Women & War
Smita Majumdar

 This paper examines the need for research about the absence of women in the Indian armed forces, in combat roles. For centuries, Indian women have proved to themselves and to all who have doubted, that they are just as capable as any man, to wage wars of honor, protect their territory and so on. Yet, even today, when the world is coming to realize that women are just as good or just as bad as any one else is, at any work, the military is one place which has kept the doors of its combat units still closed.


I start with a story. Once, a white male physicist and several of his colleagues were working on modeling counter-force attacks, trying to get realistic estimates of the number of immediate fatalities that would result from different deployments. At one point, they remodeled a particular attack, using slightly different assumptions, and found that instead of there being 36 million immediate fatalities, there would only be 30 million. And everyone was sitting around nodding, saying, "Oh yeah, that is great, only thirty million", when all of a sudden the physicist heard what they were saying. And he blurted out, "Wait, I’ve just heard how we are talking – only 30 million! Only 30 million human beings killed instantly?" Silence fell upon the room. Nobody said a word. They did not even look at him. It was awful, he says. He felt like a woman. The physicist added that henceforth, he was careful to never blurt out anything like that again.

Why was feeling like a woman such a bad thing for him? Who has decided that feeling like a woman, when you are biologically not one, is something that should be avoided at all cost? And who decides what a woman would or should feel? Let us look at it in another manner, how does one become a man?

What are little boys made up of? While the nursery rhyme suggests "snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails", there seems to be a more adult and less fanciful force at play. One account of this could be that given by psychologist John Money, who extended embryological understandings into the realm of psychological development. It is said that usually ‘XX’ babies grow up to be females. And ‘XY’s become males, due to a ‘Sex Determining Gene’ on the Y, also called the Master Sex Determining Gene. Females, on the other hand, are said to be the default sex, they just happen in the absence of the Master gene.

Is this limited to the biological, or does it have social implications? John Money and other medical managers use the following rule of thumb: Genetic females should always be raised as females, preserving reproductive potential, regardless of how severely the patients are virilized. In the genetic male, however, the gender of assignment is based on the infant’s anatomy, predominantly, the size of the phallus.

At birth then, masculinity becomes a social phenomenon. For proper masculine socialization to occur, the little boy must have attributes that leave no doubt in the boy’s mind, in the minds of the parents and other adult relatives, or in the minds of his male peers about the legitimacy of his male identification. In the world of John Money and other managers of inter-sexuality, men are ‘made’, not born. Proper socialization becomes more important than genetics. ‘Normally’ developing little boys must be active and willing to push one another around; maleness and aggression go together. Eventually, little boys become socialized into appropriate adult behavior. They do not dream of marriage, but of careers and a professional future. A healthy, adolescent girl, in contrast, must fantasize about falling in love, marrying and raising children. Only a masculinized girl (therefore an anomaly) dreams of a professional future.

The reason why I went into all this is because this brings to the fore the often confused terms of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’. ‘Sex’ is a biological term. One is born in a certain sex – a male child or a female child. But one is made a man/masculine or a woman/feminine. This is gender – a social construction. Gender is what is used to give sex its seemingly pre-ordained characteristics. It tells one what to expect of one born a man or one born a woman, what roles should each be playing, so that this world is ‘easy’ and ‘unchaotic’. But who decides these roles, these traits? And are we, safe from its claws?

By gender I mean the constellation of meanings that a given culture assigns to biological sex differences. But more than that, as Carol Cohn says, it is a symbolic system, one that not only shapes how we experience and understand ourselves as women and men, but that also interweaves with other discourses and shapes them. While real women and real men do not really fit these gender ‘ideals’, the existence of this system of meanings affects all of us, nevertheless. A man who cries easily cannot avoid in some way confronting that he is likely to be seen as less than fully manly. That was the reason why the white, male physicist felt awful. He saw himself as a deviant from the way a ‘typical man’ is supposed to be. He spoke in a manner usually associated with women and thus associated with all that is seen to be as womanly – irrational, emotional, less aggressive and so on. It is just not done to let your feelings come forth in professional meetings.

Conventionally, masculinity and feminity have been treated as natural, not created. Today, however, there is mounting evidence that they have not only been created, but also that they have been surprisingly hard to perpetuate. It has required the daily exercise of power.

