Friday, October 5, 2012

Challenges facing women combatants

This blog is dedicated to the memory of African radical feminist Professor Aaronette M. White, who died unexpectedly in August 2012. “Military forces as social institutions are not gender-neutral; together, the ideology of militarism and the military organizations it produces, interact, mobilize and construct gender identities in ways that promote patriarchal ideology and practices.” Aaronette M. White, Fanon & the African Woman Combatant, in The Roots of African Conflicts, 136, 147 (Alfred Nhema & Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, eds., James Currey Ltd. 2008).

Last week, Israel’s only co-ed combat unit, the Caracal battalion, thwarted an attack along Israel’s border with Egypt. The media celebrated that a female soldier shot down one of the three attackers. Their victory earned the battalion recognition by countering skepticism about “females soldiers’ ability to fight alongside men.” Military officials praised the battalion, thereby supporting women’s inclusion in combat forces.

General debates about women joining combat forces usually inquire into how well women can perform in armed conflicts. Their ability to fight alongside men is the measure of their worth, and their worth is the predominant factor often considered when deciding whether to include women into combat forces.

This inquiry, however, is too limited in its scope to adequately assess whether women ought to join combat forces. We should also ask about women’s safety and wellbeing in the hyper-masculinized, authoritative and militant culture of combat units. While the female soldiers of the Caracal battalion certainly demonstrated their competence and ability to perform as well as men do in combat, their value to the military cannot be the only relevant factor in determining whether to include women into combat units.

Drawing from the experiences of African women combatants engaged in anti-colonial wars, Professor Aaronette M. White theorized that military values often undermine the agency of women combatants “because such [military] values disproportionately increase [the] vulnerability [of women combatants] to gender-specific human rights abuses by the enemy as well as alleged comrades.” White, supra. As a social institution, the military – and combative units in particular – internalize violence as courageous, chivalrous, superior and otherwise idealistically masculine. Id. Militarized authoritarianism bases power on absolute authority, obedience and hierarchy. Id. Together, authoritarianism and the idealization of violence cultivate a combative culture of soldiers “who will obey orders without thinking and will internalize unquestioning loyalty…in ways that minimize the chance that [they] will flinch in combat.” Id. at 148.

The hyper-masculinity of militarized cultures is anti-feminine and annihilates femininity in all things combative. Combat requires strength, and weakness is feminine. Men in the Caracal battalion, for instance, are often stigmatized for being “too weak to be accepted into a regular, all-male unit.” Combat is the touchstone of manliness and “men’s work.” White, supra. Moreover, the military often defines ‘women’s work’ by requiring the sexual division of labor. Women often take up more domesticated or administrative roles within the military. In anti-colonial African wars, however, women were encouraged to join combative guerilla units “out of desperation and necessity, not enlightenment or feminist consciousness.” Id. at 149. Women were urged to help men do ‘men’s work’.

The hyper-masculine, anti-feminine, violence-idealizing and authoritarian culture of combat forces presents a security and well-being problem for women. Combat units are dominated by masculinities that encourage the acquisition of power through violence. When the promotion of violence is coupled with anti-feminine values, the resulting culture poses a threat to the wellbeing of women as a gender. Professor White theorized that anti-colonial African wars “reinforced patriarchal values and practices through the use of torture [and] the abuse of military rank to justify rape.” White, supra at 151. Bolstering Professor White’s theory, Sudanese feminist Asma Abdel Halim explains sexual violence by ‘comrades’ was accepted as “part of [a women combatant’s] duties” since “[s]he was expected to give her body willingly to men in her fighting unit, but to protect her body with her life when it comes to men of enemy forces.” White, supra at 153.

Sexual assault against women is not uncommon in the U.S. military. A lawsuit that was filed in September 2012 in federal court in San Francisco alleges that ‘comrades’ sexually assaulted members of the military, and that the military failed to prosecute and properly investigate sexual assault claims. Moreover, a military-conducted survey of the prevalence of sexual assault in Service Academies revealed “female cadets and midshipmen reported 64 incidents of rape as well as 30 incidents of forcible sodomy" in 2004.

The debate on women’s participation in combat forces, ought to consider all relevant factors – especially the wellbeing of women combatants. By heavily focusing our attention on the utility and value of women as combatants, we not only perpetuate the idea that combat is ‘men’s work’, but we also diminish a consideration of the wellbeing and safety of women in hyper-masculine, anti-feminine and violence-idealizing spaces. Perhaps, even before we consider including women into combat forces, we owe it to women to consider how (if at all) military culture should be changed to be less dangerous for women members. Ultimately, the right of women to join combat forces is not pressing, and – to some extent – neither is their competency as combatants; instead, we must consider the overall wellbeing of women in combat forces.


Sam said...

“The hyper-masculine, anti-feminine, violence-idealizing and authoritarian culture of combat forces presents a security and well-being problem for women.”

When faced with arguments about women in the military, my common – and slightly snarky – response is that I don’t think men should be in the military either. If the military is so harmful and dangerous to women, why are we letting men in?

First, masculinity itself is premised on the domination of women. To turn MacKinnon on her head: if Tommy has a different voice, it’s because he’s stepping on Amy’s throat. The performance of masculinity by either men or women is an exercise in dominance, and will ultimately harm both sexes.

Second, hyper-masculinity is probably better described as “toxic masculinity.” ( It is an extension of dominance to such an extreme that it ultimately harms the oppressor. The epitome of this concept is the movie “Fight Club.”

Third, at least for the men in my family, authoritarian culture is terrible for our well-being. My dad was drafted into the Vietnam War while he was trying to transfer out of community college. He preemptively joined the navy to avoid having to be in the army. My dad constantly had to deal with authority figures that were far less competent than he was, but who had absolute control over him. It drove him crazy.

When I was 19, I went to the Mormon Church’s “Missionary Training Center” in Provo Utah. The motto of this place was absolute obedience. There was no questioning authority, no watching television, and no reading unapproved literature. Our entire day was decided for us. After about a month or so, I started breaking down emotionally, and ultimately had to leave.

KB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KB said...

I think you are correct that we need to have a culture shift in the military to make combat units safer for women in all respects before they enter such units. A Los Angeles Times article discussing The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the U.S. military, stated that women in combat zones are “more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy.” It is a sad day when it is not the combat but fellow soldiers who are the largest threat to women who want to serve their country. The same article also stated that 30% of women are sexually assaulted during their enlistment, and after the assault the legal hurdles they face are shameful.

What can be done to change this culture? Should initial training of military persons include something on sexual assault? Or is it the fault of the legal departments who do not seem to take sexual assault seriously? At the least, the ambivalence of the military toward sexual assault needs to change if the U.S. military wants to continue to recruit women. A quick search on the Internet pulls up dozens of articles and studies about the frequency of sexual assault in the military.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

I just came across a CNN blog about the Pentagon's anticipated announcement tomorrow that women will be integrated into American combat forces.

Here is the link: