Battles of the sexes

January 4, 2008

The involvement of women in military conflicts, as combatants and victims, has seen them variously vilified and lauded as 'female Rambos', 'secret weapons' and 'damsels in distress'. Kelly Oliver looks behind the rhetoric.

In reports on the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, news media repeatedly describe women soldiers as "weapons". They are not just women with weapons or women carrying bombs; their very bodies are perceived as dangerous. For example, a columnist for the New York Times wrote that a soldier called Claire - with a machine gun in her arms and a flower in her helmet - was "an example of the most astounding modern weapon in the Western arsenal". After news broke about female interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, a Time magazine headline spoke of "female sexuality used as a weapon" and The Times described Palestinian women suicide bombers as "secret weapons" and "human precision bombs", "more deadly than the male".

Even PFC (Private First Class) Jessica Lynch, the American soldier captured and rescued early in the Iraq invasion, was labelled a "human shield" and a weapon in the propaganda war. Reactions to the more recent capture and release of British Seaman Faye Turney displayed some of the same tendencies. The British media accused the Iranian President of using her as a weapon in a propaganda war, while conservatives used the image of a mother held as prisoner to argue against women fighting in wars.

Both recovered heroines such as Lynch and Turney and the "bad girls" of Abu Ghraib have galvanised debates over women in the military. In the wake of the photos from Abu Ghraib, some reports said the "whorehouse" behaviour at the prison was the result of the presence of women, who trigger what they call the "natural" sexual impulses of men. Some commentators blamed feminism not only for women's presence in the military but also for their violence towards men, wondering if feminism meant equal opportunities for abuse. Others went so far as to suggest the abusers were man-hating lesbian feminists getting even for Muslim men's treatment of women.

Not only women's participation in abuse but their supposed vulnerability has been used in arguments against having them in the military. Depending on the political bent of the reporter, PFC Lynch was described, in wildly varying terms, as everything from a "female teenage Rambo" to a "princess" and "damsel in distress". Although we know now that Iraqi doctors actually saved her life, her story was used on the ground to motivate male soldiers to kill the enemy who had captured this symbol of American womanhood. But the fact that this innocent young woman found herself in a combat zone also led some people to question the wisdom of allowing women to join the military.

Similar questions appeared after the capture of Seaman Turney. Many people wondered why a mother of a three-year-old was in the Navy in the first place. Like Lynch, Turney captured the hearts of people back home, who saw her as a heroine, a brave example of English womanhood. Much of the public outrage was over the fact that she was forced to wear a headscarf in captivity. One British feminist historian wrote that the "shapeless garments and a headscarf" made Turney appear as "a nobody, a vulnerable, defenceless little woman". Photos circulated after her release show her holding the floral head-scarf between her index finger and thumb as if it were a dirty rag.

In the Western imaginary the veil has become a symbol of women's oppression, even more important than education or career opportunities as a measure of women's rights. Women's freedom has become defined in terms of the right to "bare arms" and to shop for clothing. Some feminists in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other hand, are donning the hijab as a statement of protest against US occupation. While we might interpret wearing a veil or hijab as a form of oppression, women in Muslim countries might equally see the ideals of femininity and motherhood in the US and UK as oppressive. Indeed, by pointing to the lack of women's freedoms elsewhere we ignore the ways in which women are coerced in the US, where ideals of femininity lead young girls to eating disorders; religious conservatives try to prevent young women from using birth control or getting access to abortions; women continue to have the lioness's share of childcare; soccer moms resort to caffeine, Prozac and sleeping pills to maintain their busy schedules; and most people living in poverty are women and children.

It is telling that conservative politicians employ feminist rhetoric to justify war even as they cut programmes that help women at home, including welfare and childcare. They can simultaneously blame feminism for the abusive women at Abu Ghraib and invade Afghanistan to liberate women. It is notable how far US justifications for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan revolved around what postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls Western imperialist discourse of "saving brown women from brown men".

Selective appropriation of feminism and concern for women have long been essential to imperialist discourses. At the turn of the 19th century, for example, Lord Cromer, British Consul General in Egypt, founded the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage in England at the same time as he used arguments about women's oppression to justify the occupation of Egypt. And in the 1950s much of the rhetoric used to justify French colonial rule in Algeria focused on the plight of Algerian women, whose oppression was seen as epitomised by the veil. We have witnessed a similar concern with the veil in recent attempts to justify military action in Afghanistan, where the burka and veil became the most emblematic signs of women's oppression. The media were full of articles referring to the US invasion as liberating Afghan women by "unveiling" them.

The irony is that conservatives will use feminism when it suits their purposes and defame it when it doesn't. As we now know, women in Iraq have much less freedom than they did under Saddam Hussein. Many have been forced to quit their jobs or schooling for fear of bodily harm or kidnapping.

It is not just conservative Christians, however, who hold a double standard that allows them to deploy feminism as a strategy of war while denying women freedoms or privileges. The actions of Palestinian women suicide bombers have reportedly led several Islamic clerics to proclaim that women, like men, can reach paradise, despite earlier beliefs that women could not be holy martyrs. Training women from conservative religious groups requires loosening restrictions on dress, freedom of movement and contact with men. After Hiba Daraghmeh blew herself up on behalf of Islamic Jihad in May 2003 one influential cleric said that she didn't need a chaperone on her way to the attack and that she could take off her veil because "she is going to die in the cause of Allah, and not to show off her beauty".

Thus, conservative religious restrictions on women's movements and bodies become fluid as leaders begin to imagine the strategic value of women as weapons of war. On the morning of January , 2002, just hours before Wafa Idris (the first Palestinian female suicide bomber) blew herself up, Yasser Arafat spoke to women in his compound at Ramallah and told them that "women and men are equal ... You are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks". Women do not just carry guns or wear flowers in their helmets. Their very bodies have become figured as roses with thorns, deadly flowers that can be used as part of the modern arsenal of war on both sides.

Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones professor of philosophy, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee. Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media is published by Columbia University Press, £30.

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