India's women in uniform will soon smash a massive glass ceiling that has held for 83 years of the Indian Air Force's history. On Thursday, IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, announced that women would soon be cleared for flying fighter aircraft, for the first time allowing women into front line combat.
So far, the IAF's 1,500 women officers have been employed in logistic and administrative roles. About a hundred have earned their pilots wings, but they fly only transport aircraft and helicopters. These women pilots actually do perform combat roles, but they do not share the glamour and machismo that fighter pilots the world over have traditionally arrogated to themselves.
In the sub-continent, Pakistan took the lead in allowing women into fighter cockpits. Now, says Raha, Indian women too will deliberately and knowingly fly into combat.
"We are now planning to induct them into the fighter stream to meet the aspirations of young women of India," said the IAF chief.
Raha said a proposal has been sent to the defence ministry, and it is a matter of time before women fly fighters. Given the training required, it would be at least two-to-three years before India's first women fighter pilots are commissioned into the IAF.
The modest and low-key Raha is proving to be an unexpectedly reformist air force chief. He has done more than any of his predecessors to induct the indigenous Tejas fighter into service, a step that will go a long way to revive falling squadron numbers. Now he has taken the reformist step of allowing women as fighter pilots.
The air force is now ahead of the army and navy, which are still dragging their feet in permitting women into combat roles. The barrier between combat and non-combat, though, is steadily blurring. Naval women officers are not permitted into the executive branch, which actually sails warships and mans (not yet "womans") its weapons systems. Yet, these women physically sail into harms way as logistics and administrative officers on frontline warships.
Similarly, women army officers are not allowed to serve in the three combat arms: armoured corps, infantry and mechanised infantry. Even so, they perform equally dangerous jobs as officers in the engineers and signals and logistical services that operate at the frontlines.
Military sociologists have theorised that man's urge to keep women away from frontline soldiering stems from the patrimonial urge to "protect the weaker sex" and safeguard them from rape and abuse. However, this argument has frayed as women increasingly went into combat and proved themselves the equal of men.
The army's last line of defence against allowing women into ground combat roles is that their smaller physique prevents them from carrying heavy combat loads over long distances. Now, the US military, even the hyper-macho Marine Corps, is allowing women to join, provided they can meet the physical standards that men must display.
In India, the barriers have fallen more slowly. India's military began taking in women officers in the early 1990s for a 5-year, short-service tenure. That was extended to ten years, then 14 years. In 2010, the Delhi High Court ruled in favour of army and IAF women officers being allowed long-service, "permanent commissions". Last month, the navy lost a case in the Delhi High Court, becoming the last of the three services allowing permanent commissions to women officers.