Unleashing the Power of Women Warriors

Need to chart a different course

War and Warriors—a Perception

It is said: “War is the failure of diplomacy.” And, since there is no medal for the runners up in war, each war must be won—there are no two ways about it. Put starkly, for a warrior, the essence of war is: To live and let (the enemy) die. Among other factors, it is the ability of a warrior to generate extreme violence that proves his/her worth. A study has shown that humans have evolved to be six times deadlier to their own species than the average mammal.[i] Although the study does not distinguish between males and females, the perception is that females are less capable—physically and otherwise—of generating violence than the males. So then, based on such perception, one wonders: Do females qualify to be warriors?

In a world striving for gender equality, most often the answer is neither a firm ‘YES’ nor a clear ‘NO. The response to suchlike questions comes with a pause and is loaded with doubts, counter-questions, conditions and ‘what-ifs.’

Congenital Bias

In 1878, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a warrior in a 10th-century burial tomb in Birka, Sweden. By the side of the warrior’s skeleton were, among other things, weapons (a sword, spear, shield) and a board, which was perhaps used to map out military strategies. For nearly 140 years, archaeologists maintained that those remains were of a male warrior until, in 2017, a study proved that they belonged to a female warrior.[ii]  

The 2017-study was questioned vehemently: Whether the correct set of bones had been analysed or, the presence of a male warrior sharing the grave had been overlooked, or the grave belonged to a transgender man? Follow-up research reaffirmed the original findings stating that there was sufficient evidence that the warrior (female) held a high-status in the military. The array of weapons indicated the probability of the deceased being an experienced mounted archer. Interestingly, there were no domestic utensils and tools which people generally associate with women.

The warrior’s (initial) incorrect identification as male could have been because of archaeologists’ ‘in general’ assignment of sex based on a grave’s contents rather than scientific analysis. Also, at the time of the grave’s discovery, male biological sex was related to a man’s gendered identity and being a warrior was taken for granted to be an exclusively masculine activity. Therefore, it is understandable that for long years there was denial of the remains being those of a female warrior. Clearly, gender bias was at play.

Time hasn’t helped erode that perception of what is masculine and what is not. If at all, it has upheld it. The bias has continued to linger on and permeate the atmosphere to different levels in all walks of life.

Women Warriors of the Second World War

A phenomenal 3,50,000 women volunteers enlisted for the US military during the Second World War and extended exemplary service, yet their entry and subsequent terms in the armed forces were riddled with difficulties. Some senior admirals in the Navy would have preferred “dogs or ducks or monkeys” to females if it were possible for those animals to perform the same chores. There were drill instructors who resented women “more than a battalion of Japanese troops.”[iii] A rumour encouraged by a slanderous campaign against women claimed that many of them sold sex for cash.[iv] At a time when the US needed every citizen, blatant discrimination severely limited the notion of any kind of full mobilisation.

Despite the initial hesitation and resistance, a thousand women flew military aircraft of all kinds. They were allowed to operate only as Civil Service personnel “attached” to the Air Force. That discrimination did not stop them from excelling professionally. By dint of her ability, one of the women pilots, Ann B Carl, became an experimental test pilot and the first woman to fly a jet aircraft. Yet American women’s contribution to fighting the War went unrecognised—Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), an organisation which was created to boost the war effort, was disbanded in December 1945. Women could become full-fledged members of the Air Force only in 1977.[v]

Around the same time, in the Soviet Union, women bomber pilots, popularly known as, “Night Witches” were active in the air war against Germany. Unlike Soviet men, they were not formally conscripted into the armed forces. But when the chips were down in 1941, there were mass campaigns to induct them into the military. More than 8,000 women fought in the charnel house of Stalingrad. In late 1941, Stalin signed an order to establish three all-women Air Force units. Over the next four years they flew in excess of 30,000 combat sorties and dropped 23,000 tons of ammunition.

In those days, the items of military equipment were designed (only) for men. As such Soviet women faced difficulties in performance of their duties. They had to wear hand-me-down uniforms from the male pilots. Notwithstanding the constraints, they efficiently and bravely flew 1920s-vintage Polikarpov PO-2 two-seater biplanes. Their aircraft had only the rudimentary instruments; there was no radio; navigation was done with a stopwatch and a map. Those planes did not carry guns and parachutes. Women flew only at night, and were mainly involved in harassment bombing of German military concentrations, rear area bases and supply depots. They were not assigned targets of strategic importance, but their bombing raids had considerable psychological effect.

