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Sites of ViolenceGender and Conflict Zones$

Wenona Giles

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780520230729

Published to California Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520230729.001.0001

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Gender, the Nationalist Imagination, War, and Peace

Gender, the Nationalist Imagination, War, and Peace

(p.170) 8 Gender, the Nationalist Imagination, War, and Peace
Sites of Violence

Nira Yuval-Davis

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter investigates the ways in which nationalist discourse is gendered and how this shapes and is affected by sexual divisions of labor in the military. It also argues that only rarely are differential power relations between men and women in the military erased. It reviews the gender dimensions of state intervention and militarism in a charged atmosphere of nationalism on the “front lines.” Feminists fighting for equal rights for women in the military argue that their exclusion from combat roles prevents them from benefiting fully from promotion opportunities in the military on an equal footing with men. Motherhood has played a very important role in feminist antimilitary thinking. The specific tasks that women fulfill in different militaries in different historical contexts vary, as does the extent to which they are formally incorporated into the military.

Keywords:   gender, nationalist discourse, war, peace, sexual divisions, military, militarism, nationalism, motherhood

Rumor has it that Enoch Powell, the right-wing maverick British M.P., once defined a “nation” as “two males defending the women and children in a specific territory.” Women and children, or “womenandchildren,” to use Cynthia Enloe’s (1990) expression, and territories are constructed together in nationalist imaginations, as the cause, point of departure, and point of return for men and war. The reason for this division of labor is closely related in the nationalist imagination to the biological differences that exist between the sexes. John Casey (1991) claims: “Males were selected for the role of warriors because the economical and physiological sex-linked differences that favoured the selection of men as hunters of animals favoured the selection of men as hunters of people” (quoted in Kazi 1993: 15). Moreover, Chris Knight (1991) has argued that men have bonded together and developed their roles as hunters and fighters to empower themselves with the brotherhood of blood as a defense against women’s magical powers in their menstrual blood! While men have been constructed as naturally linked to warfare, women have been constructed as naturally linked to peace. The image of women resisting war has been in existence in the Western public imagination at least since Lysistrata was first shown in Athens in the fifth century B.C. This Greek comedy by Aristophanes describes the coming together of Athenian, Spartan, and Corinthian women to declare a sex strike against their husbands until they stopped fighting each other.

In other places (e.g., Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989; Stasiulis and Yuval-Davis 1995; Yuval-Davis 1997) I discuss the overall relationships between gender relations and national and ethnic phenomena, the gendered ways that national and ethnic collectivities are being reproduced biologically and culturally, and the gendered politics of citizenship. The particular focus of this chapter, however, is the sexual divisions of labor in militaries and in wars and (p.171) how they relate to these gendered aspects of nationalist projects. In the final section of the chapter I turn to debates on women and peace and the role of biologistic constructions in that debate. Throughout the chapter I use examples from a variety of case studies, but in particular the case study of Israel, the first state in which women have been recruited to the military with a supposedly “universal” draft law.

As Cynthia Cockburn explains in Chapter 2 of this volume, violence is not confined to military conflicts and wars, and one can find what she calls a gendered continuum of violence, from everyday domestic life to open warfare. While describing it as a continuum might create an illusory impression that these modes of gendered violence are additive rather than often interactive (domestic violence in Israel, for example, grew considerably during the Gulf War), it is important to bear in mind this overall picture when we look at specific gendered characters of militaries and wars.

front and rear

Fighting, whether physical, verbal, or by other means, seems to be an almost universal social behavior. Freud claimed that aggression and sex are the two universal human instincts that are controlled and regulated in one way or another in all human societies. Ritualized fights to preserve or change social hierarchies or to secure access to territorial or water resources have been part of routinized social repertoires throughout human history, together with other means of negotiating settlement for various conflicts. Women did not always participate directly in fighting, although it was not uncommon for them to do so (see Macdonald, Holden, and Ardener 1987: 148–65), but they always had specific roles in combat, whether it was to take care of the dead and wounded or to become the embodied possession of the victorious. Sometimes the two roles went together. Cynthia Enloe (1983: 4) describes the great demand in the seventeenth century for women to take care of soldiers. A good caregiver like Kate Keith, the pretty Scotch woman, was not allowed to remain outside wedlock more than two days after her soldier husband died. Similarly in the Iraq-Iran War, the Ayatollah Khomeini instructed war widows to marry war invalids and to become their caregivers.

