Why I Refuse To Be An ‘Army Wife’.

When a woman marries anyone in India she is compelled to change her identity in the name of tradition, but if a woman marries an army officer she may have to allow herself to be indoctrinated into a system that reduces her identity to a service she is never paid or thanked for. I refuse to let anyone call me an army wife, here is why.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

Back when we lived together in Jaipur, before we were married, I invited my partner’s colleagues home for dinner one night. While we all sat together having drinks, I noticed that all the women were on one end of the room while all the men congregated on the other. I asked the men first why they wouldn’t converse with the women as well.

“All they talk about is sarees, kids and other women,” one of them said, “No need to get embroiled in that.”

“You know women are interested in a lot more things that sarees right?” I asked, “I have not once in my life had a discussion about a saree.”

“You will once you are an army wife,” he said, “That is the culture of army wives.”

Immediately, I asked him why they were comfortable referring to their wives under the title of their jobs. After all, once we married, my husband wasn’t going to become a “journalist husband” but the conversation devolved almost immediately as I stood in the middle of the room and both sides attacked me for criticising an institution that in India is completely beyond reproach. After all they are in the business of nationalism, and me with my anti-establishment feminism am in the business of sedition. Anything I say, no matter how much it deals with my own autonomy or agency, is met with aggressive resistance. Yet at the time, it didn’t matter so much because by their own admission unless we were married our relationship wasn’t real to the army or really, most people in the army. The few that did see our relationship as one day being real enough, told me almost threateningly that I would eventually change everything about myself because I would have to become “army wife” in support of my husband’s career. I was told tales of “independent” women who refused to conform and how that impacted the careers and postings of their husbands.

I was most concerned about getting married because of my partner’s job and not because he has to move frequently, honestly, I was already moving quite frequently anyway and I would say that the best thing about the army is that it allows you to live in so many parts of the country. The worst part is a book entitled “Wedded To The Olive Greens”. I first learnt of this book a month after I got married, while at one of those unnecessary (yeah, I said it) stiff upper-lip dos, unable to contain how appalled I was at the idea that there was an actual book that tells women how to behave within a marriage and an institution that they do not work for. I read the book and among other things it tells you to be cheerful, how to talk to the soldiers who may frequent your home, how to socialize and it was also entirely dedicated to women because Bipin Rawat said it himself there is no room for women in the army so why teach the “army husbands” who will never exist how to behave. For my outrage I was told I was misunderstanding the intention behind the book, it wasn’t sexism, it was elitism.

“You’re already well-spoken and polished, this book is not for you,” a well-meaning older woman told me, “There are all types of women who marry army officers and some of them are lacking the.. soft-skills.”

People never believe me when I tell I them I always remember exactly everything that is said to me but I do, and when it comes to women’s rights I will speak it all out someday. Satya, and all that. Which is why I must say very honestly, the idea of being viewed as an “army wife” feels like indoctrination and reduction of my identity and being forced to call myself that feels like non-consenual inculcation. Many have told me I am taking it too seriously and the actual intention is all about community, but let me tell you a story. A while ago we were having a little get-togther on the roof of our building and a man, who had met me several times before, called out to me by the last name of my husband.

“I’m sorry that is not my name,” I said turning to him, “My name is Aarushi Ahluwalia, could you be please address me as such?”

“Look ma’am,” he said clearly shocked by my request, “I’ve been in the army for 20 years, these are our traditions and I am too old to change now.”

“This is not about your traditions or the army,” I told him, “This is about my name.”

He disagreed and we came to the usual question: Why does it matter so much what someone calls me? Apparently if I am secure in myself matters of agency shouldn’t bother me. It’s all about inner-peace and acceptance.

It matters because I, and every fucking woman, has the right to her goddam legal identity. It matters because “tradition” is exactly what we have used for millennia to get women to behave. It matters because I financially contribute and always have to my household and myself and it is not okay with me that four out of the eleven-thousand army people I have met have asked me what I do, let alone my name. It matters because I have a name, and when you calling me ma’am is more about never learning it than showing me respect then you have forgotten what your traditions are about. It matters because I will not be typecast or allow a diverse, vibrant group of women to be painted as a saree-obssessed monolith especially when they are forced to be that way. Let me tell you another story.