Among the Soviet women pilots who flew missions during the War, Nadezhda Popova, was an ace pilot who logged 852 raids against the enemies. Her aircraft was shot down or forced to land several times, but she always managed to return unharmed. Once she flew 18 sorties in a single night. She was awarded three Orders of the Patriotic War for bravery. She became a flying instructor and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.[vi]

The women who fought alongside the men in the Second World War proved their worth as combatants but were not accorded—let alone an equal status as men—the respect which is due to warriors.

Indian Women Warriors—The Early Years

Think of women warriors of India, and the names that easily come to the mind are those of Rani Kittur Chennamma and Maharani Laxmibai and several other women rulers who fought the Britishers. A more recent name is that of Captain Laxmi Sahgal of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army (INA), raised by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in July 1943.

The first batch of about 170 cadets of the all-female regiment was trained in Singapore. They were given military training which included drills, route marches, and weapon training with rifles and bayonets. They were capable of hurling hand grenades. A chosen few were trained in jungle warfare. They were given ranks of non-commissioned officer or sepoy based on their education. Five hundred cadets completed their training on March 30, 1944. Two hundred cadets who were trained as nurses, formed the Chand Bibi Nursing Corps. Plans were afoot to form a vanguard unit of nearly a hundred troops to enter the Gangetic plains of Bengal after the expected fall of Imphal. Following the failure of the siege of Imphal and the INA’s hasty retreat, the Rani troops coordinated the relief and care of the injured INA troops who returned from the frontline. After the fall of Rangoon, the troops originally from Burma were allowed to disband, while the remainder of the regiment retreated along with the Japanese forces. They suffered enemy attacks during the retreat. The Regiment later disbanded. Although trained to fight, the troops of the Rani Jhansi Regiment could not be deployed effectively in combat.

Military Nursing Service (MNS), established in 1888 under British rule, was another (mainly) women’s organisation devoted to military service during the two World Wars. Nearly 350 nurses either died or were taken prisoners of war, or declared missing when SS Kuala was sunk by the Japanese Bombers in 1942. Post-independence, nurses were granted regular commission. They were administered the oath of allegiance, wore the same uniform, had the same privileges, entitlements, and retirement benefits, and were in every respect on a par with the regular army, and were to be treated as such.

They have served in the war and conflict zones in Sudan, Congo, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. In India, they have been posted in Jammu & Kashmir and served on active duty in Kargil near the Line of Control. They have been posted in insurgency prone areas of the North-East. They have been accompanying the wounded in ambulances through the conflict zones. In effect they are combatants.[vii]

For reasons, which social scientists might be able to discern, over the years, the personnel of the MNS have been relegated in status and are treated with a degree of disdain. Despite their occasional deployment in field conditions, their weapons and arms training was discontinued. In 2000, their uniforms were also changed to differentiate them from the regular army.[viii]

A dispassionate study of the antecedents of Indian women warriors of the past might reveal that—as it happened in other parts of the world—their warriorhood was mandated by the circumstances prevailing at those given points in time. Of course, they were volunteers but they were certainly not the first choice of the recruiters. In most cases, they were enrolled mainly because enough numbers of able-bodied willing men to wield weapons could not be mustered to tide over an existential crisis. It needs to be understood clearly and emphasised that, in the past, women joined the profession of arms because they were needed; and not because the then existing environment wanted to open the doors for them to a domain deemed fit exclusively for their male counterparts. Gender equality was not on the agenda.

Breeze of Change

In the years following India’s independence, the subject of women warriors lost its relevance (almost). There was no crisis necessitating recruitment and training of women warriors. The usual human resource requirement of the armed forces was met through recruitment of men. All the stakeholders seemed content with the situation.

In the 1990s, when an increasing number of women began stepping out of the homes to seek job opportunities, some looked at the profession of arms and wondered: “Why not?” Their foray into the (still considered) exclusive male bastion, was taken lightly and brushed aside by most other stakeholders. The thought of women donning military uniform, aiming rifles, and firing shots or flying military aircraft, was considered outright quixotic. After much deliberation, in 1992, the parliament granted Short Service Commission to the women in selected branches.

