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.