A clear sexual division of labor in war, however, usually disappears when there is no clear differentiation between the “battle front” and the “home front” or “rear” (Yuval-Davis 1985). The Spanish reported, for instance, that in the fight against the Incas they saw women fighting alongside men using slings. However, as Penny Dransart (cited in Macdonald, Holden, and Ardener 1987: 62–77) comments, slings were commonly used by both men and women for herding animals, and thus the way Inca women fought during that war for survival cannot be assumed to represent their routine military (p.172) role. Similarly, during the siege on Jerusalem by the Romans, Jewish women participated in fighting activities such as pouring boiling oil on the Roman soldiers—again an adaptation, not a routine part of their usual social roles.

Once a separation between “front” and “rear” exists, and the social collectivity accumulates enough surplus value to be able to sustain war in the absence of the warriors from the “home front,” a more routinized sexual division of labor between men and women in the military emerges. An illustrative example is the situation during the time of the yishuv (the Zionist settlement in Palestine before the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948). In the yishuv, the central military organization was the Hagana, which crystallized as a national centralized organization at the time of the Arab Rebellion in the years 1936–39. In the kibutzim, the frontier collective settlements, women took part in the Hagana guard shifts, side by side with men (although to a lesser extent because they had to take shifts in the children’s homes as well). However, once the military strategy of the Hagana changed from defending the settlements to attacking the enemy away from the settlements, women remained behind to guard the settlements and the children. The men, on the other hand, went to the “front,” which might have been only a few miles away, in settlement fields (Goldman and Weigand 1980).

modern warfare and the differential incorporation of women into the military

Modern militaries have tended to fulfil two potentially contradictory roles. On the one hand, especially in times of national crisis and war, they become a focus for national bonding and patriotism, which cuts across differences of class, region, geographical origin, and sometimes age and gender. On the other hand, they may develop as modern corporations, structured and geared toward perfecting the ability to produce death and destruction in the most efficient and innovative ways. The incorporation of women into the military can take very different forms, depending on which goal is the political priority.

Women often become the symbolic bearers of modernity. Unveiling women in Ata Turk’s revolution of 1917, which was aimed at constructing Turkey as a modern nation-state, was as important as veiling them has been to Muslim fundamentalists in the contemporary Middle East. The incorporation of women into the military has fulfilled similar roles in Libya, Nicaragua, or Eritrea, for example, where it contains a double message. First, women, at least symbolically, are equal members of the national collectivity. But second, and more importantly, all members of the national collectivity are incorporated, at least symbolically, into the military. This was why, (p.173) despite the objection of the religious parties, Israeli Jewish women were drafted by law into the Israeli military.

Any contemplation of gender relations in the military, however, should not lose sight of the fact that it is never all men and all women in the society who fill particular roles within the military or outside it. Ethnic membership, class, age, and ability play crucial roles in determining who is included and who is excluded from these roles. As mentioned above, these differentiations become blurred when the war takes place on the “home front.” Reports from the Russian army’s attack on Chechnya in 1994–95, for example, point to the fact that although the operation was directed against the Chechens demanding national autonomy, local Russians did not escape the systematic destruction directed toward the whole of the local population.

This inclusive construction of women in the military is very different, for instance, from their incorporation into contemporary North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) militaries, especially in the United States. There, women were encouraged to enter the military in high numbers when the national draft was stopped and the military became completely professional. Women, in this instance, are not so much symbols of social openness as the least undesirable human pool of the reserve army of labor. One of the most important reasons for the decision to mass-recruit women into the U.S. military has been to keep it voluntary rather than based on the draft, so as to prevent a recurrence of the popular revolt against the Vietnam War. In other words, women’s recruitment into the military, rather than enhancing their citizenship, was aimed at transforming the military service from a citizenship duty into a “job” and to make it less dependent on the cooperation of all citizens—women and men.

