The Redundancy of "Add Woman and Stir"
Written by Kirthi Jayakumar
In February 2020 , the Supreme Court of India ruled that women could serve in the armed forces as commanders, and extended permanent services to all grades of women officers in the army. With this decision in place, women armed officers can now command entire military units – although they are still not allowed to serve in army combat units such as the infantry or the artillery.
In defending its original decision to prevent women from engaging in the army in these active roles in the army, the central government argued the exclusion of women as justifiable on sexist stereotypes that centered on the physical limitations of women, and even went on to suggest that male soldiers from rural communities were not mentally conditioned to accept women officers as their supervisors or in command positions. Rapping the Central Government on the knuckles for its gender bias, the Supreme Court decided in favor of including women in the armed forces and insisted that the government must implement its ruling in the next three months. Even as the Supreme Court took a stand against the sexist views advanced by the government in its defense, the real question is whether this decision is feminist at all, and whether it really affirms gender equality.
On the face of it, the decision speaks to the glaring lacuna in the system: the lack of parity. However, the decision is not feminist merely because it calls for the inclusion of women in the system. Several larger questions around militarized masculinities, the military excesses targeting women, and the notion of engaging in war itself.
It has been established that militaries operate as sites of hypermasculinity, steeped in masculine notions of aggression and heteronormativity. Military training centers on building a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood on the foundations of militarized masculinity, and this is executed by the construction of racial, sexual, and gendered “other” attributes that those in the military must routinely and emphatically reject (Whitworth, 2004). The military then remains a cis heteronormative male space, with no room for anyone who does not fit into that identity.
The inclusion of women in these spaces without questioning this deep-seated and patriarchal approach to constituting the military in the first place, is neither feminist nor does it make an impact on gender equality. As Nicola Pratt (2013) argued, drawing upon Eisenstein (2007: xiii) in her critical examination of Resolution 1325, such efforts effectively re-sex gender, wherein “females act like men.” To be part of the armed forces, women are expected to conform to masculine gender standards, and in the process, as Das (2020) argued, “re forced to deride their femininity and work harder than men to establish parity in the eyes of their counterparts.”
The consequence of this tokenistic inclusion of women comes with the automatic corollary that the system is not prepared to address the deeper and underlying challenges of a systemic nature: aggression, entitlement, and patriarchal privilege that invariably manifest in the form of sexual violence, targeting both women in the army as military officers, and women in communities that come in contact with the military (Das, 2020). Reportage on sexual harassment of women officers within the army is silenced, met with power and/or reprisals, and inaction.
The mere inclusion of women in the armed forces does not automatically mean that they will be included in identifying and shaping strategies for military action, in evaluating existing strategies in light of the basic human rights regime, and in articulating the impacts of military force and the conduct of militaries on women (Ni Aolain 2016: 276). The superficial parity-based measure of including women does not make room for “antimilitarist feminism” (Confortini, 2012), and does not acknowledge several barriers for women to exercise their agency (Aroussi, 2017). Systemic barriers do not limit themselves to the military set up alone – for there have been a higher number of instances of domestic violence in military homes than civilian ones (Lutz, 2004).
At the core of feminism lies the desire to not only work toward equality, but to also dismantle structural violence that is nurtured, maintained, and fomented with the intention of retaining the inequality and status quo. Dismantling structures is a long-drawn, uphill task, and involves a bottom-up approach. In the pursuit of feminist strategies, though, oftentimes, there is an oversimplification of strategies: including more women to check boxes so the numbers add up, essentialist approaches to inclusion, and reducing the idea of gender to the mere binary. However, approaches to dismantling structures are not feminist if they merely “add women and stir.” Such strategies do nothing to address the flaws inherent in the system, in the systemic barriers that affect women and non-binary persons in complex ways owing to their gender and sex identities and sexual orientations.
Aroussi, S. ed. (2017) Rethinking National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security (Vol. 135). IOS Press.
Confortini, C.C. (2012) Intelligent Compassion: Feminist Critical Methodology in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Oxford University Press.
Das, S. (2020). Equal roles for women in Indian army is not a feminist victory. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/equal-roles-women-indian-army-feminist-victory-200303152707759.html
Eisenstein, Z.R. (2007) Sexual decoys: gender, race and war in imperial democracy. Spinifex Press.
Lutz, C. (2004) Living Room Terrorists: Rates of Domestic Violence Are Three to Five Times Higher Among Military Couples Than Civilian Ones. Women’s Review of Books.
Ní Aoláin, F. (2016) ‘The ‘war on terror’ and extremism: assessing the relevance of the Women, Peace and Security agenda’. International Affairs, 92 (2), 275-291.
Pratt, N. (2013) ‘Reconceptualizing Gender, Reinscribing Racial–Sexual Boundaries in International Security: The Case of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on “Women, Peace and Security”’. International Studies Quarterly, 57, 772-783.
Whitworth, S. (2004) Men, militarism, and UN peacekeeping: a gendered analysis. Lynne Rienner Publishers.