Does The 'Gender' Of the Defence Minister Matter
NEW DELHI: On September 3, 2017, India got its first full time ‘woman’ defence minister. The whole media is fixated on the point that the new defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman is a woman and this point has been highlighted many a times in the news. The reason being given for this ‘fixation’ is that areas such as Defence and Security have been traditionally seen as a ‘male’ bastion or men dominated area. This is evident with the fact that in the last 70 years as a sovereign nation, the defence ministry was always headed by a man, until now. Though, Indira Gandhi took the defence ministry as well under her charge in the late 70s when she was the Prime Minister. Maybe that’s why political commentators jokingly referred to her as the ‘only man’ in her cabinet.
In a patriarchal society, such as ours gender roles are defined by the society. Gender is not something natural, but people ‘perform’ their gender. American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler called this as “Gender Performativity”, which she explained in her book Gender trouble: Feminism and subversion of identity. Coming back to the point, issues like war, violence, army, defence etc have been ingrained in the general ‘psyche’ of the masses as areas much more suited for men and that’s why we rarely get to see women as an Army general or an Air chief Marshall or as the Chief of the Naval Staff. This thing is not unique to India, but across the world one gets to see this phenomenon.
Now, as everyone is appreciating the move of the government to appoint a woman as Defence Minister, the question arises how much 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 usually or is it just a matter of ‘women empowerment’, as has been argued by many political commentators?
Well, the answer to 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. The scholar draws out 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’.
In the article, it is explained that there is a ‘linkage’ between ‘domestic factors’ and ‘state bellicosity’ where states externalize domestic political culture to their international behavior. This has two implications, the first being that those states which typically discriminate and use violence against women in their domestic affairs are more ‘violent’ in international affairs. The second implication being that inclusion of women as equal members of society and at every level of society results in fewer and ‘less violent’ militarized international disputes.
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.
The answer to why women at the helm of the affairs (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 explained by remarking 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’”.
Now, with Nirmala Sitharaman, who is certainly at the helm of the affairs as India’s defence minister, it would be really interesting to see how she deals with issues such as boundary disputes and other territorial disputes with countries like China and Pakistan. Whether her taking the charge as defence minister, makes any change to the way India as a state behaves internationally vis-à-vis defending its territory and doing dialogue with its neighbours and other players in the international system.
Though it is true, that now a woman is a defence minister but the defence minister is not the only one person involved in the important decision making on issues like border security and territorial disputes. The external affairs ministry gets involved, home ministry does, and Prime Minister’s office too gets involved. The Cabinet Committee on Security takes important decisions on areas like defence, national security, internal security etc.
The cabinet committee on security which consists of Prime Minister as its Chairman along with the Home Minister, Finance Minister, Defence Minister and the External Affairs minister has now got two women in it, Sushma Swaraj who is the External Affairs minister and Nirmala Sitaraman, the new defence minister. This is in itself a ‘first’ in the history of India.
It would be interesting to see whether the improved male female ratio in the Cabinet Committee on security will bring in any change in the way the government functions. All these arguments were made when the current external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was appointed as the external affairs minister in 2014. Since, foreign policy has also been a ‘male dominated’ area traditionally, similar arguments were given at that time too.
Though, political commentators differ on the question of whether appointing Sushma Swaraj as External Affairs Minister brought any change to the way MEA used to function earlier because it has been argued by many that foreign policy is now taken care of more by PMO than MEA. But other angle which is often noticed is that of Ms Sushma Swaraj’s very ‘personalized’ approach in dealing with the 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 and needing help outside the country and immediate action is taken to help the person. MEA’s role has been very ‘proactive’ in that sense.
Whether one would get to see the same ‘personalized approach’ with ‘humane touch’ in the case of Nirmala Sitharaman as the new defence minister or one would get to see the same old argument that PMO is doing all the things, only time will tell..