculty, Haifa University, the article concludes that the Israeli feminist struggle for gender integration in the military provides an intriguing illustration of the complexity and the enormous difficulty of women’s path to equality. The article highlights are summarised below:

  • In the historical Israeli perspective commencing 1949, the battlefield remained the place where masculinity was defined and where men had the opportunity to be decorated as heroes. In that respect, women were perceived as mothers; the common understanding was that military service should not interfere with this unique aspect of women’s lives. This perception of gender difference guided the army leaders in their establishment of the women’s corps (the Chen) in 1949. The first head of the women’s corps clarified this notion by stating that the army had “no intention of destroying the woman in the woman soldier and turning her into a gloomy barracks creature.” However, in 1994, Alice Miller took the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to court for excluding women from pilot training courses. Miller demanded not only the equal right to serve in the army as a pilot, but also the equal opportunity “to make her contribution to the defence of the state.” In 1995 the Supreme Court ruled in her favour. By 2001, one female combat pilot/three navigators were already in service. Similar moves were made by the navy and army and women began training in combat-related tasks. The Israeli and Indian situations have parallels as both are court-dictated.
  • The first encounter with women soldiers portrayed in the documentary is an encounter with their femininity. The link between the female body and the feminine gender is evident in the female soldiers’ bodily and discursive practices and leaves no room for doubt that they are women. However, as the film proceeds, gender lines seem to blur and eventually the gendered identity of the soldiers is no longer clear. They wear large uniforms that conceal the feminine body. They even lower their voices and adopt different bodily practices that make them look gawky. For a moment you wonder: have they become men or have they become real soldiers? A third option that comes to mind is that they have become male soldiers because masculinity and real soldiering are perceived as synonymous.
  • Dr Orna Sasson-Levy, a sociologist who conducted the first of only three studies of women soldiers in masculine roles in the IDF, provides important data that sheds some light on the visual gendered images and dynamics documented in Company Jasmine. Sasson-Levy conducted in-depth interviews from 1996 through 1999 with 52 male soldiers and 47 female soldiers shortly after their release. Sasson-Levy argued that during their military service the women adopted various discursive and bodily practices characteristic of male combat soldiers.
  • The women soldiers documented in the film appear to provide a powerful visual manifestation of the process of masculinisation, identified by Sasson-Levy as an essential aspect of women’s integration in masculine roles. Sasson-Levy suggests that women soldiers in non-traditional roles embrace those masculine bodily and discursive practices because they associate masculinity with military authority. In this respect, it appears that masculinity gives them power, legitimising them as “real soldiers.”
  • Sexual harassment of women soldiers plays a significant role in shaping the reality of women in the military. A 2004 survey revealed that approximately one-fifth of women soldiers reported they have been sexually harassed during their military service. Irrespective of policy measures taken by the military, sexual harassment has remained a steady phenomenon. Moreover, a majority refrained from taking any action in response. In addition to fear of the harasser, a common theme in the survey was the tendency either to mistrust the system or to perceive sexual harassment as an inherent aspect of military culture.
  • The very last scene of the documentary is the graduation ceremony. The female cadets who successfully finished the training course for field officers are awarded the rank of officer alongside a group of male cadets who went through a separate course. If gender lines were blurred throughout most of the documentary, those lines are now redrawn. The women cadets are dressed in relatively short uniform skirts, on their heads they wear the women’s military cap that exposes their hair, and there is no longer room for confusion as the two groups march together. This powerful visual image of the manner in which gender difference becomes apparent has a symbolic significance: It highlights the power of military practices in distinguishing between men and women and in constructing them along traditional gender lines.

In the end, there are no easy answers available in making the armed forces in India gender-neutral, notwithstanding the optimism expressed by some men and women officers. The induction of women in the NDA is a quality step which has apparently been graciously accepted by those charged with its successful implementation, if not by most veterans, most of whom who had no exposure to feisty young women who see the armed forces as a career. Practical experience suggests ‘hastening slowly’ to make the idea implementable at the rank and file level. Socrates had said 2,500 years ago that women when treated as equals to men become superior. Both genders would be happier with gender neutrality in the military forces.

(The writer has worked with women officers in the war zone and on staff and has found them of quality and class in all parameters demanded of military officers. He writes frequently on women being equal but different)


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