I wrote a piece about the unfortunate harassment and exploitation, “army wives” face as a result of the structure of the organisation. That piece got a lot of attention, and a lot of people asked what we can do to make it better. This is what you can do.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
I wrote a piece about the Indian Army. More specifically, I wrote a piece about how women who are married to army officers and men are treated by the army, and how our labour is exploited in the interest of service to the organisation through arbitrary hierarchies and AWWA. I am not sure what caused it but the post blew up, I had over 20,000 views on my website on that one post alone. I don’t normally write follow-up posts, but I am writing this for one reason only, I called for action, and it would be rather useless to do so if I didn’t offer constructive solutions, and so I will do so in detail.
Before I do that, I want to thank all the women (and of course, the men) who have reached out to me to share their own stories, offer their support and validate my feelings. The ones who felt the need to apologise for not being able to support me publically, please don’t, if I didn’t understand how noxious this mire of promotions, ACRs and social backlash can be, i wouldn’t have needed to write that post. I stand for you today because I am able to do so, and you can stand for me someday when you are able to do so, and even if you are not, it doesn’t matter, we’re on the same team and we all fight in different ways. To all the men (and it was mostly men) who felt the need to attack me whether that was here, on Instagram, on Facebook or Twitter, thank you. Honestly, i wouldn’t have any content without you guys. I would encourage you, though, to take a moment and wonder exactly where you get the confidence to invalidate a woman’s life experience when you have exactly no experience at being a woman. Have you found it? That’s called male privilege. To the people who pointed out to me that while it is good to raise problems, i should also offer solutions, you are right, and I am here to do exactly that. To the people on WhatsApp groups, bitching at me and saying the kind of dirty, disgusting things you pretend you’re all above (yeah, people did send me those screenshots, oops), be better than this. Seriously, if something has the potential to make you feel sick at yourself a year later, don’t do it today, don’t sully your soul, that muck doesn’t wash off so easy.
Please understand that the intention behind sharing stories, especially personal narratives, is to bring to the fore issues that are silently faced by thousands, if not lakhs of people. I stand by everything I wrote, and every single thing I wrote was the truth too, and believe me, the stories I shared were tame compared to the true details because the point was not shock value, it was to draw attention to issues. If I were going for shock value, those stories would have been a lot more shocking.
Now, as i promised, because many people, and some of them rather accusatory, asked me to share my “great” ideas on how to do things better. I have no great ideas, no pompous ideological speeches, no whataboutism, I don’t have your tools, but I do have concrete, everyday suggestions on what you can do to make the lives of women, specifically those married to army officers, better. You can take them if you like, and you can ignore them if you prefer, but if you do actually agree that there is a problem, this is how you start to fix it.
- I understand that referring to women as ma’am may be part of your culture, and honestly, it’s fine. It’s fine if you actually know and enquired my name. Don’t assume I am Mrs. Husband’s Name (not all women change their maiden names), don’t use ma’am as an excuse not to acknowledge me as a human being, don’t reduce my identity. That’s what it is about. It’s about identity. You may think who cares so much about a name, but the reduction of a woman’s identity to that of her husband or father is the beginning of a lifetime of reduction. Don’t participate in that. Does it hurt you to acknowledge a woman as a person and ask her what her name is? Does it hurt you to honour a woman’s request to be referred to by her name? It’s not exactly respectful to dishonour a person’s wishes to uphold your tradition. Where is the chivalry in that?
- Notice and challenge the unnecessary hierarchy amongst women on a daily basis. See, marrying an army person is not joining the army. We are not subject to its hierarchy, and an alternate hierarchy is ultimately always detrimental to the organisation. Don’t foster it. Women don’t need to refer to one another as ma’am, pander to one another or act within a hierarchy. It’s not our job here. It may be in our offices, but we get paid for that.
- If you must organise women’s events, stop using them to patronize or infantalize women. Believe me, from a Jawan’s wife to a Colonel’s wife, I’ve offered my ear to everyone who wanted to complain about welfare meets and rangoli-making, and almost everyone hates these events because they are problematic. Women don’t need to learn to make rangoli, if they want to do that, they’ll find a way to do it at home. If you want welfare, have seminars on women’s rights, women’s policy, world politics, job skills, freelancing opportunities, healthcare. If you can’t hire professionals to teach those things, post open calls amongst army circles for people who have the professional skill to VOLUNTEER to teach them. I would do it, I have done it in the past, and it went well too. This idea that women are only interested in colour, beauty, clothes and decoration is dated, let it go.
- Seriously, enough with the dress codes. We are adults. We know not to show up in pajamas at a dinner party. Imposing the saree culture on women is doing two horrible things: it’s making people hate sarees and it’s perpetuating a single-minded idea of beauty and femininity. We don’t need this. Women aren’t decor pieces. If they want to wear sarees, they will. If they don’t, why do they have to? Who does this really help?
- Also, enough with the jokes. I went to this super formal event last year, and as part of it, a man did a stand up bit. All the jokes were about wives and army wives and their inane priorities. When I asked the man who performed later why all his jokes were so sexist, he said: Why do women have to take everything so seriously? Well, because you won’t stop pushing us into a corner and then making fun of us for being in a corner. If you hate your wife, why are you married? If women’s interests are so benign to you, why are you so invested in controlling us? It’s not okay to sterotype and typecast women, we’re all different. Besides, punching down is frowned upon.
- It is not okay to threaten women and hold their husbands’ careers hostage to get them to behave how you want. You cannot even justify it, so instead we deny that this happens even though everybody knows. Just don’t do it. It’s a question of integrity, I cannot make you have it, but if you want to get on a high horse, get on a moral one.
- Stop passing orders to women through their husbands. If you want something from me, talk to me. I am not your employee, and nor am I an employee of my husband. Ask me for what you need, give me a choice, and if I am able to help, I certainly will. Anyone would.
- Stop assuming all women are free all the time. The truth is that no women are free. We’re all busy. If we’re not working, we’re running households, raising families and fostering communities. We’re not available to abandon that whenever it is expected. Ask. Just ask if people have the time to contribute in some way. You’ll be surprised at how many chores turn into pleasure when you have a choice in the matter.
- Encourage and understand childcare responsibilities that may fall on the fathers. Don’t assume all the work is for the mothers to do and disallow your employees from being good and available fathers when they are physically able to do so.
- Offer women drinks at parties. It’s not about alcohol, it’s about being acknowledged as having a choice. Agency is a big part of the feminist movement because the reduction of agency is where a woman’s crumbling autonomy begins.
- Don’t engage in malice against women. Be brave, shut it down, refuse to engage. When a woman’s character is being questioned in front you, shut it down. When lady bosses are being maligned, refuse to participate. Check your own biases. Refuse to gossip about this guy’s wife and that woman’s clothes. You are better than this. I have never faced gossip as malicious as I have in the army and almost all of it for marrying a divorced man and being a step-mom. Is this who we want to be? I hear the same people tell their daughters to achieve their goals and shoot for the stars, as they judge wives for being outspoken. Men assume I will just sleep with anyone and cheat on my husband because I smoke cigarettes and make jokes with dudes, is this who we want to be? Have the courage to stop it when a woman is being maligned right it front of you. Don’t participate.
- Open a channel of communication where people can come to you for help, no matter who you are. I value community more than anything in the world, which is why it is especially disheartening that the army which is designed to foster community is using it in such a dystopian fashion. I have made amazing connection through the army from jawans, to officers, to spouses, to the dogs being raised by the guards at every gate, and I was able to do this because i speak honestly and freely with people. They can come to me, and i will go to them, as a human being. I will help people, and I will listen to people, even when I don’t like them or when doing things for them will have no “benefit” for me. Help people, without the math of what the proper thing to do is. Watch people’s kids, help someone with a job application, tutor someone, talk to someone because they are worried about their family back home, invite those who live alone over so they feel like they have a support system, reach out to someone going through a divorce. All those wholesome things that the army loves to pretend they are about, do them. They are wonderful.
- If you are a woman, refuse to hate on other women. It’s a choice. Make it.
These are not structural solutions so the argument that they cannot be implemented because of red tape does not apply. These are things you can actually do, on a daily basis.