Fast forward to today. Women are now entitled to permanent commission in the three services. They are being employed as pilots in the Navy and the Air Force. On experimental basis, the Air Force has begun training women as fighter pilots.

A Backward and a Sideways Glance

In the years since their induction, women have carved a niche for themselves in the Indian armed forces. At this juncture, it would be worthwhile to throw a fleeting glance at the road travelled this far to appreciate some distinct thought processes at play. This exercise will help chart a definite future not only for the women but also for the armed forces and the country.

To begin with, the argument to include women in the Indian armed forces was often propped up with historical events—the Rani Laxmibai and the INA examples. “Because, they were women and they could fight, so can the women of today.” The other justification used to be: “Because it has worked in so many countries the world over—the US, the UK, Russia, Israel, China and even Pakistan, it must work in India too.” The implied suggestion has often been to ‘COPY/PASTE’ what are perceived as the best practices abroad.

The commonly extended arguments against women’s employment in the military (including combat roles) could be grouped under three broad categories. One: Women’s physical limitation every month during the menstruation cycle. Two: Their prolonged physical absence mandated during pregnancy and post-partum period. Three: The fear, what if they are taken PsOW by the enemy? This concern about women warriors is posed with dramatic effect. It is presumed that minimum of a Nirbhaya Treatment awaits every woman POW.

Repeatedly, the decision makers have wrapped these arguments in different words to present their cases. Answering questions in Kanpur in 2014, the then Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Arup Raha, had said that the capabilities of women “air warriors” in the Air Force were never in doubt but “biological and natural constraints” precluded them from flying fighters. “As far as flying fighter planes is concerned, it’s a very challenging job. Women are by nature not physically suited for flying fighters for long hours, especially when they are pregnant or have other health problems,” said ACM Raha, as per news reports.[ix]

Women Combatants — an evaporating “NO”

At a Passing Out Parade at the National Defence Academy, in 2017, the then Defence Minister, Mr Manohar Parrikar echoed the IAF Chief’s opinion by categorically ruling out combat role for the women in the Indian armed forces.[x]

In contrast, in 2013, the US lifted its ban on women in combat roles seeing their contribution in support services over a prolonged period during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[xi] Although the reason extended for lifting the ban was ‘to bring about gender equality’, the purpose (as it was during the Second World War), could well have been ‘to bolster the strength of the military in another crisis situation’. Therefore, following blindly in the footsteps of the US would be unwise.

There is another reason for exercising caution while applying the COPY/PASTE formula to the experience of the US (read, “other countries”). Women warriors in the US face far too many cases of sexual harassment. Surveys by the Pentagon have revealed that as many as 26, 000 service members were victims of sexual assault in the year 2012.[xii] 

No need to ape the US Military

Level Playing Field: A Must for Mission Success

Much has been done to accommodate women as warriors; more needs to be done to create an environment which gives them a fair, and equal, opportunity as men to achieve results.

As is the case, almost all the military equipment in use today, was designed and developed keeping an ‘average male’ body in mind. To be able to use such equipment, women must work their ways around difficulties. A flying helmet tested on an average male dummy might fit the head of a female pilot snugly but the added risk her neck is exposed to during a likely ejection, cannot be quantified. The ejection seat itself caters to the forces which a male body can withstand. The flying boots, the gloves… the list is long. The ergonomics of the cockpit and the physical force required to operate the different switches and levers—all cater to an ‘average’ man; women need to put in an ‘extra bit’ to be able to use them or operate them.

A more specific example will illustrate the point. The Tactile Situation Awareness System (TSAS) is a vest designed for air force pilots and fitted with 32 sensors that vibrate if the pilot needs to correct his position in the cockpit and avoid disorientation. The TSAS enables the pilot to always know his/her orientation with respect to the ground. A review of the system casually mentions that vibration is detected best on hairy, bony skin and is most difficult to detect on soft fleshy areas of the body.[xiii] Given that women have breasts and don’t tend to have particularly hairy chest, they might not accrue as much benefit as men while using the vest.

It must be realised that failing to consider female bodies while developing equipment doesn’t just result in equipment that doesn’t work for women, it can cause them injury and, in some cases force mission abortions.

Time to refine ‘the Question

It has been more than two decades since process began to induct women in the armed forces. In these years, women officers have displayed professionalism of high order in execution of their duties as military personnel. The doubts that used to be raised at the time of their entry into the armed forces have lost much of their relevance.

