|HER WORLD||Sunday, April 6, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
Storming a male bastion
A befitting salute to women soldiers
IT's six in the morning and 59 women cadets are put through their paces at the Physical Training Grounds of the Officers' Training Academy (OTA) in St. Thomas Mount, on the outskirts of Chennai. The rigorously demanding exercises are spread over an hour. A short break is followed by another hour of hard marching marked by shouted orders and the stomping of heavy boots.
& the women
Storming a male bastion
IT's six in the morning and 59 women cadets are put through their paces at the Physical Training Grounds of the Officers' Training Academy (OTA) in St. Thomas Mount, on the outskirts of Chennai.
The rigorously demanding exercises are spread over an hour. A short break is followed by another hour of hard marching marked by shouted orders and the stomping of heavy boots. A day full of classes in military strategy and history, swimming, games, special coaching and more exercises ends when the lights go out at 10:30 pm.
This group is the 20th batch in an academy that is one of its kind in Asia. This year, these women cadets have qualified for the Indian Army's Short Service Commission and have been absorbed as officers—crowning a programme that has completed a successful decade. Here are the women who live—and lead— in a man's world.
The Indian Army began recruiting women officers in 1993, a move that opened the doors of an all-male bastion. Besides, a more pro-woman atmosphere, the reasons for opening up included the increasing vacancies arising out of falling recruitment, notably amongst the junior positions. The defence establishment is now also competing with other more lucrative career options available to the country's young people. Every six months, about 5,000 women graduates and postgraduates between the ages of 21 and 25 years apply to join the Army. Barely one-fifth clear the written test and only a tenth of those who do are selected. The women officers commissioned are recruited for a period of five years, extendable up to ten. The Zozila Company becomes their new home - and office. The current batch of graduates will bring the total number of women cadets recruited to 744.
Once they complete their maximum of 10 years of service - while still in their early to mid-30s - the women are expected to retire with only their savings and provident fund accumulations. The first batch is yet to be decommissioned but high morale appears to have overcome any pangs of the looming insecurity. Explains Colonel Murlidhar, Commanding Officer of the Shivaji Battalion (under which the Zozila Company comes), "The Army effectively screens and trains the most physically fit and mentally robust. It is expected that these women, quite like the short service gentlemen officers, will be sought-after by civilian firms in administrative positions, chiefly in security-related assignments."
Says Captain Geeta Gawali, Platoon Commander in the same Company, now directly supervising the course she graduated from over four years ago, "It is a degree and experience like no other. The Army's training in man management has no parallel." She says this with no irony, the gender anomaly notwithstanding. Over the last decade, the course has continually evolved. To begin with, the fitness regimen had to be redefined in view of differing physical capabilities. The focus for the lady cadets, as the Army's protocol requires them to be called, is on muscle-building and power exercises. The programme lasts only six months as opposed to nine months of training for male cadets. Moreover, it was found that women were nearly ten times more prone to pelvic injuries, backaches, stress fractures and cramps during the gruelling schedule—conditions which forced medical leave, resulted in loss of training time and affected morale.
Doctors from the Sports Medicine Department of Tamil Nadu's Dr MGR Medical University worked with the OTA team to suggest amendments. Several changes are on the anvil - the Academy is in the process of setting up its own sports medicine wing. The thrust is now on stretching and strengthening exercises, and using boots lined with special soles imported from the United States to reduce the shock on the pelvis. The course, and its proactive nature, only goes to prove that women are equal - but different. Says Gawali, the first person in her family to join the Defence Services, "Most women who come here have a sports-oriented outlook or a National Cadet Corps background. A greater percentage of the men who join do so because they view the Army as a secure career option. Most women, on the other hand, come looking for adventure, to do something different. "According to Gawali, discrimination is not an issue. "Even when we are posted at all-male stations, there is no difference. Only if we think and behave differently will we be treated differently. Otherwise, we are all the same."
