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Patriarchy in the Indian Navy: The way forward

                                                                                                                        – Ishu Dayal Srivastava

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“Patriarchy is not a historical curiosity but a living, breathing and dangerous entity that continues to be a palpable presence in all our lives and to expand, act on, invade, and influence our world in a host of negative ways.”[i] 

Patriarchy has been suppressing women since times immemorial. While This wrong turn was made during evolution and has now come to an extent where despite rigorous efforts, it stands unchecked and still developing. Patriarchy has been evidently more difficult to eradicate than it was ever thought to be. It has percolated into the mindsets of every single individual in this world. The majority of individuals have experienced the system of patriarchy whether knowingly or unknowingly. There have been various advancements and there have been various events in history where considerable progress was achieved, for example, the suffragette women’s vote movement in the early 20th century, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the affirmative action and women’s liberation in the 1960s to 1980s. In India, various legislations and case decisions have marked milestones on the path of breaking down the patriarchal structure and provided for equal status to women. For example, right from Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum, where alimony to Muslim women was validated to Shayra Bano v. Union of India, where the patriarchal and discriminatory practice of “Talaq- e- Biddat”, popularly known as the Triple Talaq case. Two new judgments were recently added to the list of such judgements, namely, The Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya, and where it granted the permanent commission to women, in the Indian Navy (henceforth, “the Navy”) who were not allowed to apply for the same, unlike their male counterparts. This blog is divided into three sections, the first section attempts to explain what is patriarchy? The second section highlights the historical background of the government’s efforts to introduce women in the Indian Navy and the assumed gender roles.


According to Merriam – Webster dictionary, patriarchy means “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line.”. As pointed out by Max Weber in his formal definition of Patriarchalism – “Patriarchalism means the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of the house, the sib elder over the members of the household and sib; the rule of the master and patron over bondsmen, serfs, freedmen; of the lord over the domestic servants and household officials’ of the prince over the house- and court-officials, nobles of office, clients, vassals; of the patrimonial lord and sovereign prince over the ‘subjects.”[ii] One important observation to be made here is that patriarchalism not only affects women but also other men. While this may be true Heidi Hartmann comments about this as “Though patriarchy is hierarchical and men of different classes, races, or ethnic groups have different places in the patriarchy, they are also united in their shared relationship of dominance over their women; they are dependent on each other to maintain that domination.”[iii] Thus, while patriarchy affects men and women both, women are largely oppressed in this system. The arguments that women have had power in ancient times have a limitation that such power was limited only to households. Having said that, there have been instances where women have been rulers of kingdoms, but the number of such instances has always been minuscule in number as compared to men. Such a long era, particularly dominated by god, guns, and greed with an overshadow of its patriarchic character, has engraved gender roles. This implies that specific roles or tasks are entitled to certain genders and thus, cannot be performed by other genders. This paves way for the next section of the blog.

 Patriarchy in the Indian Navy

The Navy has consisted and has been dominated by men since times immemorial. This holds even to this date. The Government of India (hereafter, “the government”) has tried to make room for women, but such an effort seems half-hearted. The union government in pursuance of its powers granted to it u/s 9(2) of the Navy Act, had made women officers eligible to become officers back in 1991. There was also a rule to make women officers eligible for permanent commission (PC) in 1997 according to paragraph 4 of the letter. The male officers were allowed to apply for PC, while women were not. Despite such notification, no women were granted PC, at best they were offered an extension to their Short Service Commissions (SSC). What this means for women was that even after working for the navy for 10-14 years, they were not granted a pension and many other benefits that were available to male officers, but not to female officers. However, on 6 November 1998, the Union Government made women eligible for appointment as officers in all four branches of the Indian Navy, once again exercising its power under Section 9(2). [iv]

Following the 1998 notification, on 25 February 1999, the Union Government sent a letter to the Chief of Naval Staff, specifying which regulations would govern the grant of PC for female Naval officers. Thereby it clearly opened the possibility of granting female officers PC. It stated that any grant of PC must be made in accordance with Regulation 203 of Chapter IX of the Naval Ceremonial, Conditions of Service and Miscellaneous Regulations, 1963. Regulation 203 stipulates that PC is subject to three conditions: (i) availability of vacancies, (ii) consideration of suitability, and (iii) recommendation of Chief of Naval Staff.[v]

In 2008, the union government also issued a policy granting an opportunity for PC to female officers in the Navy. Again, it was a restrictive one, as it only allowed PC to women in specific cadres and batches.

Thus, these efforts by the government, although can be considered under the term ‘efforts’, but are half-hearted ones. Moreover, the arguments by the government and the armed forces glaringly carve out their patriarchal mindsets.

In a section under the heading of “The Stereotypical Sailor”[vi]

a section called “The Stereotypical Sailor”, the Court noted that the government had attempted to justify its stand by arguing that sea-duties were ill-suited for women as “there is no return to base”, and that Russian naval vessels had no separate bathrooms for women (paragraph 72). These arguments were roundly rejected, with Chandrachud J. noting that “the contention that certain sea-going duties are ill-suited to women officers is premised on sex stereotypes that male officers are more suited to certain duties by virtue of the physiological characteristics.” (paragraph 74), and that:

arguments founded on the physical strengths and weaknesses of men and women do not constitute a constitutionally valid basis for denying equal opportunity to women officers. To accept the contention urged by the ASG would be to approve the socially ascribed gender roles which a commitment to equal worth and dignity of every individual belies. (paragraph 74)[vii]

This section strongly rips out and exposes the patriarchal mindset of the navy. The assumed gender role, that only men can be sailors. The gender stereotype is made visible here in this section.

While the center also argued that according to Article 33, of the constitution the fundamental rights to them can be restricted to ensure proper discharge of duties. The Supreme Court rejected all of the center’s submissions.

In particular, Justice Chandrachud found fault in the Navy’s submission that women are ill-suited to ‘certain sea-going duties’. Analyzing the written submissions, he stressed that ‘sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women’ cannot dictate policy. [viii]

The court ultimately ruled in favor of granting permanent commission to women in the Navy.


This blog deals with only one aspect of patriarchy, that is, patriarchy in the Indian Navy. There innumerable spheres, where such patriarchy is still in practice. If such a method regarding court cases was to be preferred to tackle patriarchy, it would take another generation to tackle patriarchy. Moreover, while some progress is made with such decisions, it is minuscule when compared to the oppression faced by women by patriarchy. Also, this state of tolerable resistance is consistent with Herbert Marcuse’s term “repressive tolerance” where there are certain achievements like this judgement, which gives hope that things can change, but in reality, it only helps in maintaining the status quo of patriarchy and also, prevents an open revolution.


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