The strange logic of sexual inequality in the Forces

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The logical conclusion to be drawn from the Ministry of Defence study of women's fitness for front-line combat is the opposite of that apparently drawn by Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State. The study has found that fewer than 2 per cent of servicewomen are as fit as the average serviceman, and The Independent reports today that Mr Hoon has therefore decided to continue the ban on women serving in combat roles.

He should instead lift the ban at once, on the grounds that at least 2 per cent of women are fit enough. The statistical reliability of that 2 per cent figure is doubtful in any case, as it is expressed in relation to an average for men, some of whom will be less fit than the average and some of whom will be more.

The military top brass seem to be making much of the fact that none of the female soldiers taking part were able to complete a basic test of combat fitness in which they had to carry another soldier for 50 yards. Yet none of this begins to answer the fundamental issue of principle: if a woman could pass the test, should she be allowed to fight?

Mr Hoon's answer would appear to be no, on the grounds that too few women are likely to be able to pass to make it worthwhile challenging the conservatism of attitudes in the Forces. The answer should be yes. On principle, if only one woman had the physical strength and stamina to pass the test required of men to serve in combat roles, she should be allowed to serve, too.

All the other issues are secondary, which is not to say that they are unimportant. While the broad principle of equality between the sexes may be widely accepted in Britain today, its practical application often comes up against cultural assumptions that are old and run deep. Those assumptions run deeper in the Armed Forces than in most other parts of society. It hardly matters to most modern soldiers that women have fought in face-to-face land warfare at various points in history, from repelling the Turks at Eger in Hungary in 1552 to serving in the Soviet army in the Second World War.

However, Mr Hoon has allowed the services to delay, argue and set misleading tests for long enough. The principle of equality has not been weakened by the opposition of the conservatives; on the contrary, it has been strengthened. The fitness test makes the case that if women can pass the same test as men, they must have the right to serve under the same conditions.