On Monday, February 17th, the Indian Supreme Court ruled to uphold a 2010 Delhi High Court ruling to afford women in the army the same eligibility for promotions, benefits, tenure, and rank as men, despite the government’s request for them to overturn it. The Delhi High Court ruling had stated: “A PC (Permanent Commission) carries with it certain privileges of rank, including pension. These women officers have served well the armed forces of the country in the areas of operation they were recruited for and have worked in this capacity for 14 to 15 years. They deserved better from the respondents.” The ruling is a step in affording women in the army the same rights and upward mobility as men. As Aishwarya Bhati, one of the attorneys representing the female officers said, “it is not about money, it is about career prospects.” Women were previously inducted into the army through the Short Service Commission, which meant that they did not get any of the benefits associated with lengthy service, such as tenure. This led to situations such as one reported by Aishwarya Bhati: “there was clear discrimination in the army. One officer had served for 26 years without getting the same benefits as men. Now the wrong has been corrected.”
Women had only been able to have permanent commissions if they had served for less than fourteen years—on this issue, the government cited women’s supposedly deteriorating physical ability: older female officers had physical limitations, they said. Moreover, they noted the role that women “must” play as an obstacle: “women officers must deal with pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families and may not be well suited to the life of a soldier in the armed forces.” This line of reasoning entirely disregards the differing life paths that women are entitled to take and also implies that the workload of childcare and domestic life should be on women’s shoulders. They also remarked that the men of the army were not ready for female directive: “the composition of rank and file being male, and predominantly drawn from rural background, with prevailing societal norms, the troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command.” The government does not want to be the active agent of change in this scenario, preferring to instead wait for the social change and catch up to it. Moreover, they paint a bleak picture of the men of India, choosing to scapegoat them for the issue. Justice DY Chandrachud said of the government’s excuses that “the contentions of centre [the federal government] regarding the issue of physiological limitations and social norms to deny opportunity to women officers is disturbing and cannot be accepted,”
This is a huge step in gender equality in the workforce not only for Indian women, but women worldwide. Militaries are historically male-dominated in most countries, and for the court to create the avenues for cultural change is critical. They said: “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.” This is a part of the trend in India for women to increasingly be a part of the workplace. Workplace involvement is part of economic equality and financial empowerment. Hopefully, this ruling will signal to other industries in India and worldwide that engagement for women is not only essential but can be mutually beneficial to employers as well.
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