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Women and War: Women in combat and the internal debate in the field of gender studies

Sumantra Maitra - 22nd April 2013
Women and War

Sumantra Maitra wades into the ongoing debate over women and war, and provides a useful overview that leads to a call for further careful research.  

From the dawn of time, ever since there were conflict and clashes in human history, gender roles have been defined and distinctly marked. Over time, especially in the last century and a half, the distinct demarcation slowly blurred but gender roles still exist, perhaps nowhere as strongly and more sharply defined as during times of war. In the context of women joining combat, there needs to be a comprehensive study of the roles of gender during war, and peace, and we need to have an understanding of what we mean by war and peace. For the sake of clarity in assessment, and with the risk of oversimplification, peace is defined as a state of affairs, characterized by a lack of war or violent conflict. In this column, I examine the history of gender roles, gender stereotypes, and gender demarcation, and how they fit in the post-modern context of war and peace. I also address the subjects of female warriors, soldiers and other women in the armed forces, the role of women during modern and post modern wartime, civilian women during war and war rape, and feminist ideas about gender roles during war.

Gender Roles: Women in war and women at war

Gender roles have been defined in both Western and Asian civilisations, in both democratic and non-democratic societies. Theories range from the Early Vedic period scholars in India, like Gargi and Maitreyi to the Greek Neo-platonic scholar Hypatia in Roman Egypt, who broke the myth of gender stereotypes in peace time. However, during wartime, women were mostly the victims as women warriors were dehumanized, ridiculed, and killed or executed due to their rebellion not only against authority but also against a traditional gender role. Women are also considered disadvantaged due to the unique physical advantages men are born with, and are generally looked down upon when it comes to roles during war. The characteristic that men and women were born with are generally attributed to the work structure they are supposed to be in, and ultimately decides the roles. Women effectuate two kinds of responses: on one hand, the soldiers and fellow combatants or even citizens feel more protective, and thus take more risk to save the lives and honor of the women. On the other hand, history reveals how women were always treated as spoils of war. Joshua Goldstein explains, “Thinking about home or life after the war appears to be a strong motivator for many soldiers; some soldiers find motivation to fight in the need to protect women (abstractly if not tangibly). Women’s protected status in wartime, however, is not universal, and is often tenuous. Because of the feminization of noncombat, the presence of women in combat might upset the male soldiers. Women often participate actively as codependents, so to speak, facilitating men’s militarized masculinity.”

The role of women in combat is, thus a matter of intense debate and scrutiny. The debate is part of the army hierarchy, regardless of the speaker being male or female, and is not related to mindset. Col. Richard Mills, commander of Marines in Helmand says, “Infantrymen sometimes carry 100 pounds of equipment on their backs, the barrier was one of physical strength. There is a physical difference between what a man can carry and what a woman can carry, the physical demands of the infantry make it a male organization.” Col. Lori E. Reynolds agrees, “I don’t think they should close with and destroy the enemy. When you go out and see what the infantry does – the way they live, the way they train –- it’s good that it’s all male.” However there are voices of dissent too, as Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, female veteran of the Gulf War, and American POW who was sexually assaulted, says, “The problem is that we've had this tradition in the military that women aren't offensive. War is not a hormonal event. It is a profession with discipline; Gender should not be a discriminator in combat roles.” She conceded, however, that she hadn’t met a single woman who actually wanted to be in the infantry. But incidents like Cornum or Jessica Lynch repeatedly highlight the situational difference when it comes to women combatants or soldiers.

The role of women changed during the World Wars. Previously, even though women took part in wars, they were mostly limited and rare. But the nature of all-out war, with all the resources and hands needed at work, changed the dynamics of society. Women were an integral part of the war effort; they were needed to win the war. In a move massively opposed and debated by the Trade Unions, millions of women were called in to work during both World Wars and the trade unions were appeased by the agreement that women would get back to their home after the end of the war. The process was known as “Dilution”. The newly independent women free from Victorian and Edwardian moral constraints, and financially self-sufficient, signified the beginning of an all-encompassing movement of women’s suffrage, and the second wave of feminism. However to understand the concept of gender during war, one needs to look at the women in and around a warzone. The functioning reality in and around a warzone is much more complicated, as is the psychology of the actors present. Susan Brownmiller was one of the first historians to deal with the subject, of war and women, and war rape. She wrote, “War provides men with the perfect psychological backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women. The maleness of the military—the brute power of weaponry exclusive to their hands, the spiritual bonding of men at arms, the manly discipline of orders given and orders obeyed, the simple logic of the hierarchical command—confirms for men what they long suspect—that women are peripheral to the world that counts. Men who rape are ordinary Joes, made unordinary by entry into the most exclusive male-only club in the world.”

