The recent push for the nationalisation of the Indian army as departure from its colonial legacy seems a perfect time to review the problematic systemic practises that have existed for decades. However, the inability of the organisation to accept that sexism exists and the subsequent attacks on women who complain has its own misogynistic history, and it might be time for reform on that front as well.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
The first written complaint I ever filed against an officer of the Indian army was against a doctor who shamed me for opting to have a medical termination. He threw medication in my face, refused to conduct a scan to confirm the pregnancy, refused to prescribe any pain killers, refused to guide me in the use of the medication and told me I would regret my decision before chastising my husband for “allowing” me to do this. Fortunately, the complaint was very well received by the head of the hospital to whom I had explained rather categorically that I wasn’t looking for an apology from the doctor nor did I wish for him to be “disciplined,” I asked only that he treat his patients with more sensitivity and if he didn’t know how to do that, he be trained to that end. I was both touched and impressed by the response of the Commanding Officer of the Military Hospital, and I told people as such.
I was less impressed by those responses. They followed a general pattern that I would come to recognise as typical in due time. The first was caution that my complaint would derail my husband’s career and I shouldn’t do that in the future. An appeal, mostly by other women, to choose silence. The second was a warning that I had failed to grasp the ethos (substitute: culture, tradition, bonhomie, whathaveyou) of the army and by complaining had demonstrated that I wasn’t part of the fraternity. Essentially, if you don’t buckle to the union, you are a black sheep, and inherently wrong, because no matter the specifics of the complaint, it all comes down to whether you are with us or against us. Saying nothing, even when at personal cost, is lauded as dedication to the organisation and I would beg to argue that when you are dedicated to something, you don’t brush its issues under the rug, you deal with them.
The third argument was that I should not have complained because the army gives me free healthcare, and that somehow means I must take whatever I am given. I’ll bite. You know where the army gets its budget right? It’s from people like me (and yes, the employees of the army as well) who pay our taxes (and have, for as long as we have been employed). You’ll forgive me if I expect humane treatment from free or subsidised healthcare in a socialist country (especially when I am living in places where there are no other options). I am not asking for frills, I can wait in line, I don’t need a fancy waiting room, I don’t need name-brand medication, but to argue I should be grateful even when a doctor abuses his position and puts me at risk is going too far. Just because it is free, doesn’t mean it is okay for its negligence to kill me.
Finally, the fourth argument, and that one I would really like to address in this piece of writing is the one that comes up every single time a woman who is married to an employee of the Indian army complains about anything: “You are happy to use all the memsahib perks of being in the army, you are happy for subsidised housing and electricity, for the people who come to help you at home, for the army car that takes you here and there, and still you want to complain.”
Buckle in, folks, I am about to eviscerate this argument.
Since most attacks that are launched at me each time I write about the army are personal (thanks for the doxing, gaslighting, rape threats, death threats, outing and general all purpose shaming, my chivalrous friends), let me start by clarifying my personal position on this. I don’t want your “memsahib” perks nor do I use them. If sometimes my husband is posted in places that are remote or dangerous for women, I use the army’s sports facilities (because yo girl is addicted to dopamine and the sweet, sweet pain of pushing myself too hard), which while subsidised are still paid for by me. I have never had any “buddy” work for me or in my house, and the one time I was forced to accept the assignment of a buddy (because, field), all we did when he came home was chit-chat and drink tea/coffee, I am still friends with him today, as is my entire family, because that is how you breach class divides (and definitely not by having separate parks for officers’ kids and JCOs and ORs kids, just saying, people are people you know). The extent to which I do not want your services is that I have white-washed my own house on several occasions with my own hands, I like doing it. I also like ensuring we polish our shoes as a family so that the kid never learns that he gets to opt out of doing his own work. Unlike most of the people who attacked me as their buddies were out walking their dogs or watching their children at the segregated parks, I actually stick by my principles. Is that me being a little bit defensive? Well, yeah, I am fucking sick of being attacked all the time.
But this is not a personal argument.
Any time a woman complains about how she is treated by the army, the circumlocution accusing her of being an entitled memsahib begins. Let’s talk about that shall we? First of all, none of us were born “memsahibs”, we happened to marry men in the army, and the first thing most of us were told after that occurred was how we had to behave as “army wives”. I didn’t know I could be “memsahib” but when people won’t stop calling you “ma’am” despite you practically begging them to learn your name, who created that culture? A man who knew me only by virtue of living in the same building, once questioned me for going out at night by myself, and asserted that the reason army provided transport for the “wives” was so husbands could keep track of where they went and “keep us safe”. If this is what you guys say to women, I shudder to imagine what you say behind our backs. A lot of women have to rely on your buddies because they aren’t “allowed” to do certain things on their own. Don’t think that the regressive elements of the patriarchy that still don’t want women to drive, gain employment, have an independent social life that isn’t contingent on their jobs, don’t exist in the army. In fact, this is a sanctuary for those mindsets. The army keeps women in a box.