Very shortly after we were married, I was to attend a women-only event that the army hosts routinely in every station. The goal is to impart skill and knowledge, which I am completely on board with, and to that end I was going to make a presentation on how to raise children who are aware of their rights and the women’s movement. (Yes, I really only have one talking point, would add a second if I ever ran out of subjects on this one). I was coming straight from a meeting I had for a project I was working on so I was wearing trousers, a shirt and a coat. I didn’t think anything of it since I was in formals and the “dress code” on the invite also said “formals”. At the event it didn’t seem like anything was wrong, I made my presentation and afterwards we had tea and samosas which is like compulsory no matter what if you are at an indian anything. The next day however all the men were called in for a meeting about army wives deviating from dress-codes. Apparently I was to wear a saree and all the women’s rights presentations in the world couldn’t rescue me from the rules of the role I was cast in without my permission. The irony was lost on everyone but I still tell the story in my circle to a successful eruption of laughter.

But that is wrong, no?

I shouldn’t laugh about the forceful traditions of an organisation that gives me so much respect? Because one thing is for sure, whenever there is an eruption of anger from the forces after they are accused of sexist behaviour or harassment, their indignation is real and I can see why because they do truly believe they respect the rights of women by calling us ma’am and holding doors open for us. They truly believe that by letting us eat first at parties and standing up when we enter rooms they are giving us our rights, just not the ones we want. To me that doesn’t sound like you are upholding the rights of women. It sounds like telling them to carve their rights within your tradition. The same people who take dire offense at criticism of any behaviour of a uniformed person have told me to my face that being a journalist meant I had sold my soul. Probably the same people who got real worried about press freedom when Arnab was arrested. When it comes to them everything is about tradition, and if you call the tradition out for being oppressive that is your problem as an individual.

Here is the fact, though, I never joined the army. If I wasn’t forced to by virtue of the location of my partner’s current station, I wouldn’t even live in an army house. I don’t want the nation to spend resources on me when I don’t work for them and more importantly when I do not need them, I pay taxes that contribute to the salaries of the army, and I do everything in my power to redistribute any resources that I am compelled to take. I will not relinquish any rights because I married a man who wears a very hot uniform. You have principles? Well, so do I. I will not be an “army wife” and I have it in me to make my case each time I am expected to be that or forcefully made to adorn that role. Let’s see who gets tired first.

Identity matters to women as well.

My identity is my right and I’ll be damned if i let pressure to put on a saree in the name of a tradition that means nothing to me take that away from me.

Published by thejadedpamphleteer

Women's rights activist. Journalist. Writer. Pamphleteer. Cat obsessed.

12 thoughts on “Why I Refuse To Be An ‘Army Wife’.

  1. Well from what I have understood and read with all empathy, your understanding regarding the word Feminism is the exact reciprocal of what FEMINISM signifies. Drinking, smoking, and talking to men is by no means an empowerment, it’s an individual’s lifestyle. Though I am not pro saree, however as an Indian to be present in a saree at an event by no means degradation. If you work for a corporate world, you are expected to dress up a certain way and that’s how it is and the reason for so is you are representing a honorable organization. Let me be Stern on the fact that by no means is westernisation an advocate for FEMINISM. Addressing to the fact about being called by my husband’s name is equalling you to the same rank as my husband Along with my own identity hence placing me the highest degree. It’s just the state of mind and to sum it up, I would like to say that if you shut your eyes and believe the world is a place of darkness and in void it will but only for you. So instead be appreciative of the fact that you received respect from the people without even being a healthy contributer.