Cynthia Enloe (personal correspondence, cited in Yuval-Davis 1991b: 222) claims that following the decision to make the military based on “voluntaries,” one of the most important considerations in opening the American military ranks to women was to avoid “flooding” them with blacks:

Women were being weighed as a counter-balance to a foreseen non-white military;…women’s recruitment was expanded in 1973 at a time when many White and Black policy makers were predicting that, if left a primarily male force, the all-voluntary army would soon become a primarily Black male force because it was Black young men who had the fewest economic alternatives to military enlistment in post-Vietnam America. This type of sexist and racist thinking is a common phenomenon. bell hooks (1981) has pointed out that in such a construction the assumption is that all Blacks are men, and all women are white. In the 1990s, 48 percent of American women soldiers are black.

The most important factor, however, that has enabled the entry of women in mass numbers into an increasing number of military tasks has been the changing nature of modern warfare. As discussed above, women have always (p.174) fulfilled vital and specific roles in militaries but have been largely excluded from the public military domain. Modern warfare has brought with it, first of all, the need to formalize and control the military’s channels of sustenance and support. It was Napoleon who was rumored to have declared that “the military marches on its stomach.” With the modernization of the military, those supplying food, clothing, nursing, clerical and communication services, ammunition, and sexual services have all needed, at least to an extent, to establish formal relationships with the military. Moreover, with the continued development of military technology, engaging in face-to-face combat has become a smaller and smaller part of military action. Lighter and easier-to-handle personal arms have made even that more accessible to women (and children). Differences of physical strength between men and women have become, therefore, of significantly less importance as an obstacle for women’s participation in the military on an equal footing.

Not all militaries follow the same route of incorporating women. As I discuss elsewhere (Yuval-Davis 1985: 32), one of the factors that makes comparison between militaries and the number of women they include difficult is the fact that the classification of what is a civil and what is a military task varies from one military to another. For example, in Germany, only the fifty female military medical officers were considered to be formally part of the military in 1980, while all the female clerical workers servicing the army were considered to be civilians (Chapkis 1981: 89). In Israel, on the other hand, all clerical workers were considered to be part of the military, while doctors and nurses could be civilians. In other words, apparent changes in the number of women in the military could be just a side effect of a bureaucratic or ideological redefinition of the boundaries of the armed forces. Another example is statistics based on veteran registration, as in postindependence Algeria, where the complex documentary requirements attached to registration requests have made it very difficult for the bulk of peasant or working-class illiterate people to register (Helie-Lucas 1987). This has been especially true for women, not only because of their partial social exclusion and the fact that a larger percentage of them are illiterate, but because the prime motivation for registration has been for paid employment benefits that would not have been relevant to many of these women who were engaged in the unpaid domestic labor market.

The more sophisticated the weaponry, transport, and communication systems in the military and the more elaborate the bureaucracy, the more specialized and professional the members of military forces need to become, and the more similar the organization of the military is to that of large civil corporations. An inclusive definition of “people’s army” under such conditions can become constructed as inappropriate and wasteful. The connections between patriotism and militarism become obsolete. Such a debate, for (p.175) instance, is being carried out in Israel, where there are growing voices to end the so-called universal draft, especially of women, in favor of constructing a “leaner,” more professional military.

The military in Israel, which is composed of a relatively small professional army and a large regular one, has always played a central role in its national formation and reproduction. Zionism, a settler society project, has encountered political and military resistance from the local Palestinian population since very early on in its history (see, e.g., Abdo and Yuval-Davis 1995; Bober 1972; Kimmerling 1983; Shafir 1989). For this reason and to fight the British, who ruled the country under a League of Nations mandate after World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire until 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel, several military organizations developed, the largest of which was the Hagana. The Israeli military, ZAHAL (Israeli Defense Force [IDF]), was established after 1948 and in many ways was a hybrid, modeled on the Hagana and the British military, in which many of the members of the Zionist yishuv participated during World War II. It was constructed as a popular army that combined the military task with the nation-building task, “absorbing” the major Jewish immigration to Israel during several periods in its history.

