The UK talks women in combat

This week, the United Kingdom has made two steps towards gender equality: the first female bishop was appointed and on Friday the Ministry of Defence (MoD) published a review in favour of lifting the ban on women in the army serving in the front line. While the first step has been widely acclaimed both in the UK and abroad, there is still much debate on the second one, with discontent among both supporters and opponents of the reform.

 REUTERS/David Moir REUTERS/David Moir

The government commissioned the review last May after the then defence secretary Philip Hammond signalled that women will be eligible to serve in combat roles. Yet, the results of the review are still not satisfactory for the MoD and the now defence secretary Michael Fallon has pushed the date for lifting the ban to 2016, arguing that further research on the long-term impact of infantry training on women is needed. Some have criticized Fallon, claiming that he is using the publication of the review as a political move without actually realizing anything. They say the reform should have been implemented long ago and that the government is taking time for no good reason.

Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Israel have already lift the ban but some of them have been careful in implementing it and the definition of “combat” varies to include women being engaged as pilots, firing artillery, or being on submarines, which British women soldiers are already doing.

However, the British military has a long history in opposing women serving in the front line and the reasons given have been generally sexist. Three years ago a survey concluded that women would be a distraction to male soldiers were they to serve in combat roles. It was argued that, for instance, if a woman were wounded she would have received more attention than a male soldier. Then there is women’s alleged psychological and physical weakness. Combat, as defined by the MoD in the review, requires the ability to close with and kill the enemy and it includes “the requirement to deploy on foot over difficult terrain, carrying substantial weight, to engage in close quarter fighting, recuperate in the field and then do the same again repeatedly over an extended period”. Many in the British military argue that women simply cannot do that. Women are still generally considered maternal, nurturing creatures and if the idea of women fighting in the army is disturbing to some, the idea of a woman fighting with a man is just unthinkable. Yet, while the argument might seem to be driven by a protective intention, it is merely sexist. As Ewen MacAskill observes in the Guardian, the main reason for resistance “is cultural and psychological, a resistance in society to the idea of women being engaged in close combat with a male enemy”.

One thing that Fallon did say right on Friday is that army selection should be based on ability and physical fitness and not on gender. Not all men are strong and not all women are weak, it is as simple as it sounds.

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