It is time to see through the optics of a woman President or a woman Defence Minister, or a woman journalist donning a flying overall and taking to the sky in a fighter aircraft. It is time we stopped being euphoric about these symbolic gestures. Today, these can hardly be construed as: ‘breaking-through-the-glass-ceiling.’ It is also time to stop eulogising a woman pilot for landing on a high-altitude airstrip, or carrying out daring rescue missions. All these, and more, are the ‘new normal’ for Indian women warriors, and must be seen in that light. That would be a genuine first step towards gender equality.

Optics and beyond…

While at it, it is important to appreciate the difference between sex and gender. ‘Sex’ relates to the biological characteristics that determine whether an individual is male or female. ‘Gender’ relates to the social meanings that are imposed upon those biological facts. One is man-made, but both are real. And both will influence the outcomes of future military missions.

With focus of war fighting shifting from contact to more technologically advanced battles, proliferated with sophisticated platforms and non-contact standoff operations, adequate avenues exist for employment of women as warriors. Therefore, there is a need to refine the old question: “Do females qualify to be warriors?” Today the unequivocal answer to that question is: “YES!” And, it is axiomatic; it doesn’t have to be proved, or explained anymore. In fact, it is time to refine that question thus: “What can make women better warriors?” The answer(s) will have far reaching consequences for the armed forces. Women have the ability (and the capability) to be warriors; all that needs to change is the attitudes so that another half of our country’s population can contribute their bit more meaningfully.


[i] Gómez, José María, Verdú, M, González-Megías, A et al, The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence available at https://doi.org/10.1038/nature19758 accessed on September 21, 2022.

[ii] Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine, February 21, 2019, “Researchers Reaffirm Remains in Viking Warrior Tomb Belonged to a Woman,” available at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/researchers-reaffi rm-famed-ancient-viking-warrior-was-biologically-female-180971541/ accessed on September 20, 2022.

[iii] Jeanne Holm, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992) p. 24-37 and  Leisa Meyer, Creating GI Janes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) p. 77]

[iv] Robert A Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010) p. 26 & 28.

[v] Ann B Carl, A Wasp Among Eagles: A Woman Military Test Pilot in WW II (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 1999) Kindle Edition Loc 61-67/ 2689.

[vi] Nadezhda Popova available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10171897/Nadezhda-Popova.html accessed on September 26, 2022.

[vii] Colin Gonsalves & Major General Usha Sikdar (Retd), Hindustan Times, “Indian Army must stop its discrimination against military nurses,” December 13, 2017 available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/indian-army-must-stop-its-discrimination-against-military-nurses/story-VmhPT6cKj3GW3M3KjCterK.html accessed on September 30, 2022.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Rajat Pandit, The Times of India, “Women not fit to fly combat jets: IAF boss, March 13, 2014, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Women-not-fit-to-fly-combat-jets-IAF-boss/articleshow/31910462.cms, accessed on September 30, 2022.

[x] The Times of India, “No combat role for women in armed forces, says Parrikar, Sunday, March 31, 2017, p. 17.

[xi] Reuters, Phil Stewart and David Alexander, Pentagon lifts ban on women in combat, Thursday, January 24, 2013, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/24/us-usa-military-women-pentagon-idUSBRE90N0SI20130124 accessed on May 30, 2013

[xii] “When an army endangers its women,” The Times of India, Sunday, June 16, 2013, p. 14.

[xiii] Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a world designed for men (London: Penguin Random House UK, 2019) p. 122.


There are as many opinions on the subject as people thinking about it. An opinion I came across is that there are good, bad and average professionals among both, men and women warriors; they must be judged and treated by the same yardsticks. Also, the physical standards (which appear to have been lowered considerably for women warriors) must be reviewed.

Another opinion expressed by a reader is that women are mollycoddled. Also, too much is done for symbolism. Some striking examples are — all women squad on Republic Day Parade; they being detailed to carry the ceremonial trays during investiture ceremonies and they being deputed as liaison officers for visiting dignitaries. It would serve a better purpose, if women warriors are assigned ‘more professional’ roles.

The interesting question then would be: Who’ll perform those ‘apparently-less-military‘ (read less “manly”) duties? Men? Perhapss there are no standard answers.