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    1. Why does carrying forward Indian heritage and traditions lie only on women’s shoulders’? Why don’t the officers wear Indian formal attire which was worn by our maharajas, senapatis and the soldiers? Why do they dress up like the Britishers in their lounge suits and open collars? Why is it that DSOI or mess don’t allow officers in kurta pajama or Indian attire even during Diwali or other festival (unless allowed by CO which is totally based on his prerogative )?

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  2. A proud Army Wife

    I would like to mention that I m an Amry wife, a government employee n a mother. I hv been in the organisation from last 12 years n want to mention that I cant thank god enough for giving me this opportunity to be a part of this organisation. I have learnt a lot from the people around me. I have always got the opportunity to do new things which I wouldn’t have imagined of doing in civil. Yes it have challenges at times but it eventually makes you a better person.
    If somebody calls you with your husbands name, that person is not trying to change your identity. Your husband’s name is getting added to your personality n in now way changing it. I am a government employee holding a reputed designation along with being an Army wife n feels proud when somebody calls me by my husband’s name.
    It has nothing to do with feminism.
    Yes you might have come across few people who must have forced you to do things against your will. You need to understand that Organisation is much bigger entity n you can’t blame the whole Organisation just because somebody has mistreated you.

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  3. Army did’t coin the name Army wives . Women chose . That’s their life. You chose yours. Just because you’re a good writer and have a job doesn’t mean Army wives are in chains of casual oppression. You are using derogatory term for Army wives by drawing a parallel between them and whores. You are calling a fellow lady who might not be even crossing your path and in no way creating any nuisance for you. You are peeping inside and trying to get into a kitchen fight with the Army. You don’t want,don’t do. But don’t be an Airport and announce your departure.
    Just because some ladies do not conform to your definition of being emancipated doesn’t make them ” less privileged”. You’re doing that same thing what others did to you. If you’re not with us ,you’re with them.
    Show sensitivity if you expect someone showing you sensitivity towards your choice of religion. Do not be like the juvenile child ,throwing angry tears. Write to the concerned person, with your name and husbands name and then do the talking. Bring a positive change.
    Do not cater to sensationalism in the garb of journalism.
    You’re doing no well by demeaning women who are whatever they are in their might and try to protest in a manner that’s befitting to you as a privileged journalist. Army wives have not come crying to you ,to talk about their oppression. Be a rebel but have a rationale to back up once ADGPI is informed about this rampant thrashing.
    Let women make a choice whatever they want to be and at your stature, I assume you know that is freedom. Just because you are privileged to smoke doesn’t make you more conscious of your rights than someone who doesn’t.

    Army wives have another name which the army has coined you know , I’m sure.

    VEER NARIS.

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    1. Oh please. Not wanting to be demanded doesn’t mean I don’t respect the rights of others. As for whether army wives have come crying to me, how would you know? I hear these complaints every single day. I share my personal experiences under my name because that is the only irrefutable fact I can share, just because I work and expect that I not be solicited for labour doesn’t mean I don’t respect women who don’t work, their labour shouldn’t be solicited without their consent either. I advocated for choice, that’s all, if you take issue with that, I cannot help you. I acknowledged my privilege only because i didn’t want to mislead anyone, that’s not sensational journalism, it’s removing bias from your writing.

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  4. Ms Ahluwalia,
    I believe you do yourself a great disservice for looking at the issue from just the perspective of identity. There are many ladies who have made a name for themselves in diverse fields and yet been proud of their army connections.
    It is said the Army is not a profession but a calling, much like any religious order, because the sacrifices one voluntarily makes are in defence of a belief, not for rewards. The onerous responsibility on an officer cannot be measured because his/her actions can mean life or death not only for him or her, but others as well. In truth one doesnt just join the army, one marries it. Therefore, wether one likes it or not, one who marries an officer in fact ends up as a part of the service family as well.
    Excellence in any field demands commitment and that is only feasible if ones near and dear ones are happy, safe and contended. If they are not, that individual can never ever give his/her best.
    This applies to the army too, where not only does one find themselves in unfamiliar places but also having to interact and live with people from diverse socio economic backgrounds. To make that team work one has no choice but to give of oneself. It calls for immense sacrifice and that shows in their performance and is what has allowed the forces to maintain their reputation and pride.
    None of this is feasible without the contribution of spouses to the organisation. True there are aspects that hurt ones sensibilities, but that is equally true in other professions as well, and one is expected to take them in their stride, imbibe the best, and pass that on to the following generations. Bad mouthing an organisation without committing to making it better only reflects poorly on the individual who does so. If one is so dissatisfied isnt it best to get out?

