Women and War

16 02 2009

The theme for this semester’s feminist reading group is Women and War, which got me thinking about the way we think about women and war… There is much talk about the negative affects of war on women: rape as a weapon of war, sexism within military ranks, etc. While this is all certainly valid and important, it is also important to consider the role of women as perpetrators in war.

What comes to mind is the Abu Ghraib scandal, and how it faded rather quickly. Why? One of the reasons could be that females perpetrated the torture, and female torturers are perceived as less legitimate because how much harm can “the weaker sex” inflict? How bad can torture be if “the weaker sex” is doing it? Women are supposed to be passive and weak and their diminutive presence in society falsely implies that the harm wasn’t as serious.

Showing female torturers also helps to legitimize the military because it falsely implies that it is actually democratic because it seemingly appears to practice gender equality. It makes people forget about, or not think about, how sexual harassment and sexual assault are still prevalent within the military.

Our society has a limiting perspective of women that boxes them in as victims. This narrow view also heteronormalizes sexual violence where the perpetrators are male and the victims are female. However, as Abu Ghraib has showed us, women can be perpetrators as well. We need to expand our discourses to understand women as perpetrators as well as victims.



2 responses

16 02 2009

Yes, the Abu Ghraib scandal faded from the headlines quickly, but during the heat of the scandal, the majority of the focus seemed to be on Lynndie England. The documented use of sexual torture was shocking, but England’s participation in the assaults was even more jarring. England in some ways challenged our perceptions of gendered violence. Although fifteen people were tried in the case, England was the participant most focused on in the media. As one Australian newspaper put it, England was a “small time girl who became an all-American monster.” Mick Jagger referred to her as “the girl with a leash” in his song “Dangerous Beauty.” She was defended, condemned, and sometimes glamorized. In some sense, the true atrocity of war was evident to people when a woman was the perpetrator. But when Lynndie was painted as a victim of war in the media, a good-girl gone bad, her agency was conveniently undermined. Failing to hold her responsible for her actions may have helped to soften the blow of the atrocity and helped the public to explain the obvious deviation from gender norms, but acknowledging the female ability for sexual, physical, and emotional abuse is critical. England illustrated the possibility that women can dominate men. Male dominance over female is not inherent, but conveniently and continually socially reinforced. England’s use of sexual intimidation and abuse against male victims was terrifying for anyone who viewed females as passive, or for those who retained some hope that women by nature could not possibly participate in the atrocities of war. And, most of all, the entire Abu Ghraib scandal was horrifying for anyone who had faith in our military. I don’t think that the abuse was perceived as less serious because women were involved, but rather the high level of abuse was so terrifying partially because women were involved. No wonder it was brushed under the rug.

16 02 2009

Your argument about sexual assault in the military is a good point. A lot of women in the military feel pressure to fit in to a predominantly male environment. But the prevalence of sexual assault against females in the military shows that gendered hierarchies of dominance exist in the military as well.

It is sickening the way that groups join together to dominate others, whether it is gendered dominance or American soldiers abusing prisoners of war. It brings to mind the question of whether the quest for power is simply an aspect of human nature. Would eliminating the “isms” actually erase violence, or would new hierarchies of power arise based on some other differences between groups?

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