Women officers take salutes, bark orders and pack a commanding punch into their slight frames. But the looming spectre of discrimination is barely seen behind the veil of formal correctness. Says one woman officer who does not wish to be named, "It is the gentlemen cadets who feel discriminated against. We earn the same pay but do not train for as long or as hard. There is resentment, and it is inevitable. Gender cannot be forgotten. Three hundred-odd years of male attitudes cannot change so fast, but Army ethics include respect for women, which is a help."
Women officers are also not deployed at the frontline, though recent amendments have ensured that they are posted in field areas, sometimes less than 50 metres away from actual combat. In their 10 years of service, the women officers can only hope to rise up to the level of a Major. The glass ceiling is very visible here. Postings are across the country and usually in the Engineers, Ordnance, Signals, Army Service, Education, Intelligence, Legal Branch or EME (Electrical and Mechanical Engineering) Corps. Women officers married to Army men are often able to get transferred to the same place - but only if vacancies exist. Otherwise, says Captain Reeta Bakshi, "It is something we have to be prepared for. Families are often separated in the Army, when the men are posted to non-family stations. All that is needed is respect for each other's profession. The difference is only biological. In fact, you remember you are a woman only when you wear (salwar) suits and sarees."
For women cadets like computer engineer Namrata Waghray of Secunderabad and MBA Renu Ratra, who left a marketing job in Bhopal, this job "gives security and is very challenging". And then there is Riya Shrivastava, a 25-year-old postgraduate from Dehra Dun. A war widow whose husband died on the Jammu and Kashmir front just eight months after the wedding, she is here "to carry on from where he left off". The Army set-up caters to most of her needs, and also provides an environment that does not stigmatise her.
Another cadet, also bereaved, has a two-year-old son who
will join her soon when she becomes an officer. Says Major R.S. Gill,
who supervises the women's training: "Women stepping into a man's world
are more motivated, dedicated and determined to prove a point. They are
excellent assets, no matter where they are deployed." A fitting salute
to the modern Army woman.
FAMILY Court lawyers and counsellors who see the break-up of every kind of human relationship, say that relationships between human beings are a complex phenomenon beyond the ken of logic. Not surprisingly, even the best legal minds in the country have been able to barely give a meaning to the word ‘family’, but no legal status. "The family, believe it or not, has no legal persona," says hi-profile lawyer Jai Vaidya who heads Samanvay, an NGO which works to save the family as a social institution, "Thus, the inherent conflict between the individual rights of a member and the collective rights of the family is apparent in every litigation in the Family Court.
Strangely, though a major objective of the Family Court Act of 1984 is the preservation of the family as the foundation of society, it offers relief in every case by determining the rights and liabilities of individuals rather than of the family. The grey areas between the rights of the individuals and the welfare of the family become the battleground for concerned parties, who feel that matrimonial laws should be amended to suit women or men, pitting the two sexes against one another.
"The Family Court is a theatre of unimaginable conflicts. The usual issues behind these conflicts are: feminists vs anti-feminists; individuals vs society and the legal system vs. the right to privacy of an individual. The Family Court Act of 1984 was passed by the Central Government because of the pressure built up by various non-governmental organisations, which unanimously felt that matrimonial and family law cases were suffering from long delays in the civil courts. Special courts were required for quick disposal of such cases so that the parties to a divorce or separation could go on with their lives and redesign their destinies. The Act encouraged and empowered various state governments to set up Family Courts in all cities with a population of over one million people.
"The first state to set up a Family Court was Rajasthan. Maharashtra followed in 1989. Today, Family Courts function in nearly 60 cities of India. Their objectives, according to the Act, include the preservation of the family as an institution, speedy disposal of cases and a reconciliatory approach while handling human relationships. Hence, the Court is obliged to provide the services of counsellors for couples seeking a separation of divorce."
The work of the Family Court invariably centres on the rights of a woman after the break up of a marriage. This is because marriage or its break-up seriously affects her status and property rights. Factors such as religion, community, custom, tradition or family views determine or affect her rights. Though a court or law itself can determine the legal view, it is very difficult — almost impossible — to change the mindset of people who have lived according to the tenets of a male-dominated culture for millenniums.