Ruth Seifert offers a thought-provoking analysis of rape during conflict. According to Seifert, rape is tactical, a deliberate attempt to debase and humiliate a section of society, a crushing of the morale, done with clinical efficiency. Rape during a conflict has nothing to do with sexuality, but is a method of aggression…it is not “an aggressive expression of sexuality, but a sexual expression of aggression.” Sexualized violence in war is usually more sadistic than sexualized violence outside war, as it is done on a mass scale, and targets the morale of the victims. It is a deliberate and systematic tactical aggression intended to crush any resistance. It is often a strategy to terrorize and ethnically cleanse a population, to humiliate and subjugate, and is often done in the presence of their close relatives, who are made to watch. The women are often forced to bear the child of their rape, as in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, and there have been reports of infanticide, abandonment and abortion. These offspring became known as “enfants mauvais souvenir,” or children of bad memories.

Miranda Alison explains that the male urge to rape in a conflict zone is related to their aggression, physical strength and natural role as protectors of females, who are submissive nurturers and givers of life. Alison talks about ‘our women’ in contrast to ‘their women’ and ‘our men’ to ‘their men’ during conflict. Masculinity defines men during conflict and gives them the "duty" to protect ‘their’ women. Wartime sexual violence therefore serves a dual purpose as a demonstration of power by a group of men over the enemy women, which simultaneously serves to emasculate the males of the enemy group. “Thus, the masculine is dominant over the enemy female and the enemy feminized male.” Alison argues that wartime sexual violence is not against one’s own group unless she is perceived as a traitor. The fact that sexual violence is generally acknowledged as only on women re-imposes the values that women should be protected, by men…which does nothing to breach the gender gap, bias or discourse. According to Alison, the idea of male strength and feminine weakness is socially constructed, where male masculinity is regarded as active and women feminity regarded as a passive trait.

Feminism: Inter-Feminism debate and contradiction

The Feminist perspective on gender during conflict is divided. The feminist critique of conventional conceptualization criticizes the geopolitical and militarized discourse and blames the “male psychology” behind conflicts in general. Feminist conceptions of security, war and peace are based on social relationships and interactions, rather than geopolitics, challenging the territorial presumption of states. As Cynthia Enloe states, it is this particular and prevalent political order that makes women insecure. However, there is a distinct difference in the ideas among feminist ideologues about how to change this order. Feminists argue that war has a tendency to mark women and children as passive forces. “[A]spects of the relationship between women and war are often discussed: we frequently hear of the toll of apparently passive ‘women and children’ as victims of war, and women’s suitability for combat is questioned or their link with peace is made, as implied in George W. Bush’s recent comment on the Middle East conflict, that ‘when an 18 year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up, killing a 17 year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying’”, writes Laura Turquet. But it would be imprudent to categorise the whole concept under one box, as feminism takes many forms. In particular, during the second-wave feminist movement of the late nineteen sixties and seventies, three varieties of feminism, supposed to be mutually exclusive, were tagged ‘radical’, ‘socialist’ and ‘liberal’. Feminist theorists across the board and spectrum agrees is that, war dramatically enhances authority, exacerbates the sexual violence, and increases prostitution and trafficking along with the growing militarization of a society. Anti-militarist feminists generally fall under the Radical feminism bracket, although it is hard to understand the claim that war only affects women. “Likewise war is often caused by, or exploits, politicized difference, of national identity, religion and ethnicity. In class and race, these two significant fields of human relations, antiwar feminism notes the working of gender relations, and is alert to how they intersect.”

The central arguement of the feminist peace movement is that women are essentially morally superior to men, and naturally (or socially conditioned to be) more peaceful, placing a higher value on preserving and nurturing life and social justice in general. The analysis of the arms race through a feminist lens focuses on the association between violence and male identity. It argues that nuclear weapons no longer ‘make sense’ militarily or economically, except when interpreted as a device to reinforce ‘masculinity’. Liberal feminists, on the other hand, work on the premise that rational human beings are entitled to basic rights. To them, women’s inequality is an irrationality that needs to be corrected. In the particular case of women and war, liberal feminists argue that rights are contingent on obligations, of which willingness to take up arms in defence of one’s country is one of the most important. They argue that troops, especially infantry and frontline troops, should give equal opportunity to women soldiers, even though there have been occasions which proved that is not possible, even when given a chance. In the US, the National Organisation for Women (NOW) advocated for women’s inclusion in front-line roles in the army. They challenged the notion of women’s inequality on the premise that it re-inscribes ‘archaic notions’ of women’s abilities in combat and deprivation of such rights may cause ‘devastating long-term psychological and political repercussions’. However, female officers who are serving, often challenge this position however. “Attempting to place females in the infantry will not improve the Marine Corps,” observed Capt. Katie Petronio “Can women endure the physical and physiological rigors of sustained combat operations, and are we willing to accept the attrition and medical issues that go along with integration?”

