Women in the military

British service personnel, including Faye Turney.jpg

Many are surprised that I would love to join the Army. Why is a career in the Army perceived as a man’s job? And why can the military stop me having a frontline role because of my gender?

I have had a keen interest in the military since joining my school Combined Cadet Force at 13. I was also a member of the Air Training Corps and later an instructor in the Army Cadet Force. While at university I was in the University Officers’ Training Corps (UOTC) and I had planned to join the Army, but due to a serious skiing accident (ironically while on a trip with the UOTC!) I was not allowed to do so.

All these organisations have had more male participants than female. In the UOTC there was a distinct lack of women, especially in the higher ranks. Only 8.9% of all British military personnel are female, and of the three services the Army has the lowest proportion of women. The number of female Army officers (i.e. women in leadership roles) is only 10.4% (according to Defence Analytical Services Agency, 2004). Only as recently as 1998 were women allowed to serve in the Royal Artillery and engineering regiments, but we are still only eligible for 70% of the posts in the Army.

Women may join the Armed forces in all roles except those whose “primary duty is to close with and kill the enemy”, including the Infantry, Cavalry, Royal Armoured Corps and Marines. The main reason for this exclusion is the possible risk to unit cohesion:

We have no way of knowing whether mixed gender teams can develop the bonds of unconditional trust, loyalty and mutual support that must be strong enough to survive the test of close combat. Nor can we tell what will be the impact of the other members of a team if a member of the opposite sex is killed or maimed. Moreover, there is no way of testing to find out, since no conceivable trial could simulate the full effects of close combat. [quoted in Sexing the Soldier: the politics of gender and the contemporary British Army by Rachel Woodward and Trish Winter]

This view was taken on sexuality before the European Court of Human Rights ruled against it in 2000. However, the Army were exempted from the Sexual Discrimination Act 1975 on the grounds that sexual discrimination is necessary for the effective functioning of the Army and its core mission.

The Army argues men feel the need to look after women and, in a combat situation, would want to help and protect the women to the detriment of their other comrades. To me, this, if true, is the men’s problem; they should be trained not to help the women. Women in the infantry have to be tough enough to cope with the role. They would not need protection any more than a male soldier would.

Some argue women are too physically incapable. I do not believe standards should be lowered for women. Probably few women would be able to cope with the physical demands that a combat role involves. But a woman should be turned down if she is not physically suitable, rather than because she is not a man.

I once attended a careers presentation promoting the Army as an equal opportunities employer and showing inspiring pictures of black and Asian employees. I askedabout women in close combat roles. Besides combat effectiveness and physical ability, they mentioned the 2007 seizure of navy seaman (yes, they call you a seaman) Faye Turney by Iranian naval personnel. This sparked debate about the use of women as propaganda weapons and how we are supposedly more vulnerable to harsh treatment by captors. But to me, this is a problem for all women in the army, not just in the front line.

That week the Daily Mail asked “Isn’t a mother’s first duty to her children?” The article said that a woman in the army puts herself at risk and this is unfair on her children. It asked why women have this responsibility, but gave no decent answer. Instead they argued: “men are always going to be better in battle and, if we’re being honest, less vital to the children than mothers”. It angers me that people think men are inherently better in the Armed Forces and mothers are more vital than fathers. Why is it okay for Faye Turney’s navy husband to risk his children losing him, but not for Faye to do this? A woman who serves in the military knows it is risky and, just like her male counterparts, must balance childcare and career to be both a good parent and an effective soldier.

The Army presentation team further argued that Britain is not ready to have its mothers and daughters on casualty lists. But what about its fathers and sons? If society is not ready, we must make conscious efforts to change their outlook. It should be a woman’s choice. If she can match the men, then give her an equal opportunity. Reject her if she is not good enough, not because she is a woman. And you never know – she might turn out to be better than the men!

Image shows British service personnel, including Faye Turney. Shared courtesy of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi under a Creative Commons licence.