As a rule, after two or three years of regular service, men continue to be called for reserve service, one or two months a year, until the age of fifty. Women have also been drafted, usually for a somewhat shorter period than men. Their reserve service is usually minimal and stops altogether once they get married or become pregnant. As elaborated elsewhere (Yuval-Davis 1985; Izraeli 1999), the Israeli military, symbolic “universal” draft laws notwithstanding, has never been universal and all-encompassing, even for Israeli Jewish men. Ultraorthodox Jewish men were allowed to avoid serving in the military by declaring themselves as engaged in continuous religious studies. This concession to the ultraorthodox, many of whom reject the legitimacy of Israel as a Zionist state, has been one of the major contradictions in the construction of the Israeli Jewish nation. It is secular but dependent on an orthodox religious definition for its boundaries.1 In relation to women, the formal inclusiveness of the draft encompasses only about two-thirds of the Jewish women of recruitment age and none of the non-Jewish citizens of the state (in 1999, 62 percent of eighteen-year-old women were drafted and 80 percent of the men). However, because women serve less than two years and the men three years, women constitute only 32 percent of the soldiers in the regular army and 13 percent in the professional army (Izraeli 1999). Significantly, women have been excluded, not only on national, religious, and reproductive grounds (which affect women from different ethnic and class backgrounds in different degrees), but also on “quality” grounds. They are required to obtain higher educational levels (p.176) than the men in order to be called for national service. The military has never been as prepared to invest in women’s education as it is to invest in that of men.

Another “twist of the tale” relates to the fact that women are allowed to declare themselves as “conscientious objectors,” an extension of their right to refuse to serve in the army on religious grounds, while men, formally at least, are not constructed as having “a conscience.” When they resist serving in the military on moral and political grounds, they are usually sent initially to prison, and if they don’t change their minds, they are often released from the military on mental health grounds.

Even this differential incorporation of men and women in the Israeli military has not been well received. Voices have started to emerge inside and outside the military, calling for the abolition of the mandatory recruitment of women. The majority of women in the military are engaged in clerical tasks, and given that computer and other technological developments have radically reduced the demand for clerical workers in the military, the universal recruitment of women into the military has been cited as one of its main causes for hidden unemployment and inefficiency. General Gershon Hacohen caused a national scandal when, lecturing before high school students in 1995, he argued that “men have always been warriors and women whores.” And most of the women in the IDF fulfill clerical roles that computers and calculators could perform with the same level of efficiency (Maariv, January 26, 1995).

A discussion about whether the Israeli military should be transformed from “the people’s army” into a professional military that recruits whomever it needs has become part of the agenda of the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign and Security Affairs. One of the most important arguments against such a change has been that “in a society which absorbed 700 thousand new immigrants during the last five years, the military is significant as part of the process of absorption and identification with the Israeli society” (M.P. Or, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign and Security Affairs, as quoted in Davar, February 13, 1995). The fact that new female immigrants above the age of regular service, unlike new male immigrants, have not been called to serve in the military reflects the masculinist character of the social relations within the military, even in the rare cases where formally equal access supposedly exists.

women as soldiers

As the statement of General Hacohen above shows, the formal incorporation of women into the military as soldiers has encountered a lot of prejudice and male fear. This is despite the fact that women have always constituted an inte (p.177) gral part of military life and that the overwhelming majority of women soldiers are positioned in roles that largely reflect the gendered civil labor market. They are usually secretaries, nurses, and teachers, and very few fulfill roles that are specifically military and/or that directly relate to the military’s main “business”—that is, fighting and killing (Enloe 1983, 1989, 1993; Yuval-Davis 1985, 1991a).

