First step

The Indian Army has begun taking a long overdue step towards ensuring gender parity in the treatment of its officers. It has agreed to extend permanent commission to its women short service commission (SSC) officers in the legal and education wings. A Delhi high court ruling in March this year had got the Indian Air Force to extend permanent commission to its women officers. The army resisted the order. Its excuse was that women SSC officers had not been given adequate training and that granting permanent commission to women SSC officers in combat units such as the infantry and artillery was fraught with problems. The supreme court has rejected these explanations saying that this discriminatory attitude towards women is untenable. Armies in other countries are allowing women to participate in all units of their countries defence. So what is holding back the Indian army?

This is a victory for women. Another male bastion has fallen. However, the decision will immediately impact only a small number of women. Thirty-three women currently in the SSC will be considered. Those released from SSC service even recently will not. Only those women who are found eligible will be given permanent commission. How objective will the male officers be in their assessment of the women’s eligibility? It is well known that male officers are vehemently opposed to women being allowed in on equal terms. It would be a pity if after winning this hard-fought right, the women SSC officers are defeated in their eligibility tests. No one is asking for concessions. The women must meet the exacting conditions that permanent commission in the army requires. But they must be given a level playing field, one that is not dented by age-old prejudices.

The extension of permanent commission to women in legal and education wings of the army should be the beginning of a series of decisions the army takes to shed its outdated, gender insensitive image. A small step has been taken but it could become a giant leap in the long-run. A handful of determined women officers who have fought the case through the courts have pried open a door that was shut for decades to other women. They must overcome entrenched prejudices in the services through their performance to push the door wide open.

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