Ideas of gender and feminism influence the study of war and peace. There are criticisms, too. Critics of the theory allege that gender-based women’s peace groups project the kind of essentialist view of women that reinforces the notion of biology as destiny, and legitimizes a sex role system that, in assigning responsibility for nurture and survival to women alone, lays the basis for male violence in the family and the state. Feminism is not a uniform movement, and different internal arguments have weakened the cause. The fear that self-criticism might weaken the feminist movement led to a shunting of criticism by some Feminists.

Also, most importantly, gender studies, with all its noble intentions, is still notoriously one-sided, highlighting the exploitation and issues of one sex and completely neglecting the other one.

“It is hard to imagine a department for Middle Eastern studies without Arab students and lecturers. It is impossible to imagine a conference on the situation of Ethiopian immigrants without a sizable representation of them. Only one thing is indeed possible - totally feminist and female gender studies. The lack of men in this discourse is ludicrous, not merely because of the lack of a very essential voice in research but because it also undermines the academic side. How is it possible to formulate a theory without reinforcement or criticism from colleagues in the field?” asks Yiftach Shiloni. This perhaps summarizes the central flaw in the field. Nonetheless, the field of gender studies and women in war underscores the importance of further study, identification of the sources of exploitation of women, and the unique ways they suffer during war and combat operations. Perhaps more research needs to be done on the subject of women in combat, or the ethics of this movement, before giving in to ideological bias and dogmatism. Only with the benefit of hindsight will we be able to form a solid theoretical framework of the ethics of women in combat, and/or analyse the cost-benefit ratio in the long run.

1. Szoldra, Paul. " Every Female Officer Who Tried To Join Marine Combat Units Has Dropped Out Of Training " - 4 APRIL 2013 4:21 AM
2. Goldstein, Joshua S. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa , Chapter 5 : (Cambridge University Press, September 2001)
3. Bumillar, Elizabeth. “Redefining Gender Roles in Combat” . NYTimes, May 29, 2010.
4. Sciolino, Elaine. “Female P.O.W. Is Abused, Kindling Debate “ NYTimes, June 29, 1992.
6. “A Woman’s Burden”, TIME Magazine, USA, March 28, 2003.
7. Jessica Lynch : I Was Raped. WND 2003.
8. Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, 1975, Pg 31 – 139.
9. Seifert, Ruth. War and Rape: Analytical Approaches
10. Mukangendo, Marie Consolée. Rwanda: Coping With Children Born of Rape
11. Romaniuk, Scott Nicholas. “Rape Warfare: Sexual Violence as a Systematic Weapon of War” , American Journal of Scientific Research , Issue 9(2010)
12. Ibid.
13. Turquet, Laura : War Peace and Feminism,
14. Cockburn, Cynthia: What kind of feminism does war provoke?,
15. Drummond, Katie. “Female Lieutenants Flunk Marine Corps' Fierce Infantry Training”, 16 October, 2012.
16. Petronio, Katie. “ Get Over It, we are not created equal “,
17. Shiloni, Yiftach. “Why is gender studies dominated by one gender? “ 12, May 2010, Haaretz.

“A Woman’s Burden”, TIME Magazine, USA, March 28, 2003.
Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, 1975, Pg 31 – 139.
Bumillar, Elizabeth. “Redefining Gender Roles in Combat” . NYTimes, May 29, 2010.
Chew, HA. “Women and War, Reclaiming a Feminist perspective.” The Left Turn, June 16, 2007.
Cockburn, Cynthia: What kind of feminism does war provoke?,
Drummond, Katie. “Female Lieutenants Flunk Marine Corps' Fierce Infantry Training”, 16 October, 2012.
Goldstein, Joshua S. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa , Chapter 5 : (Cambridge University Press, September 2001)
Jessica Lynch : I Was Raped. WND 2003.
Mukangendo, Marie Consolée. Rwanda: Coping With Children Born of Rape
Petronio, Katie. “ Get Over It, we are not created equal “,
Romaniuk, Scott Nicholas. “Rape Warfare: Sexual Violence as a Systematic Weapon of War” , American Journal of Scientific Research , Issue 9(2010)
Sciolino, Elaine. “Female P.O.W. Is Abused, Kindling Debate “ NYTimes, June 29, 1992.
Seifert, Ruth. War and Rape: Analytical Approaches
Shiloni, Yiftach. “Why is gender studies dominated by one gender? “ 12, May 2010, Haaretz.
Stemple, Lara. “Male Rape and Human Rights. ”
Storr, Will. “The rape of men.” The Observer, Sunday 17 July 2011.
Tax, Meredith. “Code Pink, the Taliban and Malala Yousafzai”
Turquet, Laura : War Peace and Feminism,

Sumantra Maitra is a freelance journalist from India and a tutor of New Zealand Foreign Policy and Theories of International Relations at the University of Otago, New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @dailyworldwatch.