For example, according to the 1974 Maintenance Laws, Rs 500 per month was the standard allowance for a divorced or separated wife. Rs 750 per month was allotted to each child. In 2000, this was changed to Rs 1,500 per month and in 2002, the upper limit of potgi or maintenance was totally removed. Still, money and property matters are so fluid and amenable manipulation in the court, that many women continue to stay in meaningless relationships rather than lose their status and lifestyle.
Most of the divorce cases, which come to Family Courts, are based on three reasons: Cruelty, desertion for two years or more and adultery. Of these, adultery is extremely difficult to prove. Cruelty, too, has to have a physical manifestation to be admissible as evidence in court.
Therefore, desertion remains the most common cause apart from mutual consent, where the two parties have an agreement on the terms and conditions of their separation. Social researchers regret however, that though Family Courts have been in existence for over a decade, there are no records, statistics of figures, which can point in the direction of the future of the family as the basic unit of society. Several NGOs continue to fight for the creation of a fact-and-figures bank, which could be a barometer of the health of the family in Indian society. They believe that family courts were created in the first place because of their relentless efforts.
"There are media reports that the number of divorces in Indian cities — specially in Mumbai and Delhi — is increasing by leaps and bounds," says Jai Vaidya, "But they could be misleading. The populations of our cities, particularly metros, are growing rapidly. The number of divorces is relevant to the population. The revolutionary changes and complexity of relationships in urban society are also responsible for more break-ups. I myself have found absolutely incredible cases in the courts.
However, women wanting a larger slice of life today are a major reason for marital break-ups. They are aware of their rights and tolerate less injustice. Parents of women also support the break-up when convinced of the reasons. Friends, counsellors and colleagues — all stand by the person going through the trauma. Women expect more out of their marriages, companionship and friendship being top priorities. The old pecking order of husband boss and wife subordinate does not work any longer. The fact that more and more couples choose their own partners means that the burden of making the relationship work falls on their shoulders alone.
Further, there is hardly any stigma attached to the word divorce today. Even elders believe in the right of a woman to have a worthwhile life rather than rot in a no-win relationship. More and more families show that even one caring person can do the job of rearing a balanced, healthy child. The definition of a family is changing fast.
"Also, marriages now break at any age. People decide to separate after a few months of marriage or when they are older. And more women seek counselling or dissolution of a marriage because there are more support systems available to them rather than the husband alone. Women can choose to experience motherhood through adoption (Sushmita Sen) or through relationships with their beloveds without marriage (Neena Gupta, Sanjana Kapoor and many others). In the foreseeable future, they may become mothers through assisted reproductive technologies too."
It is natural that marriages and love relationships in
celebrity-land are under more stress than others. Here, one partner may
be successful beyond imagination and the other may be required to play
the second-fiddle eternally. A woman may be far more successful or
popular and hi-profile compared to the husband or lover. The family or a
husband may not ‘approve’ of the attitude of a woman who sets goals for
herself and follows them single-mindedly. In most hyped-up industries,
celebrities work constantly with equally attractive members of the
opposite sex. Attractions happen and marital or loyalty vows are broken
more easily than is common. Celebrity break-ups become worse when they
attract publicity, leaving no room for privacy. Success, the need to
hang on at the top and money — as well as personal grooming and fitness
— are top priorities in most celebrity lives today. There is no time or
patience of the spouse, children or other relatives. As one prominent
actress says, "People don’t change. Circumstances change and force the
person to go with the tide of time."
& the women
Meeting a motivated lot of soldiers was a thrilling
experience by itself and a reaffirmation of faith in the daring breed
of women who have made their presence felt in the profession which has
been conventionally associated with male dominance, says
Meeting a motivated lot of soldiers was a thrilling experience by itself and a reaffirmation of faith in the daring breed of women who have made their presence felt in the profession which has been conventionally associated with male dominance, saysAnirudh Gupta
THE fact that women are as competent as men in a wide variety of areas ranging from sports to academics to professions that require high levels of training and education has now come to be widely accepted. Armed forces are, unarguably, one of the most progressive, secular and professional organs of the state, whose contribution in making the country what it is today, is phenomenal. The induction of women in the Army during the year 1993 when Women’s Special Entry Scheme (WSES) was introduced.