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    1. Except, I am not in the army, so how would I get out? Also, speaking the truth about something is not bad-mouthing it, so many of you seem to miss the point. And to what extent do you want services from women? Should we also be silent when men touch us because that’s part of the service? You do your organisation a disservice when you brush things under the carpet, if anything, i demand courage from the members of the organisation.

      Also please, bad things happen everywhere? That’s the best you got? If you read my piece, like you actually read it, you’d see for yourself that i fight in every sphere where I see misogyny and sexism, it’s not limited to your organisation, but i refuse to accept “but they are also doing it” as an excuse. Would you accept that from your child if he cheats on an exam and tells you everyone was doing it?

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  5. Aarushi ji, I still believe as I have expressed yesterday that your anguishness is correct and justified but the real reason behind the problems brought out by you is only our COLONIAL CONCIOUSNESS. For us to bring in our millenia old traditions for the evils and various class divides in our institutions and society today is actually over simplistic argument and upto a extent factually incorrect. The correct solution for all class divides existing is to declutter ourselves, our institutions and society from colonial mindset and get back to our roots. If we weed out few problematic themes from our past and majorly follow our roots probably there is no requirement of any external modern day political ideology in this land of debates, discussion and SHASTRARTHS. We neither require communism for social justice nor capitalism for economic growth nor feminism for women rights or equality nor LGBTQ movement for other social issues nor SECULARISM for minority rights. Because all these ideologies cover only one particular problem from a slightly narrow perspective in one dimension only and also are alien to centuries old traditions of intellectual discourse of this land, whereas INDIC thought process encompasses all these issues and is capable of providing a better more stable and long lasting solution without adversely affecting any group based on any line.
    Personally in this particular case I believe that other than few very personal and private matters , it should be immaterial in public life whether what’s ones gender, color, language, ethnicity or anything.

    Let us unite and find a common solution for all of us and let us drift back to our INDIC roots with a goal to have a best possible social outcome and be a example for entire world.

    Few suggestions by a fellow countrymen. Looking forward to work with you and my fellow countrymen for betterment of all of us.
    Regards

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    1. Aarushi ji ,
      Still looking forward to your views and a meaningful dialog and discussion for betterment of our country.

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  6. Very shallow views. You never understood the army life. It’s not meant for you. You got it all wrong girl. You are too obsessed with your own identity and a very negative person. You don’t have any belief in anything other than yourself…be it marriage, children or whatever.
    You have landed on the wrong foot and will always see the emptiness of it. But trust me and a lot of other women like me, we are all very much a feminist n self esteemed women, Army and being an armywife is not that bad. I could not imagine my life the other way….this is the only place which gives you power, respect, comforts and perks at the same time. And I can’t understand how a lady married to a soldier is not proud.
    If you are in Norway , it doesn’t mean Australia has the same problems.
    I could not have been more proud being an ” armywife”
    Jai Hind.

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    1. “I am so proud to be an army wife, I cannot imagine how anyone could have feelings that aren’t identical to mine, therefore they must be negative and shallow and empty, and I should tell them that because I am a feminist and my feminism taught me to attack other women for sharing their experiences.”

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  7. An interesting and good read Ma’am.
    Comes out really strong though, but being a part of the organisation I can very well see that this is the harsh truth and the agony is justified.

    Though, your article hasn’t left any scope for suggestions yet I personally feel that some of these deeply evolved traditions are good and helpful in a socially bound organisation. However, undoubtedly re-looking into them with serious introspection and thrashing out the baseless things is a must.

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