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The Paradox of Principles

a cartoon sketch of the yin and yang symbol

We humans have a tendency to associate and dissociate with a community based on its similarities and dissimilarities with our identities. I have many such identities, some chosen and some acquired. And I constantly merge and disconnect with the communities which I identify or don’t identify myself with. Among many such communities with which I feel belongingness, are two that I will talk about here. One is the community of feminists which I choose to belong to because of my beliefs. The other is the community of army officer’s wives; this by default, because of the person I am married to.

A “feminist army-officer’s-wife” almost sounds like an oxymoron.

Coming from a feminist working culture, where everyone irrespective of age and position is addressed by their first name, the hierarchical structure within the defence system came as a shock when I was newly married.  I’d been shouting my lungs out calling for  ‘my rights, my choice’ all the while, and here in the sanctum of military work, men took orders from their seniors without the slightest hesitation and continued to fulfill their tasks whether they liked it or not. I would get agitated and my husband would explain, “The men have to be trained to follow orders blindly believing in the system, otherwise they cannot be led to war and face the enemy.”

While I strongly believe in the right of people of all genders to equal rights and opportunities, here was an institution where I witnessed a swarm of men in uniform with so few women in command, which was disheartening.

My initial days as an army officer’s wife were very confusing and I used to rebel, always questioning the system from my own understanding about it. While feminism values harmony, peace, non-violence and equality, and abhors power and patriarchy, the military setting was a full display of the latter, and I a spectator.  The hyper-masculinity, power, hierarchy, gender role divide, upholding of ‘strong’ and ‘able’ bodies, homophobia, weapons and glorification of war, are all so against the feminist ideas I hold.

When men would open the door for me out of ‘chivalry’, I would feel like banging the door on their fingers. When the waiter would offer me a choice of juices and soft drinks, I wanted to throw a fit and rush to the bar to get my rum.  When during parties there was a tactful division of genders, with separate areas for men and women, I used to detest doing ‘lady talk’ all the time. When I was told that wives of army officers should not wear ‘revealing’ clothes especially in front of soldiers, as that would ‘entice’ the soldiers and make the ‘ladies’ less ‘respectable’, I wanted to scream against this false logic.

Those wedded to men in olive green are expected to follow a certain protocol and always be the cheerleaders and motivators of their partner so that the men can unfailingly perform their duties without any stress.  I found the emphasis on being the ‘epitome’ of woman so that ‘your man’ can be successful and stress-free, and in the process not expressing one’s own sorrow or fear, disastrous to well-being.

There was a constant battle of ideologies I had to fight within me, given the flurry of differences in what I believed and how I saw things around me.

It has been more than 15 years now, and I am still a feminist and I am still an army officer’s wife. I am proud of being both. Not because the differences do not exist anymore; they still do.  The only change is that I also began seeing some other things that are worthy of appreciation.

In my years as an army officer’s wife, I have met amazing people from whom I have learnt a lot. My community of army officer’s wives might be perceived as party-going-pretty-delicate-darling-dependent wives of army officers by ‘civilians’. In truth I have been awed by the strength and grit these women show on an everyday basis. Like forgoing their career or chasing their dreams amid all the obstacles. Like going through pregnancy without their near and dear ones close-by, or single handedly bringing up their children, whether it is the tantrum throwing toddler or sulky, moody teenager. Like learning to make a warm home in bustling cities or godforsaken places on the map. Much like many single women and single mothers. But these army wives, in addition, learn to get on with life and to live cheerfully (with a prayer in their hearts) while their husbands are fighting on the frontiers. Many such challenges abound in the life of an army officer’s wife and in these circumstances the community stands together to share a bond that becomes a lifetime relationship.

Inspite of the hierarchical structure, the army offers space for these women to spread their wings and grow by encouraging them to showcase their talents and skills and supports them in setting up entrepreneurship opportunities.  Also, the environment motivates them to become independent and equips them to gain new skills through courses and by imparting relevant information, thus boosting their confidence. The army wives’ association offers tremendous emotional support too. Irrespective of religion, caste, region, or qualifications, everyone is showered with immense love and respect. Period.

This bond that is unmatchable in the community of army officers’ wives has made me overlook some of the apprehensions I hold because of ideological differences. I admit I have even succumbed to some of the pressures of this patriarchal hierarchical system, by following some of the protocol to be adhered to by a ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ officer’s wife. At the same time, I do not wholeheartedly agree with everything that is said and there are many other women who feel this way.

The feminist in me still argues against the larger power discourse upon which the organisation is built. But when there are debates about the alleged human rights violations by the military, I have learnt to diplomatically not take a stand. Not because I am afraid to be upfront about my views, but having interacted closely with the army men, I have no doubt that they share a similar ethos about human rights and dignity as do I. Therefore it is hard to believe that they would intentionally and ruthlessly carry out the operations they are alleged to. Many of them are as peace loving as any of us and do not want to be killed, leaving their families behind. Also, the military system gives foremost priority to the protection of the people, and inspite of hardships and hostile conditions the army men relentlessly carry out welfare measures and relief operations in disturbed areas. I see the lived experiences of the army men in testing times and inhuman conditions at a closer range and am able to empathise with these men in green. The comradery that the wives of these men share is humbling and the love and support that I receive from this community sometimes silences my leftist liberal arguments.

I do not feel the need to fight the feminist war within these spaces all the time, now that it has become my home. I have come to terms with the idea that certain contradictions can co-exist peacefully like the yin and yang.  But still, sometimes, my mind is roiled in conflict, with me cautiously trying to balance my two identities – the feminist and the army officer’s wife. Nevertheless, I am unwilling to give up one for the other (even if I might be perceived as being less of one of them). So I continue to be an individual with two seeming contradictions: a feminist army-officer’s-wife!

Cover Image: Rekha Ahmed