The Ministry of Defence has undertaken a controversial review, ruling that women may be permitted in ground combat roles within the armed forces by 2016. Some may view this as a triumph for feminism, equality and women in general, yet many, even current female officers, express concerns over the practicalities of such an ideal. Within NATO, Britain is just one of the three remaining countries, however, which continue to deny women a chance to undertake all army roles, begging the question that we may be behind the times on this one.
Across history, the issues with females on the front line have been threefold – namely physical, tactical and psychological.
In order for a woman to qualify for combat on the front line, they would have to endure the same physical tests and be able to perform at the same standard as men. The Centre for Military Readiness claims that “female soldiers are, on average, shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50% less upper body strength and 25-30% less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance”. However, with its anti-feminist and homophobic stance, the organisation can be definitively found as biased. Nevertheless, even according to The Telegraph, only an estimated seven women per year would qualify for the infantry, the same for the RAF, only fourteen for the Royal Armoured Corps and six for the Royal Marines. It is also estimated that out of the 16,000 women currently serving in the armed forces, just forty of them would qualify – the physical demands, such as carrying 63 kilograms of kit into the combat zone, could not necessarily be met by many.
Another concern that has cropped up throughout the argument is that of the psychological ‘cohesion’ of the corps. With this, there is a worry that a woman would be treated like a weaker link, hence given less duty and relied upon less – much like a weaker man may be treated. Many have also expressed a worry that romantic relationships could develop on the front line between heterosexual male and female soldiers, disrupting the purpose of combat. However, these can surely develop already with the women currently serving as support on the front line, just not in direct combat. Many military personnel are also uneasy with the notion of women on the front line as they could become targets of war in the form sexual assault, damaging the psyche of female soldiers to an unnecessary degree. In 2009, the BBC reports surmised that a woman in the military is three times more likely to be raped than a member of the general population.
there is a worry that a woman would be treated like a weaker link
Two main tactical issues have also been found with women on the front line. Melody Kemp emphasises one such problem: “while men might be able to be programmed to kill, it is not as easy to program men to neglect women.” The worry here is that when faced with both a fallen man and a fallen woman, a soldier would choose the female to save or equally prioritise saving a female soldier over the operation itself. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman also notes that the majority of militants will not surrender to female soldiers. This can be countered, however, by the fact that the US military has found the use of female personnel extremely valuable in engaging with and gaining information from locals in the combat zone. Each of these issues are greatly contested in the modern day – indeed, Nicky Moffat characterises them as “sexism dressed up as concern”.
Both the Foreign Minister Philip Hammond and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon seemingly support the notion of female in combat roles. Hammond denies any military backlash and states that he hopes reform will signal the “openness” of the armed forces to women. He does confirm, nonetheless, that the army are obviously unwilling to compromise on the fitness standards required to join the infantry, thus it would be harder to women to fit the challenge.
One can view this from both sides of a feminist perspective. Undeniably, gender boundaries will be broken down by these changes and women will be provided with more equality of opportunity in their chosen profession. Nonetheless, it is unclear how many women would actually benefit from this and whether those who are able to qualify would truly be taken seriously in the infantry. The cohesion issue is relevant here, with Major Judith Webb stating her belief that the presence of ‘weaker’ (female) soldiers “could have an effect on our combat effectiveness”.
it is unclear how many women would actually benefit from this
It must be questioned, then, whether this reform could really bring about a change in the military environment and the Army’s acceptance of women? Some may say that it would encourage more women to become involved in the Army if they knew they would have equal opportunities, and be treated as in the same league, both physically and ceremoniously, as men. Britain could be seen as old-fashioned in its retention of restricting women in the army, yet in reality, even in other countries who do not have the ban, women are still in minority.
Perhaps the problem here is not whether women should be allowed to fight on the front line, but why women are still in a minority across the armed forces as a whole. Ultimately, it seems to be a step in the right direction for gender equality, but gender perceptions still need to be tackled.
The enemy does not discriminate on gender, so why should we?