Guts, Grit and Glory | Women Are Here

Uniformed women across ranks have quality skill sets, the willpower and fortitude to face adversity with peerless heroism

Maj. Gen. R.S. Mehta (retd)Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)

Masters of Their Fate; The Captains of Their Souls, this memorable quote from Invictus—Latin for unconquered—could well be the unspoken words of our women in uniform. So feels this writer with conviction; given his extensive experience with uniformed women in the war zone in J&K and elsewhere during his almost 39 years in uniform and as a veteran. Invictus is an apt and achievable metaphor which best describes the spirit, pugnacity, determination and military capability of our uniformed women officers and enlisted women soldiers as well as women aspirants seeking exciting and fulfilling permanent careers in the army.

The male dominated army should thus graciously accept reality and facilitate their melding into the army’s famed ethic and ethos of Service Before Self and Naam-Namak-Nishan with the practical caution that we may hasten slowly with such integration by first preparing the army environment wisely for this revolutionary change to take place.

Such a new beginning is necessary because women across ranks have faced a barrage of gender led criticism and cynicism from a section of serving and veteran rank and file in the army environment questioning their physical and mental suitability for a permanent career in the army via the NDA/ IMA/ OTA and Corps of Military Police (CMP) establishments; their ability to command male dominated soldiery including in combat.

This simmering unease got an unpleasant fillip post the landmark Supreme Court interim rulings of 18 August 2021-22 September 2021 which irrevocably made women eligible for grant of Permanent Commission and for Command assignments besides permitting them to appear in the November 2021 NDA examination for June 2022 NDA entry at par with male candidates. RIMC entry is also close to approval by the Supreme Court as a follow up to women’s entry into NDA. It may be noted that women’s entry into Sainik Schools was earlier approved; these schools being feeding establishments for NDA.

There is however a positive side best exhibited by the speed and efficiency with which the Supreme Court rulings are being carried institutionally and dynamically carried out by the military hierarchy and NDA despite the gender led social media debate against women’s suitability and equally spirited defence of their ability to meet all challenges if perceived gender mindsets change and get attuned to the new realities.

Selected women among the unprecedented 1,78,000 female aspirants who appeared for the NDA entrance examination in November 2021 will join their male colleagues at NDA in June 2022; a development which may be termed a revolution in uniformed women’s employment; a Tipping Point in the world’s third largest Army ‘born in battle’ in 1947 and which remains operationally committed but which is plagued by crippling shortage of almost 10,000 officers over decades. In addition, women’s entry as enlisted Military Policewomen with the first batch of 83 women soldiers already posted to 11 Army units after a year long, tough training is as much an unprecedented revolution in women’s employment in the Army which also needs celebration.


The Male ‘Mindset

Notwithstanding the fact that what women take as mindset is seen as conviction by substantial numbers of men in uniform, the male view is centred around women’s perceived weaknesses in physical and mental capabilities to cope with the stresses of hostile terrain, adverse climate, zero-facility operational environment and ‘follow me’ leadership traits necessary to command men in battle besides handling women’s genetic abhorrence to killing. Globally men have nursed the belief that war is primarily a male domain and women if permitted to operate in or take command in war will be found wanting; not least because their physiology and attendant demands on privacy/demands from Motherhood at a time when command assignments open up, invokes unacceptable conditionality’s not conducive to operational efficiency.

There is also a feeling that their presence will serve to seriously distract men, degrading unit cohesion besides inviting instinctive attitudes in men to “protect” them from injury/enemy depredations including capture/molestation. In so protecting them, men will stray from their allotted mission to the detriment of unit ability to fight and win against a determined enemy besides putting strain on stretched operational logistics. The direct fallout of such male convictions is their belief that women are best suited to look after combat support tasks well away from the war zone and close combat.