It is not incidental that in the celebrated novel Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, the continuously randy American Jewish hero becomes impotent when he tries to have sex with an Israeli woman soldier. If the experience of the military is supposed “to make men from the boys,” womanhood cannot be easily incorporated within such imagery. Jacklyn Cock (1992), who studied military women on both sides of the South African war against apartheid, describes how, in the South African army, woman hating and homophobia have been an active part of the male soldier’s training: “Recruits who do not perform—who are not up to standard—are often labelled ‘faggots’ or ‘homos’ or ‘murphies’; they are told to ‘go back to your mothers and play with the girls’ ” (WREI 1992: 65). Sandra Gilbert (1983) points out how, in World War I, the military women nurses evoked images of omnipotence and “sinistry” (“Does male death turn women nurses on?”), at the same time as they were portrayed as ministering angels (436).

These dichotomous images of women soldiers have been central to the ways in which women have usually been incorporated into the military. They are threatening unless controlled and distinguished from male soldiers by an emphasis on their femininity. In Israel, for instance, the only state in which women have been regularly recruited to the military in a national draft, the Women’s Corps2 has been called by its initials Khen, which in Hebrew means “charm.” One of the formal duties of the members of Khen, as described by an Israeli military spokesperson, was “in the areas of crystallizing the morale of the units and taking care of the soldiers of the units” (Yuval-Davis 1985: 661). It is arguable that the high rate of rape and sexual harassment of women in the American military is intended to distance and secure the male soldiers’ fears from the “Portnoyan” omnipotent woman soldier.3

In national liberation armies, where the hierarchical and organizational framework of the forces is much less formal, a strong common ideological stance might help to transcend some of these tensions, especially where women’s emancipation is seen to symbolize the emancipation of the people as a whole. Still, strict rules of nonfraternization or execution of soldiers who are found guilty of rape may be found to be necessary to enhance ideological elements of “political correctness,” as has been the case in the Eritrean national liberation army (Zarai 1994).

Although very few women soldiers see themselves in the “castrating” roles male imaginations might impose on them, one of the main motivations for women to join the military is an opportunity to empower themselves, both (p.178) physically and emotionally. As Gilbert (1983) points out: “A number of texts by men and women alike suggest that the revolutionary transformations wrought by the [First World] [W]ar’s ‘topsy turvy’ role reversals did bring about a release of female libidinal energies, as well as a liberation of female anger, which men usually found anxiety-inducing and women often found exhilarating” (436). Interviews with women soldiers, especially those who have joined various national liberation armies, reveal that many escaped to the guerrilla camps from intolerable personal situations caused by colonial and loyalist forces and/or their own families (Bennett, Bexley, and Warnock 1995; Zarai 1994). In the military they were able to establish new identities, skills, and respectable social positions, as well as to struggle for causes they believed in.

The American film Private Benjamin, with Goldie Hawn, tries to portray joining the U.S. military in such a light (Chapkis 1981). The film tells the story of “poor little rich girl” who feels lonely and rejected and who finds her salvation by joining the American military and surviving the tough military training. The difference between Private Benjamin and women in the Eritrean or Tigris army, however, is that her position in the military is described in completely personal terms rather than in the context of what the American military does. The military in Private Benjamin, as in the propaganda campaigns of most Western militaries, is seen purely in terms of a good career move—an opportunity to get training, to see the world, and to earn more than one probably could if one would have chosen another career. In a more recent film, GI Jane (with Demi Moore), “seeing the world” also involves a furtive raid into “an enemy country,” but even this is used only as a dramatic backdrop to the heroine’s personal journey toward “empowerment” through equality with the boys.