Power infuses all relations, especially so, international relations. The interactions of nations with one another is seen to be in a setting where each is out to get the other. It is a world marked by anarchy and self-help, where any sign of weakness can be fatal. And as a result of this view of the world, it has also been seen as a typically ‘masculine’ sphere. Only men, not women or children, have been imagined capable of the sort of decisiveness international relations is assumed to require. Many a times I wonder why women and not men had to fight for their suffrage rights? Who decided that men could vote, while women could not? That is because, only those who can protect the boundaries of their country, in this dangerous world, were worthy enough to be citizens. No one questioned this portrayal of the world as permeated by risk and violence. No one even attempted to redefine "danger". Instead the vision that informed foreign policy was of a world in which taking risks was proof of one’s qualifications to govern. And when it is a patriarchal world that is "dangerous", masculine men and feminine women are expected to behave in opposite but complementary ways. A ‘real man’ will become the protector in such a world. He’ll suppress his own fears, brace himself and step forward to defend the weak, women and children. In the same dangerous world, women will turn gratefully and expectantly to their fathers, brothers and husbands. In this fashion, the "dangerous world" is upheld by unspoken notions about masculinity and feminity. Ideas of masculinity have to be perpetuated to justify foreign-policy risk-taking. And women, who naturally cannot help but be incapable of thinking violently, are effectively kept out of policy making, as well as of implementation, in the form of the army. I seek to pay attention to the way women have been convincingly kept out of the army for so long. If the world is really that dangerous then, by being kept out, women are being constantly marginalised.

Let us say we accept this view of the world. After all in a world inhabited by fiercely sovereign states, it is not too difficult to believe that one of the ‘dangers’ inflicting this world is one of independent states pitted against one another. Genetic determinants say that the force motivating animal behavior is the passing on of genes to the next generation. In order to compete effectively with others, therefore, there are genes for aggression found in the male, who is responsible for evolution and the passing on of genes. And therefore, since men are programmed for aggression, fighting in wars is "natural" for men.

Almost indulgently, Fukuyama says that the basic social problem that any society faces is to control the aggressive tendencies of its young men. There seems to be an acceptance of the fact that men are naturally aggressive. They can’t be any other way. And that is why it is but natural that they play an important role in international relations and in active military activities. Women are less willing than men to use force, he says, because of their roles as mothers, etc. He doesn’t feel the need to go deep into the reasons for why women are less militaristic than men are. For him it is sufficient to know that increasing participation of women in the relations between countries will probably make democracies less inclined to use power around the world, and that is a bad thing to happen. Also, for him, entry of women into traditionally male areas, like the army, leads to other worries. The integrating of men and women into the same combat units, where they will be in close physical proximity over long periods of time, poses serious problems. Also, unit cohesion, which is the bedrock on which the performance of armies rests, has been traditionally built around male bonding, which can only get jeopardized only when men start competing with one another for the attention of women. Thus, Fukuyama feels that gender segregation in the military seems appropriate. Is that his only cause for worry?

Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox say that war "is not a human action; war is not a human problem but a male problem." Men, they say, have evolved as hunters who band into groups and turn their aggressiveness out against common enemies or prey. Political structures in modern societies are formed on this primeval hunting model, and, naturally, men dominate these structures. D.P. Brash accepts the idea that males bond and exclude women from political power. There is a cultural idea in most societies that men are the warriors. Sometimes in the early 1800s a political cartoon appeared in the newspaper of the French feminist organization, Les Droits de la Femme (Women’s Rights). Under the heading Universal Suffrage, a man and a woman are shown placing ballots in a ballot box. The man’s ballot box is marked WAR and the woman’s ballot is marked PEACE. This cartoon too, brings to the fore, the almost universally accepted belief that men make wars, women oppose violence, and the additional implication that women are against wars because they are nurturers. Also among the shared characteristics of the male gender ethos is an emphasis on a well-defined sense of self, individual autonomy and self-reliance. The emphasis establishes a "we-they" understanding of relationships and promotes competition in which there are clear winners and losers. War requires a view of another nation or race of people as an enemy with whom we share little and whom, therefore, a soldier can hate and kill with honor. Masculinity similarly depends in large part on the distinction between people, both among and between men and women. The male gender ethos is often defined in terms of qualities that are most clearly not-female or nonfeminine. Men learn to assume that real men are the opposites of real women, and therefore have no qualms about going to war, unlike women. Also, Janet Lever’s studies of children’s games reveal that boys are most likely than girls to play team sports in which winning is emphasized. Such games requires a "we" opposed to "they" who must be beaten. Girls, on the other hand, play games that require co-operation. When conflicts develop, what interests boys more, is allegedly, the result and not their friendship. (Anybody, who has read All’s Quiet on the Western Front, knows that is not true. Also, this goes against the basic premise of male bonding.) Supposedly, girls try to resolve conflicts by mediation, etc. (is that because of biology or conditioning?) Other studies have suggested that boys learn (the operative word being learn) early to focus on objects and tools in problem solving, a focus that might direct them toward technology rather than inter personal interaction in their social and political behavior. As technology acquires masculine overtones, its use appears to promote masculine values and vice versa. In military jargon too, terms used to describe and define weapons and weapon delivery systems often have quite explicit connotations that support the connection of male sexuality with war and other forms of violence. In her book, entitled Missile Envy, Helen Caldicott gives examples of missile erector, deep penetration. Whether or not the weapons are phallic, they are perceived to be phallic. As if overt displays of affinity between war, weapons and maleness wasn’t enough, other reasons given for the prohibition of women in the army is that women would procreate like bunnies without paternal control of the progeny. Senator Sam Ervin also feared that a basic rationale for war – a man’s desire to protect the women at home – would be destroyed by the presence of women soldiers. Men cannot be men if they cannot protect their women. If girls, too, were in the swamps and jungles, what would the boys be fighting to preserve? Women are not considered to be reliable in the crunch. (What about men? Have they never been fearful or scared in battlefields?)

The right to fight – to participate in combat and to command combat troops – is important for any powerless group, because then one has the assurance of being recognized as a citizen. But if women were allowed into combat, it would take away from men, their dominance of the moral imperatives that derive from war. One other reason for not allowing women into the army is that militants are taught to cultivate misogyny, so as to ensure that they abhor all traits feminine. Finally, if women took up arms, their sex would no longer be seen as spoils of war; they would lose their status as objects to be won and used and therefore protected.

Is it really right to generalize about an entire category in this manner? That men are, as an entire group, more aggressive and war-prone, while women are not? Even though in this world, war may be seen as inevitable, it is not like the powers that be (usually men) have made no attempts to peacefully resolve conflicts. If war came that naturally to men, they should be looking for excuses to wage war. Also, any meaningful definition of aggression, can not be done, without looking at the opportunities available, the access to resources and so on. The question is not whether some people are more aggressive than others are or not, but how likely they are to act in a particular way, in this setting, given the opportunities it affords. Perhaps, then, having a woman in the Pentagon, with all the opportunities for action, wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Women do fight. There seems to be no essential or biological reason for why women can not fight. The presence of servicewomen in various armed forces of the world, is proof enough. And whenever there is a shortage of qualified men, militaries make use of women, who act as reserve labor force. But their existence, even as a reserve force, lays claim to the fact that they are not naturally ‘anti-militaristic’. In France, during the time of the revolution, the women did not flinch any more than their husband or brothers did, at the application of the Terror to those ‘suspected of internal conspiracy’ (remember those knitting ladies, in the Tale of Two Cities, who used to sit next to the guillotine, while the heads rolled?). Women commit infanticide, abuse and kill, mutilate the genitals of little girls, and so on. They have been known to encourage and defend male violence. Historically, cultures formed around violence, have always had women’s support. Some of the earliest deities worshipped by humans, were females, not only as nurturing, earth mothers, but more so as huntresses and avid consumers of blood. And in the not so very distant past, the role played by women in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Storm, and the generally acknowledged high quality of women’s performance in their jobs, lays invalid any argument about women’s ability to perform in a crunch. The USA was in the front, in integrating women into the armed forces. It must not have been all that bad, because 6 NATO nations have gone the same way.

The other problematic imagery is that of wild, aggressive men standing on the borders of their countries and their homes, beating their hairy chests and challenging their equally aggressive enemies. Francis Fukuyama locates the well-spring of war in aggressive male instincts. But is this true? No instinct can make anyone, not even a man, wants to go to battle. In all societies, warriors had to be and still have to be taunted/transformed into animal form before battle. Wars do not happen because hot-blooded men got together and decided they wanted to have a war. Wars are organized, many times by people who may not personally be violent. But then, that is realpolitik. It is young men who fight. But, how willingly? If war is so appealing to male genes, why has every war required a draft? Why does today’s army have to tout the fringe benefits, to attract more recruits? Men must be attracted and then trained to kill other people. Without this training, it is difficult to be able to go out and take lives, cold-bloodedly. Even if we accept that it comes ‘naturally’ to kill, does dying come ‘naturally’?