Some officers serving and veterans in social media see the perceived ‘judicial activism’ and rulebook interpretation of various statutes of the Constitution as open to military interpretation and reality checks. They feel most activists and equal rights promoters are unfamiliar with war, its conduct and many uncertainties and command challenges. This is with special reference to grant of permanent commission to women in combat arms and their route to such commission via the NDA/ IMA which—especially NDA are considered sacrosanct as exclusively ‘male’ preserves. Ironically, they have (had) no issue if women granted permanent commission into ‘combat support’ Arms and Services are commissioned ex OTA as has been the case since 1992.

Women are here

Responses from Women Officers

These, with notable exceptions, are led by strong disdain for the influence of Manu led patriarchy which they see as patronising male ‘mindsets’ even as there are refreshing inputs by some female respondents into EQ led—therefore mindset free—space which accepts gender-neutral realities as well as show the way ahead out of the current unseemly impasse. It is this writer’s opinion that a silent section of male officers/ army establishment rank holders including senior officers also belong to this welcome space especially those in the veteran community. Their voices need to be heard to give a gender neutral veneer to the current often lop-sided debates in the public space.

Married into the army, Capt. Shweta Misra was commissioned into AOC, through OTA in 1995, retiring in 2002. A consistent topper in diverse fields, she was awarded the Best NCC Cadet/ Best Parade Commander at the Republic Day March-past well before she joined the Army. A senior appointment in OTA, she topped her Army courses and was appreciated for her Op Parakram work. Pre and post her Army career she represented India in international forums. She has authored several books, founded a top podcast service, served in an HR vertical of TCS and is currently Delhi State President of the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

In a September 2021 article titled Girl’s in the NDA, Are we Ready? (Mission Victory India) she brings out her despair when, having qualified for the first batch of IAF women officer candidates a curt Air HQ missive informed her that the proposal to induct women had been rejected. This impacted on her brilliant Physics PG but, having also applied for Army entry, she was selected. She hopes something similar doesn’t happen with girls who are selected for NDA. She also suggests that women’s NDA entry needs to be thought through to avoid conduct glitches; an aspect, which, unknown to her, has been brilliantly carried out after the three Service Chiefs visited the NDA and were comprehensively briefed by its just retired Commandant, Lt Gen. Asit Mistry on the way ahead and received their directions for priority implementation.

A recent chat by this writer with her reveals that she had an excellent rapport with her troops, earning their respect and obedience. She feels that enlisted men are concerned about good leadership not about gender. She found most officers first rate even if some had issues with women officers. What is needed overall is to take a holistic look at women’s entry into uniform from Sainik Schools/ RIMC through the officers/ enlisted women’s training academies extending to command assignments. Here, she feels that a gender-neutral Advisory Committee needs to be set up to provide oversight as ensured abroad. Women, she feels, should be leveraged properly and must remain women, not surrogate as men because that’s an absurd and unrealistic expectation.

Capt. Shikha Saxena, a Madras Sapper, was commissioned from OTA in 1995 in the Corps of Engineers and is part of the first batch of Sapper women officers given Regimental attachments. A recipient of the COAS Commendation Card, she was also posted as Instructor Class “C” at IMA Dehradun.  She retired in 2002, working in the corporate Sector for 18 years before starting her entrepreneurial journey. She now runs her Chandigarh-based L&D Company. She is an ace mountaineer, rafter and skier. A commerce graduate with PG in Economics, she is a motivational and TED-X speaker and certified business coach. She is vice president of WICCI Punjab Coaching Council.

In a nuanced but fiery September 2021 article titled Small Step, Giant Leap: Armed Forces Approach on Women’s Integration (Mission Victory India), Capt Shikha notes that the handling of the NDA for women’s entry is ‘seeing synergy in words and spirit’. She however notes with dismay that judicial intervention had to be unfortunately accessed by women petitioners for grant of permanent commission commencing 2006 because integration wasn’t an Army priority. This negated a ‘win-win’ situation for both protagonists.