India is proud of have its daughters, Rani Padmavati, Chand Bibi, who shone out as soldiers and generals in a period when women were under the suppression of the veil. Can anybody deny the administrative skills and chivalry of Rani Laxmi Bai?
Young ladies who have opted for the Army have shown their grit against heavy odds, whether it is the snow-bound Siachen Glacier, or the sweltering Rajasthan desert, or the impenetrable jungles of the North-East or the coastal regions down the south and above all, in the face of invisible enemy, the militant.
When the opportunity to meet some of these dynamic women officers of the Golden Arrow Division arose, it was like a dream come true.
"From a very young age, long before the Indian Army decided to allow women into the armed forces, I wanted to join the services" says Captain Dinesh Bhardwaj Singh, a smart young officer posted with the Golden Arrow Division. "I am not the kind of person who would fit into the regular nine to five job. Had it not been the Army, I would have joined the Indian Police Service, she asserted. A postgraduate in physics, Captain Bhardwaj is married to a BSF officer and has a daughter. She feels that joining the Army is in no way any impediment to leading a normal family life, provided there is determination.
Lt. Sophia Qureshi, another lady officer posted with the Division’s Signals unit is proud of the fact that the women officers attended the same training courses as men and performed the same duties. The question of gender disparity does not arise, she feels. However, she admitted that there were some initial hiccups in getting adjusted to a hitherto male-dominated organisation. She adjusted to the set-up very soon and hesitatingly admits that she enjoys an enviable reputation for professional competence.
A postgraduate in biochemistry, Lt. Sophia while justifying her decision to join the Army, said: "The Army is the only career that enables you to lead a life full of adventure. If you have a sense of daredevilry coupled with the courage to withstand hardships, the Army is the answer. The life of a service officer is a blend of varied experiences hard work, constant alertness and an opportunity to travel to various places in India and even abroad, says proud Lt. Sophia who is the first signals lady officer to be made sparrow and given a challenging task of commanding a brigade signals company. Had she not joined the Army, she would have gone in for a job at the DRDO.
Lieutenant Sonali Gupta, an ordnance officer posted with the Golden Arrow Division feels that joining the Army is an excellent career move. The daughter of an ordnance officer in the Indian Army, she reveals that since childhood she was so fascinated by her father’s uniform that she always nourished a desire of donning the same one day. Recalling her first day of service in Bombay, Sonali recounts that the moment she entered the ordnance complex, she saw a smartly dressed chap in front of her office and presuming him to be a senior officer, she saluted him. Later on, to her amusement, she found that the chap was working as a sahayak in her office.
Lieutenant Parul Sharma of Engineers, confides that it was Shah Rukh Khan in the television serial Fauji, who inspired her to join the Army. An honours in mathematics from Delhi University, when Parul was asked why she chose Army as a career, had only this to say, "Why not? women officers have to work twice as hard as men to prove themselves but then the same is true for women in any other field of work. The Army offers excellent opportunities for personal development and overall growth". So, there is no question of regretting the decision to join the force.
Lt. Kalyani Despande, another smartly turned up lady officer, believes that, "To begin a career with the Indian Army is an excellent training ground for any woman with aptitude. The Army prepares officers mentally, physically and psychologically for various levels of social interaction.
We develop well-rounded personalities
that enable us to adapt to any environment and emerge winners in all
circumstances." claims Kalayani. Asked to say a few words for the
wannabe girls thinking to join Army. "Just do it!" they chorused. Do
women make good soldiers, and are they ruthless enough to kill if the
situation demands? "Yes"! is the unanimous reply of all these lady
officers elegantly dressed in the combat gear. Their smart uniforms,
neat hairdo, and a confident and firm stride places them in a
different league altogether. Without losing out on their essential
feminity they stand out even in "civvies". Meeting a motivated lot of
soldiers was a thrilling experience by itself and a reaffirmation of
faith in the daring breed of women who have made their presence felt
in the profession which has been conventionally associated with male