Belfast Telegraph

Why women deserve a fighting chance to serve on front line

By Rosie Millard

While the gender pay gap seemed more intractable than ever last week, there's good news on the equality front as we might see British women soldiers fighting on the front line within two years. Currently, in the Army, women are excluded from hand-to-hand combat. But after a study found that women and men fighting together does not necessarily preclude the effectiveness of a good ground combat team, the mood music is that equality in the Army should mean just that.

Women and men together on the front line. How will this play? There was a pretty silly comment on Radio 4 which seemed to be about leg length, suggesting that women won't be able to keep up when marching alongside the chaps, and plenty of others across the board who feel it is just "wrong" to have women fighting in units where, as the Army has it, "the primary role is to close with and kill the enemy".

Yet there is precedent. We all know about the female soldiers serving in the Israeli army, but apparently about 70,000 female Russian soldiers fought on the front line at the Battle of Stalingrad. And we all know the outcome of that. More recently, British female support staff have been thrown into conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they conducted themselves with skill and aplomb, some winning honours.

Ah, but women aren't strong enough, people will say. There is no getting around the fact that women and men differ in upper body strength, in weight, in height - all the things which come into play if, or when, you are required to engage in hand-to-hand combat while carrying a pack weighing 50kg. Would male soldiers have to start carrying kit for their female colleagues? In an era when boots on the ground is not as key as air attacks, this might not be as critical as it seems.

How about the question of capture? What would a woman soldier be forced to endure, should she fall into enemy hands, that a male counterpart might not?

Yet surely this is a redundant argument, for torture is a horror that knows no gender difference.

Online, the forums are full of anxiety. One person even fretted about the fact that a tank is closed down for long periods; everyone inside has to use the same bucket, as it were. "I welcome equality and equal opportunities," writes 'Joolz', "but I fear our strong sense of social justice has toppled over and we straining (sic) our values. War is not a place of equality."

Yet I suspect just the same words were used 50, 70, or 100 years ago when male bastions of exclusiveness were being breached by women; from voting to working in the City to running the Chicago marathon. And, we should not forget, the fact is that war is far less about front lines these days and more about "asymmetry", which is why so many women support staff have been drawn into conflict already.

Plus, while considering boots on the ground, let's not forget about the important notion of changing "hearts and minds", with which our troops have been very much engaged, and which probably does far more to achieve long-lasting victory than mere muscle.

Frankly, if women can match their counterparts in fitness and want to be out there alongside the men, I'm sure they aren't going to worry about the fact that there will be no gender-specific toilets in the tank.

Venice's tourists sink to new depths

Hilarious news from Venice where a German couple on holiday amused themselves not by being photographed in a gondola, but by stealing one and making off across the lagoon to the island of San Giorgio.

This story really reflects on the behaviour of tourists in La Serenissima, which is not very good. At least, it is bad enough for the city to ban wheelie suitcases (which wreck the cobbles) and issue a guide on how visitors might "blend in with locals".

What? In Venice? The whole point about this city is that there are no locals. And so there is no urgency for anyone to behave, since everyone is either a tourist or someone servicing a tourist. Without any notion of civic ownership, the place will clearly go to the dogs, what with people pulling their wheelie cases everywhere and pinching gondolas without a care.

I wouldn't bet on the Queen abdicating

Apparently there has been a surge of bets on the likelihood of the Queen abdicating during her annual Christmas message.

Bookmaker Coral had offered odds of 10-1 against Elizabeth II hanging up her crown during the broadcast, and so many people have slapped down money on this that it has stopped taking bets on the matter. Well, it would be one way to liven up the world's dreariest television moment, for sure, but I suspect this story has no foundation.

Indeed, I warrant it has been planted by the canny Buckingham Palace PR machine.

It is quite hard for me to convince my children how vital an institution the Queen's Speech once was.

When I was young, we were not even allowed to open our presents until the shot of the Royal Ensign fluttering over the palace had faded.

My parents (now aged 83 and 84) represent probably the only group of people in the country to take TQS seriously.

Where will they be on Christmas Day? Oh yes, I remember. My house.

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