The Indian Army is one of those untouchable bastions that cannot be criticized because, “Siachen me humare jawaan ladh rahe hai, but it has a long history of treating women like they’re entitled to our labour. AWWA, an NGO that officially is to have no bearing on the functioning of the army is used to pressure women into participating in norms and traditions like they’re law. How long as we expected to bear that with silence?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
When I married an officer of the Indian Army, I thought nothing of it. The way I saw it, I met a man I really liked, we had twelve beers together and promptly fell in love. A few months later, he told me that he would soon be posted out of Delhi, and would have to move to another part of the country. Given that my job involved a lot of travel and a lot of working from home/trains, and very little office time, I decided to move with him and just travel to Delhi a couple of times each month. We were not married at the time, so we rented an apartment outside the cantonement, got a cat and resolved to live happily ever after. I didn’t envision that we would ever need to get married, since we already had a lease, joint expenses, pets and even a child (his son from a previous marriage). Marriage seemed redundant at that point, nor was it something I had ever planned on doing in my life, but three years after we moved in together, we did get married.
We married for a purely administrative reason. My husband is employed by the Indian Armed Forces, and he was going to get a field posting, which meant that if I were to reside with him inside a cantonement, I had to be his wife. Notwithstanding the staggering amount of control the government can exert upon a person’s decision to marry, I was okay with doing it. I do love my partner dearly, and signing some papers didn’t really mean anything to me; it had no bearing on my life whatsoever, nothing was going to change. In some ways, I was right, nothing really changed in my relationship with my family, nor was my identity influenced by the fact that I took out an ad in two papers and went to court one day (and then again one month later because the Special Marriage Act will not be denied its theatre). In some other ways, though, I was wrong. Marriage may not have changed who I am to myself, and my people, but unbeknownst to me I became, overnight, an army wife.
That term in itself is so problematic, and I refuse to use it to refer to any women who are married to army officers, at least until my husband is also referred to a “journalist husband”, but people call me that all the time, and no matter how often I check them, they see it as a childish tantrum that I will grow out of eventually. It’s not a tantrum, and there is nothing childish about it, the army denies that it has a culture sexism and sexual harassment, but it exists, and it begins with erasure. The first thing I noticed in the social environment of the army is that I have no name. I’m either “ma’am” or Mrs. “Insert Husband’s Name”. I’m supposed to think this is not a big deal, but let me tell you what happened at a Father’s Day celebration that I helped the neighborhood kids to put on one March. The children had just finished their performance and one of their fathers came to thank me for helping them. He called me Mrs. “My Husband’s Name”. I corrected him, I hadn’t changed my name after I got married, nor is my first name expected to be my husband’s name. I explained as much.
“It doesn’t matter what you say,” he said, laughing, “I’ve been in this organisation for 25-years, this is our tradition.”
“Be that as it may,” I told him because I talk like a textbook, “It is my name and your traditions don’t get to decide my name.”
Past this point in the conversation, he only addressed my husband, explaining to him that “young wives” take time to learn the ways of the organisation, and soon I would understand that my name is just Ma’am. By that point, I had already been dubbed a “problematic” woman, and I was used to this kind of discourse. The attempts to bring me in line started almost as soon as we married and I was presented with a saree, some sindoor and red bangles as a present (with no concern to the fact that I am not Hindu), and the advice to read a manual called “Married To The Olive Greens” that contains within it “guidelines” on how to behave as an army wife. Unfortunately for them, I actually read it (and they could have used a proof-reader), and then the proceeded to do as much research as I could about AWWA.
AWWA, or the Army Wives Welfare Organisation, is often called “the invisible hand” of the army, a fitting moniker, given that women are invisible to the army unless employed by it, but it is not a part of the structure of the Indian Army. In fact, in 2009, the CIC (Central Information Commission) ruled that AWWA is an NGO, and has no bearing on the running, nor is any way a part of the Indian Army. Their headquarters were shifted out of the army headquarters in Delhi, and moved to an AWWA hostel, and they clarified that they function only at the Corps level, and at lower levels, an offshoot, the Family Welfare Organisation (FWO) takes rein. Participation in AWWA or welfare activities is, on paper, purely voluntary and also on paper, has no bearing on your partner’s career. When in doubt, I believe the papers over what human beings tell me any day.
Because in reality, I was told that participation in welfare activities was mandatory, and if I didn’t do it “it would impact my husband’s career”. Welfare is a charitable word to describe the actual ongoings, because in the past three years, in the name of welfare, all I have seen is women forced to dress up in sarees, perform dances and songs, play tambola, make jewellery out of vegetables as “skill building,” conduct various festival themed prayers and one bizarre fashion show meets presentation about panchtatva that I am still recovering from. To me, this is a very accurate portrait of what the army thinks women are — creatures that like to play dress up, drink tea over gossip and engage themselves with “womanly” subjects like god, jewellery, children and housework. Not to mention that the women this “welfare” is done for are easily as qualified as any of the officer’s wives, and are just as uninterested in this theatre as the rest of us. They just cannot say it. Hell, we are not supposed to say it either. Knuckle under and pretend the social environment of the army is amazing, that’s the order of the day.
