Serving in the armed forces requires sacrifices and commitments ‘beyond the call of duty’, the Centre had argued. Women, it said, might not be able to meet these commitments owing to their responsibilities towards their families. Moreover, the capture of women as prisoners of war would put the women, their organisation and the government under ‘extreme stress’.
But the Supreme Court was not buying into what is called a ‘baseless’ submission.
It was this ‘baseless submission’ that was, in fact, a turning point in the case, said advocate Aishwarya Bhati who along with Meenakshi Lekhi appeared for the women officers.
“The [central government] justification for why women should be kept out of command positions and permanent commissions made it clear to us that we needed to fight a mindset. After 28 years of serving in the army, this was an argument that went contrary to the Constitution and to womens’ own exemplary role in the army.”
Part of the legal strategy included bringing over 50 serving women officers to court. “It was not easy for a serving officer to come to court but it was important for us to show the numbers and the exemplary women officers whose bravery has been awarded by the army itself.”
The judgment too calls for a ‘change in mindset’. “If society holds strong beliefs about gender roles – that men are socially dominant, physically powerful and the breadwinners of the family and that women are weak and physically submissive, and primarily caretakers confined to a domestic atmosphere – it is unlikely that there will be a change in mindset.”
Women have been inducted into the Army since 1992, but only in certain branches and on short commission basis, initially for a tenure of five years. In 2006 their tenure was extended to 14 years. In 2008 women officers became eligible for permanent commissions but only in the army’s legal and education wings. As of January 2019, women comprised 3.89% of army personnel.
With women being granted permanent commissions at par with men, the next gender battle is likely to relate to allowing women in front-line combat roles in the army. “One step at a time,” said Bhati. Women have been inducted into the fighter stream in the Air Force since 2015 but combat roles in the army remain off-limits.
Published in Article-14 on February 18, 2020
See also: https://www.namitabhandare.com/gender/how-11-women-officers-made-army-history/
[Read the full judgment here: https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/pdf_upload-370347.pdf]