UK women might be able to fight on the frontline. Not before time.

So it looks like the UK army is heading for the 21st century. The UK’s defence secretary Michael Fallon has said women could be eligible for combat duty as soon as 2016. He has said that armed forces roles “should be determined by ability not gender”. That happens everywhere else in the UK (with one big exception I’ll get to later). The only question is : Why is it taken us so long? The UK is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) an international military alliance. It is one of 28 members of the alliance. Only three members (the UK, Turkey and Slovakia) don’t allow women to fight in the frontline. Our English speaking allies – the US, Canada and even Australia a far more sexist country than the UK is – have allowed women into the frontline.
Of course not everybody agrees with this. But the arguments put up against it are pathetic. Ex-Tory MP Norman Tebbit says that “the purpose of the Army is to defend the United kingdom. It is not a sub-office of the Equal Opportunities Commission”. This from a man who wanted to introduce a “cricket test” for immigrants to prove how loyal they are to the UK. If the Tories are known as the “nasty party” in the UK this man is one of the reasons. The Daily Telegraph (December 6th 2014) said that “the female heart is 20 % smaller than the male heart on average, the female skeleton is smaller than average and women on average have 30% less muscle than men”. Oh dear that word again. Average. Only “banter” has been used more to justify sex discrimination than “average”. The Army isn’t interested in “average people”. I remember watching an Army recruitment ad on TV. The slogan was “Army. Be the best”. The female soldier will have as much in common with the average woman as she has with the average polar bear!
It has also been suggested that having women in the Army will weaken the Army’s “Band of brothers ” mentality or that there will be sexual abuse, or that men and women will have love affairs and destabilise the Army. Well men and women work together in workplaces all over the world and it seems these places survive perfectly well. And as for sexual abuse the answer is to stop it not to keep the sexes apart. To my mind there is a simple principle here. If a woman meets the entry standard she should be allowed to fight on the frontline. Today’s Daily Telegraph has a headline “just 34 women expected to be tough enough for ground war”. Even if that is true so what? Even if just one woman is qualified to prohibit her because of her sex is nonsense. Besides role models are important. If even one woman is able to fight on the frontline a young girl might say “if she can do it so can I”. It’s win-win for the Army. The worst case scenario is no women meet the standards in which case nothing changes. The best case scenario is that the ground forces get an influx of talented young recruits. But the principle is important. The Army – along with football and the Church of England which got its first woman bishop this week – began to lose touch with society after the UK’s 1964 General Election which produced a Labour government that legalised homosexuality and abortion, made divorce easier, abolished hanging and introduced the Equal Pay Act and (when Labour regained power in 1974) the Sex Discrimination Act. The Army if it allows women on the frontline, will have caught up with society again just like the Church has by allowing woman bishops.
Which leaves one industry still out of touch. Former UK defence secretary Phillip Hammond called the armed forces “the last bastion of male chauvinism”. He is obviously not a football fan. It is quite ridiculous to think that in two years time women could be fighting with men…but won’t be allowed to play football with men. After all the Army is far physically tougher than football is. A combat soldier has to carry 70 pound packs on their back for hours which is far tougher than running around for 90 minutes (and some footballers don’t even do that, as anyone that has watched Mario Balotelli will know). Jean Williams (“A Game for Rough Girls?” page 184) puts it far better than I can “Football is not as serious as life or death and yet for a woman to compete in a formally sanctioned leisure activity against men is unimaginable”. Two weeks ago there was a poll on the Daily Telegraph’s website asking if women should fight on the frontline. The result was that 62.73% said yes. I suspect if the paper asked if women should play football with men the number agreeing would be much lower. Yet the same principle applies. Strength is specific to individuals and is not gendered. The Army is realising this. Football is not.
Back to the Army. I reckon if women are allowed on the frontline in 2016 ten years later we’ll be taking their presence for granted and people will be thinking “Wasn’t it ridiculous that women were banned from combat for so long”? After all at one time women couldn’t vote, be MPs, go to university or be police officers and fire fighters. Now we take women in these roles for granted and the fact they were ever banned seems ridiculous. Once the novelty wears off women in the frontline will become the norm and people will wonder “why was there all this fuss back in 2014”?


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