One of the unresolved debates about women’s participation in the military, which the film GI Jane highlights, is whether it would be better for women to be part of women-only units or to be incorporated into the mainstream (i.e., mostly male) military units. On the one hand, moving from separate women’s corps into integrated units has meant that many of the formal barriers for women to perform certain military tasks (and get the appropriate rewards and promotion attached to them) have been removed and their equal potential as soldiers (as well as their training for higher-paid jobs in the civil labor market at a later date) has been recognized. One sign of this development is the devising of specific fitness tests to determine whether a particular soldier—male or female—is suitable for certain military combat tasks. Rather than stating a priori that particular tasks are suitable only for male soldiers, skill is thought to be measurable by an objective test. However, as those with experience in this area have commented (WREI 1992: 43), this in itself may not secure an equal chance for men and women because the choice of tests is often political. For example, standards in stretching, in (p.179) which women do better than men, may be lowered, while standards of physical strength, in which men do better, may be kept high. Yet one might argue that both of these abilities are necessary traits for successfully fulfilling a specific military task, such as getting out of hatches in ships.

Those who oppose the abolition of separate women’s units point out that these units often provide safe and comfortable social environments for women. Women, especially as they tend to be the minorities in mixed units, often have to perform better than men to prove that they are equal. In the Palmakh, for instance, the military units of the Hagana, which were the prestate military units of Labour Zionism, women succeeded, after a long fight, to gain the right to be included in mixed fighting units during the 1948 war. Later, women soldiers met and decided to ask for separate women’s units because of their frustrating experiences in the mixed units (Yuval-Davis 1985).

Beyond these problems, there is, of course, the issue of sexual harassment, which is much more prevalent in mixed units. One of the safeguards for women soldiers in the Israeli army was the fact that women officers rather than their male officer bosses were responsible for disciplining them, thus making them slightly less dependent on the whims of their bosses if frustrated in their sexual advances. An alternative to such a partial or formal separation is the imposition of strict rules on fraternization. In the Eritrean Liberation army, for instance (Zarai 1994), men and women were strictly forbidden to fraternize, and the punishment for rape was execution.

Another factor affecting separate women’s corps is that they are conducive to the development of a comfortable lesbian subculture. Lesbianism and male homosexuality have been a major topic of debate in Western militaries recently, and the regular practice of discharging anybody who is “discovered” to be gay in the British military has been overruled in court on the basis of equal rights. It is too early to assess whether this change signals a more general change in the attitude to sexuality in the military in general.

Homosexuality is but one issue of public debate in the West concerning specific groups’ incorporation into the military. Women’s roles in marriage and motherhood have also proven difficult for militaries to handle. In Britain the military has had to pay millions of pounds in compensation to women who were automatically discharged when they became pregnant. Most militaries have relied on “military wives” to bear and rear the children of soldiers as well as to carry out other supporting roles. In some cases, such as in guerrilla wars (e.g., in Eritrea and Palestine), the liberation armies have taken it upon themselves to rear collectively the children and orphans of the fighters. However, in most armies, “normalizing” motherhood for women soldiers is but one facet of the professionalization of the military and the transformation of soldiering from the ultimate civic duty (of the male citizens) into just another professional career.

(p.180) service in the military and civilian life

A study by Elizabetta Addis (1994) has shown that indeed women usually benefit economically, both individually and collectively, from becoming soldiers. She claims that the military generally is an equal-opportunity employer in terms of wages and that the relative benefit of women soldiers depends on the differential level of payment for men and women in the civil labor market. As male soldiers do not have such a wage benefit from becoming a soldier, the marginal benefits for women becoming soldiers are higher than those for men. Moreover, to the extent that women get opportunities to train and to be upwardly mobile once they leave the military and enter the civil labor market, women soldiers achieve collective benefits for women in the labor market as a whole.

One of the additional reasons, Addis claims, that women benefit more than men from serving in the military is the fact that they run less risk of being killed or maimed than men, as they are usually prohibited from engaging in combat roles. This is a controversial point, not only because the definition of combat becomes narrower and more meaningless with time and technological advancements of warfare and because recently women have been allowed to join combat units in more and more militaries. The technological advances in warfare also mean that the chance of being hit on the battle front is not necessarily larger than it is at the rear. In the Gulf War most American casualties occurred as a result of an Iraqi missile hit on a bunker in Saudi Arabia rather than during the bombings on Iraq itself.