But I cannot.
When I first got married, I was asked to participate in one of these meets. They asked if there was a specific topic I would be interested in teaching, and being the eager community-builder that I am, I was happy to have a talk on women’s rights and raising children in a violent, misogynistic world. The day of the presentation I cane straight from a meeting, I was wearing a suit (as in trousers, a coat and a shirt), I thought nothing of it since the invitation said “formals” and I don’t own clothes more formal than that. I made my presentation, and it went well. The next day my husband was called into a meeting to discuss why I wasn’t in a saree. Let that sink in for a moment. The conclusion from a women’s rights seminar was that the presenter should have worn a specific garment that has been normatively mandated for women. So severe is this need to dress women as they should be dressed, that once when approached to teach yoga (because I have a long-standing practice), the question they felt really needed to be asked was: “But how will women do yoga in sarees?” That was the big concern, and the reason they decided they shouldn’t do this. They couldn’t fathom what else a woman could possibly wear.
The social backlash and conditioning is intense. Women aren’t supposed to go to the bar and ask for a drink, lest they be judged by the “senior” ladies. If they must drink, it must be brought to them by a man, and it best be wine because that is the only lady-approved drink. Men and women must socialize in separate circles, even when at the same party, and a woman engaging in conversation with a man immediately gets the reputation of being loose (and that will later be used in a case against her character should she raise complaints about someone else’s behaviour). I have personally been asked by a man twice my age who has no business in my social life, why I went out alone at night and came back at 2 AM and how my husband was okay with it. He then asked my husband when I told him his question was inappropriate.
Even if I ignore all of the social aspects of this, and chalk them up to “tradition” gone bad, there are two things I cannot ignore. Part of the worst of it is still the expectation of free labour on part of the women married to army officers and jawans. You are expected to participate in and arrange activities mandated by AWWA, and refusal to do so is met with orders being sent to you through your husband as if you are an employee of both, your partner, and the Indian Army. I am being asked to teach English lessons, and while I am perfectly capable of doing so and fairly inclined towards social service, I cannot do it for a photo-op nor can I do it for an organisation that makes a habit of soliciting free labour. This is not about me as a person, it is about the fact that if you have the money to build fountains, buy plaques six times a year, have regular fashion shows, you also have the money to hire actual teachers. The exploitation of women in the form of free labour is rampant across fields from domestic work to agriculture to labour, and yes, to the Indian army. The idea that I must possess a kindness and generosity that is lacking in men, that makes me more amenable to social work, that I must have the time to do because women don’t actually have jobs, is at its heart, a sinister notion perpetuated by people who on Facebook celebrate the strength and power of their daughters on Women’s Day. The just aren’t prepared for women to whom feminism and women’s liberty is not as much hobby or hashtag as it is a daily reality. They aren’t prepared for women who have jobs, and cannot be available to them as dolls who play dress-up in fluent English.
I suffer for it, and that’s okay, because when I decided to fight for my rights, I knew it was war and in war, you get hurt, but you don’t back down. So, i’m used to the idea that I am “modern” which means immoral, the idea that I am “problematic” which means I will call a spade a spade out loud, I’m used to the idea that I am “weird” which means that I refuse to let go of my childish ideas of equality and just while away my time on social media calling women goddesses. I’m used to all that, but the other thing I won’t get used to, is men in the army sexually harassing me. Of course the army would never agree with this, after all they are bastion of chivalry and respecting women, and they would rather draw attention to my drinking, smoking, friendships with men and low cut dresses. I have no problem admitting I do all of those things, that doesn’t change the fact that in three years I have accumulated a dozen stories of sexual harassment, and the bulk of them are about “senior” officers in the organisation. In fact, I only have two stories involving a jawan, and usually the argument they make for keeping women out of the troops is that the jawans cannot handle it. I call bullshit, it’s them, the men in ranks, who cannot handle a woman who takes charge so they use every tool available to them to keep us behaving in a way that is amenable to the organisation.
Well, no. I won’t. I won’t do it, and if I have to be the one to suffer backlash and only gain silent support from other women who are scared to speak out loud. It’s not their fault, you cannot survive speaking out against the army because “Siachen me humare jawan khade hain” and while I have nothing but respect for the martyrdom and work of our soldiers that cannot be a reason to hold others in silence. I will not rest in silence. I have no traditions, but what I do have, is an iron-clad armour of principles, and an understanding that in the wars you do not win, you die. I am fine with that. I know the intensity of the beast I am fighting, the army is just one part of the patriarchy.