Does the Gender of the Defence Minister Matter?
On 3 September 2017, India got its first full-time woman Defence Minister, and the media went gaga over it! The reason behind this ‘fixation’ is that areas such as defence and security have been traditionally seen as male bastion.
When Indira Gandhi was in charge of the Defence Ministry in the late 1970s, as the then Prime Minister, political commentators jokingly referred to her as the ‘only man’ in her Cabinet.
In a patriarchal society like ours, gender roles are defined by the society. American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler called this “Gender Performativity,” a concept that has been elucidated in her book Gender trouble: Feminism and subversion of identity. Issues like war, violence, army, defence, etc have been ingrained in the general psyche of the masses as areas more suited to men and that’s why we rarely get to see women as an Army General, Air Chief Marshal or even as the Chief of Naval Staff. This phenomenon is not unique to India and can be witnessed across the world.
As everyone is appreciating the move of the government to appoint a woman as the Defence Minister, one question arises. What role does the gender of a person play when the person concerned is a decision-making authority? Does it make any difference to the way things function or is it really a matter of women empowerment, as has been argued by many political commentators?
Discrimination Linked to Conflict Resolution
This was explained by another American scholar, Professor Mary Caprioli, in her scholarly article titled Gendered Conflict, published in the Journal of Peace Research at the beginning of this millennium. She draws attention to how the participation of women in the scenarios of ‘conflict resolution’ in international disputes can bring down the use of ‘force’ and ‘violence’.
This is not just an observation by one scholar. Benjamin Page and Robert Y Shapiro, in their work ‘The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends In Americans' Policy Preference’ declared that in practically all realms of foreign and domestic policy, women are less ‘belligerent’ than men.
Pacifism Works for Women
The answer to the question why women at the helm (like India’s new defence minister in this case) or women in general are less belligerent than their male counterparts has been explained by feminist scholars like Jane Flax and Carol Gilligan. They said that, “Women's relative pacifism may be a result of women seeing moral dilemmas in terms of ‘conflicting responsibilities’ rather than ‘competing rights’, and of their valuing ‘community and connectedness’ over ‘autonomy and individuation”.
With Nirmala Sitharaman as India’s defence minister, it would be really interesting to see how she deals with issues such as boundary-related disputes and other territorial conflicts with countries like China and Pakistan.
The Cabinet Committee on Security which consists of the Prime Minister as its Chairman along with the Home Minister, Finance Minister, Defence Minister and the External Affairs Minister has now got two women, Sushma Swaraj, as the External Affairs Minister, and Nirmala Sitharaman, the newly appointed Defence Minister. This in itself is a ‘first’ in the history of India.
Improvement in Male-Female Ratio in Cabinet
It would be interesting to see whether the improved male-female ratio in the Cabinet Committee on Security will bring any change in the way the government functions. All these arguments were made when the current external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was appointed in 2014. Since foreign policy has also been a ‘male dominated’ area traditionally, similar arguments were heard back then.
Political commentators beg to differ on whether appointing Sushma Swaraj as External Affairs Minister brought any change to the way MEA used to function earlier, with foreign policy being the domain of the PMO rather than MEA. But one thing which has been often noticed is Sushma Swaraj’s ‘personalised’ approach in dealing with problems as the External Affairs Minister. Many a times on social media platforms like Twitter, her ‘humane touch’ can be seen when she replies to people in distress.
Will one get to see the same ‘personalized approach’ with ‘humane touch’ in case of Nirmala Sitharaman?
Only time will tell.
(The writer is a Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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