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Beyond the fighter pilot glamour

By Air Marshal P V Athawale PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retd)
October 27, 2015 13:28 IST
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'Why have we focused mainly on the question of women becoming fighter pilots? Why have women never asked for induction as Airwomen, Security Guards or Enrolled Non-Combatants? Is it that these jobs at lower levels demand far greater hardships without being glamorous?' asks Air Marshal P V Athawale (retd).

One of the Indian Air Force's lady  helicopter pilots. Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

On the occasion of the 83rd anniversary of the Indian Air Force, the Air Chief announced the intended induction of women fighter pilots in the near future. He was addressing serving personnel and veterans. Amidst cheers and applause, most would have expected traditional bureaucratic delay. News of government approval within two weeks of Air Force Day on October 8, 2015 has, therefore, come as a pleasant surprise.

One may believe that the transformation of the IAF to include women would be complete after putting the first woman fighter pilot in the cockpit in June 2017. Would it really be so?

Is getting women as officers and fighter pilots the end state of women's equality and opportunities? Why have we focused mainly on the question of women becoming fighter pilots?

Why have women never asked for induction as Airwomen (technician and clerks, who also do armed guard duties), Security Guards or Enrolled Non-Combatants? Is it that these jobs at lower levels demand far greater hardships without being glamorous?

Sri Lanka and India were decades ahead of the Western world in getting women elected as their respective heads of governments. Does that in any way indicate that our women were more empowered than the rest?

Empowerment of any section of society does not happen by a few top level appointments. Top level appointments primarily serve the concerned individuals' ascent. Instead, the engagement of larger sections at the base gets them genuine representation and respect.

During a debate on NDTV a few years ago, there was an onslaught by one and all on a former Vice Chief of the IAF. The debaters and the audience were both emotionally charged about the denial of fighter pilot opportunities to women. Ever since I have been wondering why no one ever raised a question of non-employment of women in the ranks below officers' level. The Indian woman wants to first become a fighter pilot -- good.

However, it would be an exaggeration to project it as a national cause for women's empowerment. Women joining at ranks below officers' level will create tens of thousands of job opportunities besides truly changing the Air Force beyond face value.

Apart from officers, including fighter pilots, the Air Force is predominantly made up of the larger base of air warriors below officers' rank. The first lot of UK-trained pilots was commissioned and the Gazette notification for establishment of the IAF issued on October 8, 1932. However, the IAF started functioning in the real sense only after the Hawai Sepoys joined on formation of its first squadron, the No 1 Squadron

With the government approval for fighter pilots, a major win for the cause of women's prestige and pride has been achieved. We should now shift the focus away from accompanied glamour to the realities of life affecting women's participation. The Armed Forces now need to move towards attaining cohesive inclusion of women across their ranks.

We have reason to informally believe that the IAF is thinking about taking on the challenges of employing women in the rank and file of its organisation. As part of a group on a short visit to Israel years ago, I recall a young woman dressed in battle fatigues and armed with a machine gun checking us for security at the entrance of a military station. Let us trust our Air Force that such a scenario will be a reality in India, not too far into the future.

Air Marshal P V Athawale PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retd), was the former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force's Maintenance Command.

IMAGE: One of the Indian Air Force's lady helicopter pilots. Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

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