She suggests that this imbroglio occurred because women’s induction commencing 1992 was impromptu; thereby wasn’t thought through because of biases which saw Army service as a predominantly male domain. Thus, “Questions which revolved around women officers’ role, training parameters, capabilities, acceptance by Jawans; appointments that could be given to women; management of field postings, sharing accommodation, security concerns etc remained unattended or handled in ad hoc ways.” She pointedly adds that “The magnitude of the change was too much and too sudden”. Absence of sensitization workshops for rank and file resulted in those in authority from subunit level upwards handling the women officers subjectively rather than objectively.

She suggests that a holistic road map whose basis should be gender neutrality needs to be carried out and promulgated to ensure seamless integration of women in the Army mainstream in a manner expected from a first-rate army.

Multi-faceted and skilled like the preceding women officers, Rashmi Nayar is a partner across time zones in Coffee and Conversations, a digital coffeehouse on diverse subjects. Cappuccino driven, she is a writer, content editor, skills facilitator and media director who also loves cycling. She opines in her lucid article: Women in Combat Roles of 18 November 2021 (Coffee and Conversations) that the feasibility of women entering combat isn’t the issue; mindsets are. Statements like ‘combat is alien to women and women will face serious logistics driven by toilets if launched with men’ are mindsets-fed besides women’s unsuitability for war being weaker, as also loss of “Izzat” (whose, she wonders) if captured, wounded or molested. Injury to private parts means women cannot be given first aid by male medics; perhaps forgetting that medics attend to injury, not to gender. She suggests gender-neutrality in the Army with merit being the arbiter. With humour and practicality, she suggests that if intent is there, devices like Female Urinary Diversion Devices (FUDD) can be used as they allow “peeing standing up” with minimum fuss. She ends by suggesting pragmatically that we should move on and focus on grooming women all ranks holistically; mentor them from Sainik Schools onward, including at NDA and in Units and remove gender biases in both genders.

Reader comments largely by female readers display both understanding and refreshing interpretations. They suggest for men, ‘Saab is Saab’. Yes, women are weak physically and should improve fitness. Manage change, a reader offers. Discuss to enable change to take place. Himani wonders “if the soldiers of Razia Sultan wondered where they would pee”. A reader says Shastri’s slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ was gender free and Suyesh wonders why a woman is someone else’s ‘Izzat’. Divya lets fly by suggesting “what you have between your eyes matters more than what you have between your legs”.

Reading the sometimes risqué, yet enlightening female psyche expose from young women in the main, one gets a healthy feeling of respect and clairvoyantly sees the merits of creating a gender neutral work environment where a uniformed woman can live out the last words of Invictus: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

Much has been made about women’s understandably lower physical fitness levels in terms of upper body; lesser dense skeletal system and lower aerobic capacity as compared to men. It is educative here to hear the observations of an Army veteran who has been there, done that over 29 years of physical training and sports related exposure.

Col Vinay Dalvi is a third generation 1971 graduate from 4 Maratha LI who is a 1971 War Veteran. He excelled in Hockey up to Army Command level and voluntarily shifted to the Army Physical Training Corps (APTC) in 1979. He has been Physical Training Instructor at NDA, IMA and OTA as also in several Training Centres. He has coached Services teams in Hockey and Boxing and post retirement in 2008 became a serial author/ editor of seven books. In five, he examines our training academies selection, entry, nurturing, training and grooming deficiencies, using an expert panel across uniforms to do so.

His candid opinion is that well thought through scientific Physical Training and grooming need great care from SSB onward across gender. In fact it is a critical institutional responsibility, more so in officer and enlisted ranks grooming academies such as the NDA/IMA/OTA and Regimental Centres. It is equally an individual responsibility and obligation across gender for ensuring a satisfying military career across terrains and climates. The implied ‘room for improvement’ stands out starkly as also the critical need to stop ‘ragda’ (ragging) in the form of sub unit/ squadron driven ‘josh runs’ and suchlike practices under the emotional pressure of becoming sporting champions. The net result of carelessness/ lack of oversight in this aspect results in serious injuries which manifest on career prospects in the form of relegation/ withdrawal. The implication for women officers/enlisted ranks and male cadets is clear: Mentor them assiduously and wisely on these aspects for Army and individual good. Not the least, ensure they eat right.