Feminists fighting for equal rights for women in the military argue that their exclusion from combat roles prevents them from benefiting fully from promotion opportunities in the military (and consequently outside it) on an equal footing with men. Recently in the United States, a legal battle took place regarding the rights of women to participate in combat roles, especially the rights of women pilots to bomb the enemy. During the Gulf War and up to the present, women have been allowed to fuel bombing airplanes in the air because this has not been defined as a combat role. After a long and arduous process of political lobbying and the establishment of a presidential commission to investigate this issue, the Clinton administration conceded the rights of women to participate in all combat positions except those of ground infantry and submarines. The extent to which these policies are going to be implemented on the ground, especially after the Republican presidential victory, is still an open question.

Given the context of the general antifeminist backlash in the United States (Faludi 1992), U.S. women’s increased involvement in combat positions should not be seen as a major new achievement for women’s rights. Moreover, a whole new light could be thrown on the issue when one remembers that in World War II Russian women pilots successfully performed thousands (p.181) of bombing missions and that many survived to tell the tale. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, their nickname was “the Night Witches” (exhibition of Yevgenny Kaldei’s photography, Riverside Studios, London, May 1995). What is probably even more significant in this tale is that after the war women became virtually excluded from any significant public positions in the Soviet Union. A study by Hanna Herzog (1998) also found that women in Israel find it much more difficult than men to “convert” their achievements and rank in the military into civil and political life.

wars as gendered constructions

In discussions about women soldiers’ lives and their aspirations for equal rights in their profession, it is easy to forget the nature of the profession. Jeanne Holm, a retired woman major general, found it necessary to remind participants in a conference on women in the military in Washington, D.C. that “anyone, male or female, who considers joining the armed forces, must be made aware, before taking the oath, that contrary to some of the recruiting razzle-dazzle, being in the military is not about uniforms and parades and it’s not about benefits or adventure. The military is about going to war and war is about killing and maybe dying for your country” (WREI 1992: 59). And indeed media reported that some of the women soldiers who were sent to the Gulf in 1992 were shocked to find out that they were actually being sent overseas to fight. Many of them said that they had joined the National Guards as a way of getting fit, gaining extra income, and adding a bit of adventure to their lives. The Gulf War was to the American soldiers, however, a very different experience, not just from that of the Iraqi soldiers and civilians, who were the other party in that war, but also from that of American soldiers in other wars. It has been said (Boose 1993) that one of the main reasons the United States was so keen to go to the Gulf War was to win the Vietnam War there. An interesting study (Boose 1993) compared the experiences of bomber pilots in World War II with those of the Gulf War and discovered that while the dominant emotion of the World War II pilots was terror, that of the Gulf War pilots was the excitement of playing games in an arcade (see Hyndman 2000). This phenomenon was even more noticeable during the Kosova/o campaign, where the bombing from the air was constructed as an alternative mode of war in which the Western powers were omnipotent. Unlike when ground troops are involved, no “body bags” of Western soldiers may be a necessary result of the military intervention.

Not only the sophisticated technology but the national security discourse has produced this difference. Both have created the illusion that directed missiles can hit only their predestined targets, that the exact location of these targets, as in arcade games, is fully known, and that it is all about hitting (p.182) objects rather than people. Indeed, during the Gulf War (and the Kosova/o bombing), the official discourse never mentioned people getting hit but rather spoke about “collateral damage.”

The official discourse of the Gulf War has also been much more gender neutral than that of previous wars. As was noted at the time, women soldiers dressed in battle fatigues were hardly distinguishable from men under all the protective layers. Similar images appeared again with the delivery of British forces to Bosnia. Unlike the usual discourse of war, the Gulf War was not constructed as a war fought by men for the sake of the “womenandchildren” (Enloe 1990) but was carried out by “our boys and girls.” Indeed, in Israel, this was the first war in which “the boys” were not able to fight but were locked in sealed rooms together with the women and children. This created a deep national trauma that was swiftly repressed. At the same time that reports of domestic and other violence in Israel grew significantly, the masculinist image of the Israeli fighters as invincible superheroes was seriously damaged and probably created the space that enabled Rabin’s government to engage in the “peace process” with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, however limited and subversive and essentially doomed to failure.