You need to look no further than how they decide wives should be treated. What exactly does the army want from the women allied with it? They want us to be attired in sarees, and expect that is all we talk about (because you know, you need a penis to understand things like war and finance). They want us to be available for the welfare of sorting inter-personal conflict in marital affairs (which, I kinda wanna do?), they want us to put on fashion shows and such (so much feminism, y’all, hold my lipstick while I cheer), they want us to be the nice, dutiful hostesses (and the extent of this is horrific, someone told me a few months ago that their houses were inspected as part of a welfare award thingy to see which woman kept the best house, come on you guys, can you at least make my job a little bit harder?). They expect us to always be hatefully gossiping about our husbands, I have never seen the amount of toxic “I hate my spouse” humour anywhere as I have here (which, seriously, some of us love the people we are with, can you stop peer-pressuring us to hate on em?). But most importantly, they want us to be amenable to sacrifice.
That’s what it is about right? The real and actual condition of marrying a person in the army is the potential for sacrifice, and I get it. That’s the nature of the job. In one way or other, we all adjust to the nature of our partner’s jobs. Two years ago, I was finishing work on a novel and for whatever reason, I decided to write in my car while it was parked right outside our home, for fifteen days straight, and I straight-up forgot there were other people, like my family, in my life. That’s the sacrifice one must make to love a writer/artist, we are a bit strange in how we work. Making adjustments for the conditions of the employment of your partner is chill, especially when it goes both ways, but in the army, the conditions are more pronounced than your average career, and they are non-negotiable. So, for the purpose of keeping our families together, many of us make unforeseen adjustments to our careers so we can move where our husbands go. The fact of being married into the army directly influences the employability of women, we are a bad bet for most corporations because retaining us as employees is almost impossible. I have to work twice as hard at my job to cater to this condition. You’ll forgive me if I don’t get down on my knees to thank the army for providing me with broken, rickety tables for Rs. 750 a month or geysers that have exploded while I was in the shower on three separate occasions.
Because that is the heart of the argument.
If I am happy to avail the services the army provides like ration and housing, then I should not complain about anything because how ungrateful these women are, yeah? Here’s the thing, you are providing your employees with perks, you don’t get to extort their families for tins of cheese. All jobs come with perks, and if your employee chooses to use those for his family, that is their decision. If I made the argument that my earning potential is lowered directly by the nature of my husband’s employment, am I then allowed to demand compensation for it from the organisation responsible? Of course not, because then, they tell you that it was your choice to move with your husband and not opt to live alone, raise children alone and work full-time. Essentially, I must make the sacrifice, and then be the perfect martyr who never alludes to the sacrifice, but nods her head in quiet gratitude when said sacrifice is touted as a PR practise. It’s okay for other people to proclaim on our behalf that being an army spouse is difficult, but if we say it, then we are ungrateful memsahibs. I fail to see how this is any different from the silencing strategies that have been applied by the general patriarchy, for ages.
The sexism that governs the response to women complaining or speaking out against this institution is inherent, and I know that, because each time I speak, I am afraid, and my fear is not unjustified. It is what people expect I must be feeling. In the few years that I have written about the social experience of being allied with the forces, thousands of women have reached out to me to share their experiences, but they wouldn’t dare speak out loud because of what will happen. And I have seen what happens. Some of them have seen what happens too. They tell you that you are a problematic woman. They excavate your life for evidence that you are immoral (which, cheap shot y’all, I didn’t even know I was supposed to be ashamed of some of those things). If you are lucky, they shun you, if you are not, they target you and your husband to teach you an off-the-record lesson. They allege that you might be getting paid by hostile enemy forces to create discord in the army (which, wow, did not see that one coming). They get older women to “counsel” you and blame your youth (which, come on, I am 31) for your inability to adjust. They will do anything so long as they don’t have to admit, even in the slightest, that sexism and misogyny exist in the forces.
I’m not asking, or saying, that is how everyone is, I have had good experiences too, but while i am willing to acknowledge those, I am repeatedly told my observation and experience of real issues, is imagined or my doing. It should give you pause that an institution believes itself to be so far beyond any reproach that it will leave as many victims in its wake as it takes to ensure silence.
My intention was, and is never, to attack but to fix. That is what I was taught social responsibility is about and on my conscience, I cannot see another generation of children raised around me who learn the same sexist ideals that we were taught. It is my duty to speak about these things and try to fix them. You can help or you can attack me. That is your choice, but if you are a man who hasn’t experienced institutionalised sexism, that could be because of your gender, and you may want to extend a real ear to the people who don’t have gendered privilege. Honestly, I’ll give you an out, blame colonialism. Blame the colonial legacy for all issues the women have faced as part of the current nationalisation of the army and I wont even question the last 75-years when there was, surprise surprise, no colonialism. Blame it in its entirety for every sexist practise, and that should give you the opportunity for reform.
Show me that Indianism means feminism.
The ball is in your court.
Disclaimer and Response To The Inevitable Messages: (a) This is a personal opinion based on observation, personal experience, anecdotal evidence and having eyes. (b) I am not saying every person in the army is sexist, I am saying there are systemic issues that support sexism, if you can’t see the difference, you may need to do some research first. (c) I know, I am the worst. Aaj kal ki ladkiyan bilkul kharaab ho chuki hain. (d) I thought this goes without saying but I am not being paid by hostile forces to write this, come on. (e) I know you are tempted to tell me I am an attention-seeking problematic lady, but dude, I have been a journalist and a professional writer for a decade, I am maxed out on attention. I admit I have higher attention needs than most, most people in the arts do, but I want to be read, not known, okay? You don’t have to give me your attention. That is your choice. (f) Requesting civility? Aapki marzi hai. Shukriya.