More than a thousand women have passed the entrance examination for admission to the National Defence Academy, India’s premier military institute. On December 13, the ministry of defence said in Parliament that one in three candidates who had applied for admission to the academy was a woman.

This reflects the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in September allowing women to join academy and subsequent orders calling for greater inclusion of and equality for women in the military.

The 1,000 young women who passed the exam probably hope to make careers on the same terms and conditions as their male counterparts. But the culture of the Indian military – its discourse, knowledge, training, words, ideas and practices – is centered around “gentlemen cadets”. The mere admission of women to the National Defence Academy is insufficient to rewrite the all-male military framework.

Will the male leadership of the Indian military rethink this long-standing culture or will it seek to transform women cadets to fit the male institution? It will take financial resources, changes in structural design and procedural policy and most importantly, willingness on part of the male military gatekeepers to translate de jure equality into de facto equality.

The National Defence Academy outside Pune. Credit: Nirvanareborn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Until now, women have been admitted to the Indian military through the Indian Military Academy and Officers Training Academy after completing college degrees. They attend cadet training courses for a period ranging from 49 weeks to one year. With admission to the National Defence Academy immediately after finishing Class 12, women will undergo a three-year programme.

Reasonably, admitting women to the academy without eliminating its “all male” culture will disadvantage women cadets – physically, mentally and academically.

It is pertinent to take a stock of the range of challenges that the newly inducted women cadets may face at the Academy.

First, sexism and misogyny are writ large in the military vocabulary such that women’s inclusion would require a thorough re-haul maybe, even a substantial erasure of more than seven decades of National Defence Academy’s lexicon. Ironically, within military circles, women officers are still addressed as “saheb” in the absence of a gender-neutral term.

In the United States, women cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, which switched to coeducation from being an all-male institution as early as 1997, are still today widely dismissed as “shedets” or “sheeds”.

In a June 2021 report, an investigation team of the law firm Barnes and Thornburg reported that although the Virgina Military Institute “conducts extensive sexual assault training”, male cadets “treat it as a joke and an opportunity for misogynistic humour, without consequence”.

In the United States, women cadets of the Virginia Military Institute are still today widely dismissed as ‘shedets’ or ‘sheeds’| via Virginia Military Institute, Twitter

Second, infrastructure wise, the Indian military leadership would have to take a call on the extent to which it is ready to dilute its central organisational tenets of open living conditions and a close-knit cadet environment while providing for separate barracks and bathrooms for men and women. Would providing for the distinct hygiene and sanitary needs of women amount to special treatment of women and reverse discrimination for men?

For example, the open-door policy of the Virgina Military Institute requires that all cadets keep doors unlocked and window shades open even at the night, a mandate that women cadets find problematic because it increases fears of sexual assaults.

Third, to what extent would the leadership of the National Defence Academy be open to changing the physical fitness requirements to accommodate women cadets considering the current training discourse and methods are keeping in view typical male anatomy and “gentlemen cadets”?

In all likelihood, the top brass would reject scaling down or modifying fitness requirements, arguing that it would, in essence, mean lowering the Academy’s standards and overall military readiness. “Military preparedness” and “national security” are certainly pressing concerns and impossible to counter.

In such a scenario, the leadership may consider lowering the weightage given to physical fitness in the overall performance evaluation of cadets so that women do not miss out on the opportunity to compete with their male counterparts on an equal footing. In addition, women cadets must be provided with other options to make up for their lost scores.

The military leadership will have to decide if it intends for women cadets to adhere to the same parameters of physical appearance – such as clothing, uniform and appearance – and endurance | Reuters

Countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have struggled with similar concerns and tried various alternatives to integrate women within the military. Recently, these countries have reconceptualised physical performance and employment standards for their military personnel both men and women, based on modern science and a thoroughly changed military context.

Significant research with respect to women’s bodies and physical fitness standards has been carried out for the United Kingdom to draft a Servicewoman’s Guide that accounts for distinct needs and circumstances of women like musculoskeletal injuries, mental health and particularly reproductive health.

Fourth, would women cadets be required to have crew cuts along with donning a military uniform? The idea behind dressing uniformly and have similar hairdos is to deemphasise individualism and build a sense of brotherhood and comradeship. To what extent would the accommodation of women defeat this unifying culture of the Indian military? Will women cadets be allowed to wear jewellery, earrings, cosmetics, skirts at all or would they have to sacrifice femininity to fit the male-centric institution and demands of military readiness?

Uncomfortable questions

Fifth, with women’s entry in the academy, the classroom environment is surely going to undergo a drastic change with the addition of diverse perspectives and alternate viewpoints. In the process, the cadet body would become better informed, more gender sensitive and willing to learn from each other.

However, the bigger concern is what kind of interaction and commingling among men and women cadets would be perceived as legitimate in the military context. Coeducation will certainly give rise to romantic relationships between cadets, which would give rise to the question of dating, which is inherently considered incompatible with cadet life. The leadership of the National Defence Academy has to seriously think about policies and strategies to deal with inevitable infractions of its fundamental tenets.

At the Virginia Military Institute, for example, the “honour code” forbids on-campus sexual conduct between cadets. However, it has miserably failed to address women cadets’ complaints against male cadets of discrimination, harassment (both online and on campus) and even sexual assault.

The institute’s honour code and honour court envisage an “education process” of chiding a cadet who has been accused of sexual assault instead of investigating, trying, prosecuting and expelling the perpetrator. More importantly, there is a “culture of silence” at the Virginia Military Institute wherein women cadets are extremely hesitant to report incidences of groping, stalking and rape out of fear of a backlash and reprisal from their male counterparts and an absence of support from the administration.

Sixth, including women in the National Defence Academy cannot be achieved through shock therapy or a top-down approach. To ensure a smooth transition, the academy’s leadership should form committees with wide representation from both men and women defence personnel holding various ranks to study every aspect of cadet life – dress, appearance, commingling, behavioural conduct and living conditions – and find ways to integrate women.

Difficult questions and uncomfortable conversations that automatically arise with women’s entry must not be put off. Rather, speaking about hard issues, like in the context of the Virginia Military Institute, must be the starting point of a policy of integration and accommodation of women in the National Defence Academy.

The Indian military might very well come up with a plan of women’s integration to comply with the Supreme Court’s mandate, however, it must be remembered that old ways and attitudes do not change with the flick of a judicial hand.

More importantly, the admission of women in the Academy cannot be like paying lip service to international military practice and feminist demands of gender inclusion and equality. The idea is not to take a few amenable women who would acclimate themselves to education and training methods designed for only men.

Studying every detail of integration and its probable implication is the way forward. The Supreme Court did not call for mere cosmetic changes but substantive changes in the Indian military context.

Prerna Dhoop is an assistant professor at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. Vandana Dhoop is an independent research consultant based in Kolkata.