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Patriarchy cedes to gender equality

By Rakesh Shukla

Deeply entrenched patriarchy continues in modern India, from the airlines to the armed forces. But the Supreme Court’s November 2011 judgment, stating that Air India’s policy of appointing only males as in-flight supervisors was patently discriminatory, is a victory

Discrimination against women

Akhila Srinivasan, Managing Director, Sriram Investments Ltd; Chanda Kocchar, Executive Director, ICICI; Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director, Biocon; Ranjana Kumar, Chairman NABARD… The list of women CEOs in India is impressive. This is in addition to the traditionally more friendly spaces for women where Shahnaz Hussain, Jyoti Naik and Ekta Kapoor head Shahnaz Herbals, Lijjat Pappad and Balaji Telefilms. 

The United States of America may not have got a woman president yet, but South Asia abounds with women heads of state. The redoubtable Indira Gandhi, often described as the ‘only man in the cabinet’, a prime example. Bangladesh alternating between Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia is another illustration. Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan are others. Although these women have had powerful male relatives preceding them, that does not take away from the fact that they are women heads of state. Hillary Clinton did not make it to the White House, despite being married to an ex-president!

However, going down the ladder somewhat dims this picture’s glow. The post of ‘sarpanch-pati’ (husband of the woman head of the village council) seems to have become almost an officially anointed position; recently, a meeting of sarpanches excluding these worthies was boycotted by the women incumbents. But we need not go to ‘Village India’ and its panchayats; patriarchy flourishes in the urban modern world of air hostesses and flight pursers many miles up in the sky. Similarly, the armed forces remain a site for deeply entrenched patriarchy resistant to the winds of gender equality.

With exceptions such as judgments like the Mathura custodial rape case which galvanised the women’s movement to demand change in the law with regard to rape, India’s judiciary has been playing a proactive role in the area of gender equality. The much admired late C B Muthumma, the first woman officer of the Indian Foreign Service, was a pioneer in the struggle for the removal of discrimination against women. Muthumma approached the Supreme Court in 1979 and submitted that there was denial of promotion due to hostile discrimination and prejudice against women in the service. In fact, at the time of entry into service, Muthumma had to give an undertaking to resign in case she got married. The rules of service prescribed that a woman member of the service shall obtain written permission from the government for marriage. Further, that after marriage a woman member of the service may be asked to resign if the government is satisfied that her family and domestic arrangements are likely to come in the way of efficient discharge of duties. The rules starkly declared: “No married woman shall be entitled as of right to be appointed to the service.”

The Supreme Court, in a judgment delivered by Justice Krishna Iyer, condemned this prejudice against Indian women, 30 years after independence. The two impugned rules giving powers to the government to seek resignation on marriage and declaring the absence of a married woman’s right to be appointed were declared prima facie discriminatory against women. The central government submitted that the two rules were on the way out. Muthumma, who had not been found meritorious a few months previously, was then found to be good, upgraded, and appointed Ambassador of India to The Hague!

Thirty years down the line from the Muthumma judgment, another wing of the government -- the country’s armed forces -- continue to discriminate against women. In fact, despite the Delhi High Court March 2010 ruling that the government must treat men and women on a par, the military establishment remains set against granting permanent commission to women. The Indian Air Force in compliance with the order gave permanent commission to 22 women officers. However, the high court, in July 2010, on a petition moved by women officers in the army for non-compliance with the judgment, issued contempt notices to the army chief, the defence secretary and adjutant general, army headquarters. 

The army rushed to the Supreme Court and managed to get a stay on the contempt petition after giving an undertaking that it would consider giving permanent commission to women short service commission officers in the legal judge advocate general (JAG) and educational branches. In pending proceedings before the apex court, Major Seema Singh, in February 2011, referring to the position of women in the army, submitted: “(She) works for the army for 14 years, which is neither pensionable nor gives her any retirements. She is simply thrown out of the organisation after 14 years and that too not on the basis of poor performance but due to her gender and left to fend for herself. The army is using the policy of use and throw while dealing with its trained women officers.” 

Women presently work as short service commission officers in non-combat support arms work areas such as ordinance, education, legal, corps of engineers, signals and military intelligence besides the medical, dental and nursing corps. Women officers and male officers perform similar jobs, undergo similar professional training and are posted to all field and peace postings. There is no separate charter of prescribed duties for women officers. Women officers after doing work identical to their male counterparts for 14 years can be thrown out. In fact, male officers rendered unfit to serve the fighting arm, such as infantry, artillery and armed corps, are absorbed into the support non-combat wings. Fit women officers with excellent performance records and no adverse reports are treated as inferior to unfit male officers and thrown out of these wings. This is in sharp contrast to trends in the US and UK where the last male bastion has fallen and women are now allowed to serve on submarines. Views about militarism, armies and warfare apart, the treatment meted out to women seems clearly in violation of rights to equality and non-discrimination on the grounds of sex guaranteed under Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Indian Constitution.

Far removed from blood, gore and warfare, air hostesses too have been waging a protracted battle for parity in the glamorous world of air travel. Sexist bias and stereotypes seem to have dogged the service conditions of women serving in the airlines right since inception when the government monopoly Indian Airlines Corporation and Air India Limited were established in the 1950s. Far from making a dent, the entry of private players seems, if anything, to have accentuated the ideology. In today’s era of ‘Kingfisher Calendar Girls’,  flight punctuality, courteous behaviour and prompt response to passengers are relevant, but overwhelming importance is still accorded to the stereotype of air hostesses conforming to the stereotype of long-legged slim beauties in short skirts.

Air hostesses have been discriminated against compared to their male counterparts in a number of areas. From age restrictions to marriage, they have been fighting for equal rights for decades. The removal, in 2003, of the restriction barring air hostesses from flying on attaining the age of 50 was a major milestone. A recent victory has been the apex court’s November 2011 judgment in Air India Cabin Crew Association versus Union of India 2011(12) SCALE 637. The patently discriminatory policy that only males could be appointed in-flight supervisor -- the person in charge of all cabin crew -- was being followed by Air India for decades. This resulted in the anomalous situation of male in-flight supervisors supervising air hostesses several grades above and senior to them. In many instances, the air hostesses being supervised have trained the junior flight pursers who are appointed in-flight supervisors. Air India, belatedly in 2005, ended this discriminatory policy and appointed 10 women as in-flight supervisors. The male flight pursers challenged the appointment of women claiming exclusive privilege to the appointment of in-flight supervisors before the Delhi High Court; they subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court. The courts unequivocally declared that removal of the “men only” tag from the post of in-flight supervisor was in keeping with the mandates of equality and prohibition of discrimination on gender grounds.

Other battles rage with regard to prescription of weight for air hostesses. In 2009, Air India sacked 10 women flight attendants for exceeding the weight limit; this had not much to do with functionality in the cabin in terms of negotiating aisles and passing passengers. Recently, in March 2011, the Delhi High Court issued notice on the plea of air hostess Salome Singsit working with Air India who had been sacked for breaching the prescribed weight, even though there were medical reasons leading to her weight increase. 

Men not feeling easy with female bosses seems to be the central issue, leading the Delhi High Court to observe that there was nothing unreasonable in male crew being asked to serve on a flight which had a female colleague as in-flight supervisor. Perhaps at the heart of resistance to permanent commission of women in combat wings of the army is intensified male anxiety and fears about women being put in command of men and battalions in an arena requiring ‘manly’ qualities of bravery and courage.

(Rakesh Shukla is a Supreme Court lawyer)

Infochange News & Features, December 2011