Why have women been seen as ones touting peace? There may be many reasons. Firstly, if war represented male control, then, dismantling the military raises hopes that one day the gender structure of power may also be dismantled. Also, Virginia Wolf says, that women are not by nature opposed to war, any more than men are war-like. But women have greater potential to be opposed to war, because of their exclusion from power and wealth. Thus, female pacifists could say, "As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country" because even the notion of nationhood is masculine. Also, as women are not allowed to bear arms, ‘pacifism’ may be seen as "enforced upon them", because they have no stake in them. Maybe, in a world going mad with militarism, pacifism had more chances of being heard and to influence policies. Whatever be the reason, generalizations are misleading. Men are not a plague; women are not the cure.

The importance of all this is that some else decides that women are pacifists, and that it is a bad thing to be, takes decisions for women and then make policies, to keep women effectively out of the military. In India, of course, biological reasons are given to only supplement other reasons given to keep women out. These reasons can be anything. They can be that women are the ‘matriarchs’ and are central to the family. Without a mother, the family would disintegrate. This, when women have not much rights or freedoms. The other reason that is given is that women are inherently pure. And they would pollute themselves as ideals to be worshipped, or they would not be able to adjust to the harsh life the military required, or that they would not be able to take fast decisions and so on. And then there is the constant harking back to mythology. Even though Hindu mythology is full of negative images of women, but men worship the image of the creator, rather than that of the destroyer. And personally, I also feel that where women in mythology have been shown to be aggressive, a simultaneous message has also been flashed that she was that powerful, only because the Gods chose to give her their powers. Like in the case of Mahisasuramardini. That she would be nothing on her own. In all types of androgynes in myth and art, primacy is given to the male half. In the androgen of Harihar, Vishnu is put on the left side, the side usually reserved for the female consorts, because he was in the form of Mohini, at the time of the union of Shiva and Vishnu. Could that be the reason why, as an important religious symbol, Harihar has been relatively de-emphasized in monographs on Vaisnavism?

Connecting Hindu mythology with the absence of women in the Indian armed forces, in combat roles, one can also look at Vishnu-Mohini, which reflects a more active feminity, which has to be captured and turned procreator. These are ways of conveying how patriarchy needs to control these powerful elements of the feminine. There is no immediate rejection, but an incorporation, so as to be bale to assert patriarchal power more cohesively. Incorporation is a more powerful means of domination than rejection. Mythologies are creations of men. We believed whatever they chose to tell. And like all other social constructions, like family, society and so on, they too seek to perpetuate the interests and the power of the write and narrator – the men. All try to retain the dominance of men in every sphere of life. Projection of women as the mother, as the force behind the man and the close – knit family, as the personification of all things pure and good, are reflected in all spheres of life and definitely so, in the armed forces. If women entered the armed forces, they would take away from the men, a big proof of their masculinity. Thus all sorts of phenomena are employed to convince Indian women that it is not a ‘good’ or ‘right’ thing for them to want to be in the military. They should leave it to their men to take care of them. After all, they are not like "those" women.


All this is assuming that the world is really dangerous and women want to be a part of a violent discourse like the military. Maybe the truth is that women or even men can envisage a different world, or tomorrow technology may become so advanced that gender would not make any difference, because machines would be able to do all the work on their own. Or women may themselves not want to be a part of such a violent discourse. My whole point of this exercise would be to see if I am justified in wanting the choice to be left to the women themselves to make. If men can have the right to decide for themselves, surely women can too. And what are the reasons given for why women still do not have this freedom of choice? Why do people feel that Indian women cannot decide for themselves? And why have we believed it? After all, Indian women have been militaristic enough, historically to not have to believe anyone that says just about anything about them. Yet, we do. These are questions that have remained not only unanswered but also unvoiced. I believe that the time has come that they should be raised and whatever be truth should at be revealed rather than relying on the myths and assumptions that have been the creation of society for so many millennia. We must know, only then can we find a way to live with ourselves.