New army wives vs an old mindset
Doe Nair’s first ladies club parade was a disaster. She only realized why her fellow army wives were greeting her unenthusiastically and whispering about her when the COW arrived. The commanding officer’s wife walked down the line in her gold necklace and scarlet chiffon sari, inspecting the ladies. “She then came to me and turned the colour of her sari,” Nair writes in I Married The Army, a rollicking portrait of army life in the 1960s, and one that officers still recommend for newbie military spouses.
“‘A cotton,’ she shrieked…. ‘No, no, only chiffons. Don’t you know the commander’s wife (one step higher in the hierarchy) has ordered only chiffons are to be worn.’” When Nair later bumped into that senior wife at that event, she laughingly denied instituting any such rule. Later, Nair’s husband was hauled up for his wife’s misdemeanours. Ensure your spouse is docile, pleasing, and not argumentative, he was informed.
Nair’s story about the pecking order that exists among army wives begins her book, and though much has changed since then, every once in a while we are reminded that the Army Wives Welfare Association (Awwa), the bastion of all these hierarchies, remains in need of a drastic makeover.
The New Indian Express reported last week that during a ceremonial event at the Bathinda military station, the wife of a commanding officer slapped the wife of a Lieutenant Colonel for coming late to an Awwa event. The Lieutenant Colonel has complained to everyone, from the Prime Minister to the National Human Rights Commission and the CBI director, the newspaper reported.
“Even our phones and gadgets get regular upgrades—maybe it’s time for an upgrade/update in the existing hierarchy amongst army wives,” tweeted author and army wife Aditi Mathur Kumar, who is one of the more outspoken members of this tribe.
It’s not the first time that a spouse has shared her frustration about the restrictions imposed by military life. In 2014, a wife complained that her husband’s Brigade Commander harassed and threatened her when she objected to participating in an Awwa fashion show. In 2009, one wife alleged in a legal notice that her husband was given below-average ratings in his annual appraisal report because of her lack of enthusiasm for Awwa activities.
“Why should a jawan’s wife perform for visiting officers? Would you perform for your bosses?” asks former army wife Rosme Chaube, who went public with her complaints about Awwa around the same time. Chaube and her Major husband left the army three years after she first complained to the chief. “Once you complain, everyone ostracizes you. Nobody will talk to you, nobody will call you,” she tells me over the phone.
So what is this group that has such a hold on wives? It’s a welfare organization headed by the army chief’s wife that was set up to keep an eye out for the families of the troops. Membership is mandatory for all wives of serving officers.
It can be a source of great camaraderie for the women living in an isolated cantonment. Their husbands had years of training to prepare for the army, but many of the wives may not have even known what they were getting into when they signed up to be a military spouse.
Awwa provides support in a medical emergency, help with school admissions, can work to improve health and hygiene standards of military families and offer investment advice. Its members have even been known to raise funds to help one of their own make a down-payment on a house. One of its main goals is the rehabilitation of war widows.
Yet it can easily disintegrate into battles about dress codes and decorating duties for parties. The rules that govern who can say what to whom haven’t changed since Nair’s days in the army. Not attending a party is not an option. Any Awwa experience, an army wife will tell you, depends entirely upon the woman who runs it.
Sometimes the conflict can remind you of that most cliched of urban wars: the mother-in-law vs the daughter-in-law, where the younger woman eventually ends up mirroring the actions of the hierarchy-conscious older woman and nothing ever changes. It’s the standard syllabus from the I-did-it-and-so-will-you school of power relationships.
One Facebook post titled “11 things to know if you are an army wife” includes points such as:
Repeat with me “Yes Mrs….,” “Yes Mrs…”; yes, you are participating in everything; everyone has a qualification, yours is just being an officer’s wife.
Women who are married to or dating men in uniforms have been writing to Mathur Kumar since her first book, Soldier & Spice: An Army Wife’s Life, was published in 2014. One of the more common questions they have these days is about their career. What will I do when he’s posted in a remote location? There are only two answers to this question, Mathur Kumar writes back. “Quit and work from home or do what so many women do—choose to stay at one station and meet when one or the other gets leave.” Some educated women are now opting not to marry into the Armed Forces, she says.
I admire army wives even more than their uniformed spouses. They can pack their tin trunks and move anywhere at a moment’s notice. They can smilingly compare notes about the length of separation from their spouses. One couple I know has lived apart for 11 of their 21 married years.
Army wives are expert single parents, managing everything from birthday parties to board exams while their spouses are on deployment in some remote location which may or may not have internet connectivity.
“An army wife always keeps her head high, her voice low and her heart open,” one spouse tells another in Soldier & Spice. “We army wives laugh instead of crying at things that are out of our control.”
All army wives know that one day they may actually be a single-parent household—and that their children might eventually want to follow the same career path as their father once did. Army wives are so sorted, it’s scary. I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to fix their petty hierarchies too.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.