Tania Shergill leading the Army Day parade in 2020


Where do Foreign Armies Stand?

In recent years, a worldwide trend has manifested which is based on optimum employment of the multi-faceted talents women bring to bear when given the right military environment. Insofar as permitting them to enter the combat zone is concerned, this has been permitted especially in western armies but after much gender-driven angst, hand wringing, denials and obfuscation till compelled by judicial/Constitutional interventions in practically all democratic countries.

Countries which permit women combat zone entry are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel (partly), New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Turkey (only Air Force), UK and USA. Countries that do not really allow women in combat include Russia, China and Pakistan among others. India appears on the verge of accepting women in combat in the Army though the Interim Supreme Court order at this stage has merely hinted at the inevitability of doing so. The IAF of course has women fighter pilots.

Ironically, China, for all its brouhaha, only allows women as Ceremonial Honour Guards and as operators handling confidential top leaders’ calls though there are some women fighter pilots. The official focus is uncharacteristically on women soldiers dancing skills.

The US Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) over the past 70 years has made over 1000 recommendations to the secretary of defence addressing dozens of issues for servicewomen 97 per cent of which have been fully or partially implemented by the DoD. That is a remarkable influence on the life and careers of America’s service women for equality in the military. The committee covers Benefits and Entitlements; Career Progression; Communication and/ or Dissemination; Education and/ or Training; Family Support; Gender Equality and Integration; Marketing and Recruitment; Retention; Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault; Unit Culture and Morale; and Women’s Health and Wellbeing.

However, in January 2021, the Pentagon quietly demanded the resignations of the 21 volunteer members of the Defence Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a roster that included eight retired generals and admirals pending a cost and efficiency review. In a post-‘Me Too’ environment, working on (topics like) sexual assault, the timing of doing away with DACOWITS is considered unfortunate.

Committee members who served included prominent civilian women and men from academia, industry, public service and other professions. Selection is on the basis of experience in the military or with women-related workforce issues. Members are appointed for a 4-year term performing a variety of duties, including visiting military installations annually, conducting a review and evaluation of current research on military women, besides writing an annual report for the Secretary of Defence. It may be noted that Israel also has a Gender Code laying down strict rules of gender conduct.


Enlisted Women in Military Police: Women with 10th standard/ SSLC education of ages 17 and a half to 21 years are enrolled under ARO/ ZRO arrangements with all male entry tests common to women except that the 1.6 km run allows additional time to women. Top class women and men Instructors who have been gender sensitized run the 61-week course. The women are inducted as Lance Naiks though they are eligible for later officer entry.

So many candidates applied for the 99 announced vacancies that the cut off marks were 85 per cent; well above male cut off marks. Training is imparted rigorous physical and mental fitness as also on the whole MP charter including investigating rape, suicide, POSCO, Vishakha guidelines, driving, Prisoner management and ability to withstand Mutt and Jeff pressures deliberately created by the Instructional staff for toughening up women recruits. A delightful recall by a female recruit was that when she went home, her family could not recognize her.



This writer has objectively put across protagonist views on the sensitive yet revolutionary issue of women’s entry into the Army with permanent careers in its branches, including, in time, in combat. The Road Map needed for steering this potentially game-changing force-multiplier should start with creating a Gender Advisory Committee largely comprised of retired across-gender veterans of distinction and exposure. It should start with Sainik School entry onward till end of career and also cover enlisted women. A follow up Gender Code issued to all is also recommended.

There is need for gender sensitization of both genders; with women accepting that if fathers are their first love, there must be a lot of good in the male gender which needs discovery and acceptance with respect as much as men must see the huge professional good, role model demeanour and maturity as well as problem solving skills that women are intuitively gifted with. Taking women along cheerfully will take women to a high which all first rate world armies need. Finally, a Tipping Point is at hand. Women can take on all challenges including war in their stride. As much as men, women too have Invictus in them… they should be masters of their fate and captains of their souls above all else.

We need to encourage and help them.

(The writer has been writing and lecturing on uniformed women’s issues since 1997)



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