The Supreme Court last week pronounced yet another historic verdict paving the way for women to be in the Permanent Commission of the Army, hitherto a male prerogative.
The Court dismissed the Union government’s submissions that women are physiologically weaker than men, as a “sex stereotype” and declared that Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers are eligible for permanent commission and command posts in the Army irrespective of their years of service.
The SC put up a strong case for women saying, “Women officers of the Indian Army have brought laurels to the force… Their track record of service to the nation is beyond reproach. To cast aspersion on their abilities on the ground of gender is an affront not only to their dignity as women but to the dignity of the members of the Indian Army – men and women – who serve as equal citizens in a common mission. The time has come for a realization that women officers in the Army are not adjuncts to a male dominated establishment whose presence must be ‘tolerated’ within narrow confines,” a Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta observed in the landmark judgment.
The verdict came on a nearly 10-year-old appeal filed by the government against a decision of the Delhi High Court to grant permanent commission to SSC women officers. The Supreme Court ordered the government to implement its judgment in three months.
The Centre argued that there are certain challenges, including "physical prowess" and "physiological limitations" which go against women officers to meet the exigencies of service in the Army.
During arguments before the Supreme Court, the Defence Ministry had argued that women could not be allowed in combat posts because their safety and security needs were different from male officers. It also noted that male jawans in forward areas were not trained to listen to women officers and would not follow their orders. This is indeed a specious plea and an open endorsement of male ego, not a dignified comment to make in a modern society.
The Defence Ministry has not covered itself with glory in the aftermath of this judgment. The apex court on the other hand has gone up several notches in the eyes of the liberal society. It is a paradox that the Court had to rise in defense of women in this contentious issue.
India is not the only country to have women in higher echelons of the army. In the US and in several European and even Asian countries women enjoy the same status as men. They made this departure from the patriarchal thinking long time ago. Men who quote the west for everything that seems favorable to them, found this one example not worthy of emulation. There lies our masculine hypocrisy.
Recently the Supreme Court ruled that women also should be allowed to enter the sacred precincts of the Sabarimala temple atop the abode of Swami Ayyappan. The practice to bar female devotees from going up Sabarimala was in the realm of discussion, debate and controversy for a long time.
What is the Sabarimala issue?
The Tranvancore Devaswom Board has, since 1951, restricted the entry of women of menstrual age (between 10 years and 50 years) from entering the Sabarimala temple. The notification made legally binding since 1965 and was upheld by the Kerala High Court in 1991.
On September 28, 2018 the Supreme Court opened the temple to women of all ages. In a majority 4:1 verdict, the apex court ruled that this age-old religious practice was illegal and unconstitutional.
The decision turned Kerala into a war zone. Sangh Parivar and Hindu organizations started blocking women of menstrual age from entering the temple. Interestingly they enjoyed the tacit support of some political parties including the Congress. It is surprising that initially all of them had hailed the SC judgment as a great revolutionary move whose time had come.
The fallout was that it led to massive protests by right-wing groups, aided by political parties, who called it an attack on the Hindu faith and customs and did not allow women to enter for months despite the ruling. The protests intensified after two women managed to enter the shrine in January with the aid of cops.
A nine-judge constitution bench has been formed to hear a bunch of review petitions seeking a review of the judgment. The contending parties argue that courts have no right to adjudicate in matters of faith and convention. Rationalists point out that ‘sati’ also was once a matter of faith and convention. Haven’t we abandoned this inhuman practice?
Scientific reasoning tempered by humaneness only can facilitate answers to conundrums of this nature. For this we need to have an open mind. We should not allow ourselves to be enslaved by mindless orthodoxy and irrational beliefs. Above all, we need to look into the human angle, and the humanitarian concerns that should underpin a healthy society.
Wherever female issues are involved, the decision should not be taken by a male dominated hierarchy. Equity and equality demands that we let women make the decisions and convince the men involved why they think the way they do. In other words in this modern world, men cannot have the last word in matters involving women. That’s being just and fair.
(The writer is Director, Little Rock Indian School, Udupi)
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