The historic event of President Pratibha Patil flying in a Sukhoi and then asserting that women can achieve anything they set their minds to do, came almost on the heels of the ‘personal’ views expressed by Vice Chief of the Indian Air Force Air Marshal Barbora as to why the IAF does not allow women to become fighter pilots. Initially, Air Marshal Barbora made what looked like a politically incorrect statement, and later stressed that those were his personal views. But that did kick off quite a controversy in the country: Should women be allowed to be fighter pilots, or they better be kept confined to flying transport aircraft and helicopters?
And then came the assertion by the President that women are capable of achieving anything they wish to. Of course, Pratibha Patil is right. Women have proved on uncountable occasions that they can achieve anything — from reaching the bottom of the oceans to travelling in the outer space, let alone their involvement in other professions like medicine or science or the arts… And, let us not forget that women have become an integral part of the Armed Forces the world over, making critical contributions to the cause at hand.
Then, why should women not be allowed to fly fighter aircraft?
To some, the reasons the Indian Air Force offers for not allowing women to fly fighter planes may sound unreasonable. Yet, at another level, some of the reasoning appears quite okay. There is no sense talking about the pregnancy issue, of course. When they become pregnant, women pilots of transport planes in the IAF do get their due leave. This can be done in the case of fighter pilot women as well. So, there is no wisdom in talking about the pregnancy business.
If women are so keen to fly fighter aircraft, then they should be ready to defer pregnancy for say ten years, which is so common these days. Will the Air Force accept women as fighter pilots if individually they agree to defer pregnancy?
But then, the IAF has another argument as well, though may not have been stated officially. They say, a fighter pilot has to fly necessarily over the enemy territory, bombing places, strafing enemy lines, attacking targets deep inside the enemy country. Each fighter aircraft, therefore, is subject to getting shot down at any moment. When the plane is hit and damaged beyond limits, then the pilot has to bail out, again, running the risk of getting captured by the enemy and taken a Prisoner of War (PoW). So, if the pilot happens to be a woman, then she would be in grave danger of being treated in a barbaric manner which may include sexual assault. Therefore, the IAF would not like to let it’s women pilots to be so vulnerable to possibilities of extreme indignities.
This is something different, and perhaps more reasonable. No civilised society would ever think of subjecting its women to any such ugly possibilities. And to that extent, the Indian Air Force has a point that must be respected.
But then, there is the case of an American woman pilot who was captured by the enemy. She went through a lot of muck. Still she felt, it was part of the game and she would not mind going through the extremely bad experience again if it is part of the whole thing.
This is where the issue gets defined differently. If the women really make themselves rough and tough, all ready to take on anything in the world, if they make themselves psychologically invulnerable, then perhaps, they could become better candidates to be fighter pilots. One may, then, want to leave the choice to the individual woman. She can decide upon two things: one, she could decide to defer her pregnancy for ten years (a minor point, though); and two, she can opt for fighter pilot’s career by undertaking on her own the full responsibility of the risks involved — treatment of extreme indignity in case she gets caught by the enemy.
I know, the Air Force may not accept such a suggestion. For, it would offend its sensibilities. But, just as the IAF changed its earlier position of not taking women at all in flying ranks, it can as well change its approach to the women becoming fighter pilots also.
That will prove President Pratibha Patil right that women can achieve anything they set their minds to do.
Published in Hitavada Women’s World on December 02 2009