Most wars, however, are experienced very differently than the Gulf War. The Kosovo bombing and processes of dehumanization were much less “sanitized.” Given the available sophisticated technology, it was enough in 1995 for the Bosnian Serbs to catch a few UN officers and use them as a human shield to render the technological discourse completely inept and to stop the air bombing. While the enemy can become (and some say necessarily becomes) dehumanized, it is different when “the human shield” is made with one’s own “boys.”

This feeling of loyalty to “one’s boys” serves a central role in the experience of the fighting men. Whatever the context and scale of the war, it is the “warriors’ camaraderie,” often also referred to as “male bonding,” that is almost universally emphasized. Patriotic convictions and material and status rewards can be more or less important in different experiences of fighting. Yet the feeling that one can rely upon one’s fellow soldiers and loyalty to them in situations of life and death is a sustaining sentiment in the daily lives of the warriors. In Israel, this reluctance to betray fellow soldiers is the main reason that many Israelis continue to serve in the reserve army, despite objecting to Israel’s continuous occupation of the Palestinian territories or its invasion of Lebanon.

In the same way, American generals objected to the recruitment of women into combat roles in the military, stating their fear that “male bonding” would be disrupted. Indeed, given the nature of most soldiers’ socialization (in the case of either sex), such a sense of bonding is easier to achieve in men-only or women-only groupings. However, long shared training and an emphasis on professionalization tend to neutralize these feelings significantly, (p.183) as has been the case in the civil labor market, although the latter rarely involves such intense engagement. It is an open question as to what extent rules forbidding fraternization enhance or complicate such processes.

Fighting a war can involve short, orderly periods of “going on a mission,” or it can involve endless months of living in trenches or bunkers. It can involve desperate chaotic and hellish situations of fighting for survival, mutilating and being mutilated, killing and being killed, but it can also involve working in supportive roles in the actual fighting, on or off the battlegrounds. One study found that only 15 percent of World War II soldiers were ever shot, even once, during the war (“Special Issue on Women and Violence” 1983). Given the nature of modern warfare technology, this ratio would probably be even smaller now. However, in cases of guerrilla and other small-scale warfare, the situation is quite different, and the warriors themselves may be required to fulfill many more of the maintenance roles of preparing food and providing education, for example, when not actually fighting.

Wars also affect the lives of the people on the “home front” in many different ways. At one extreme, war can have little or hardly any effect if the war is taking place away from the home front, the military involved is professional, and there are few casualties. Much of the experience of the colonial countries has been of this nature. While some women have had husband soldiers, especially officers, who have visited them from time to time, most of the gendered support network has been composed of local people and a few colonial women, in or outside the military. At the other extreme, most or even all of the determinants of one’s daily life and personal identity before the war can disappear in a few hours—place of work, property, homes, personal artifacts, and worst of all, friends, relatives, and members of one’s family. Even if one is not injured, abused, or tortured by the enemy, the brutal stripping of all that has been nearest and dearest can have a devastating longterm, if not permanent, effect on people’s lives. Life becomes solely about survival. Many people become refugees in this process, and this is a gendered experience. Up to 80 percent of the total refugee population is composed of women and children (although, given masculinist international asylum policies, most of the refugees in Western countries are men). Women and old men are left in villages to look after the house and children, to work the land, and to keep the social life of the community going. The women left behind become vulnerable to rape by enemy soldiers.4 Rape is perhaps the most gendered act of violence in war, although its meanings vary across conflicts (see Morokvasic-Müller, Chapter 6 of this volume, and Preston and Wong, Chapter 7 of this volume). Nationalistic efforts to shame or eliminate an enemy nation generate particular motivations for rape, whereas militarized masculinities, even among peacekeepers, create cultures of violence that may be perpetrated against women during conflict (Whitworth 1997, (p.184) 2001). However, as Women in Black in the post-Yugoslav states have pointed out (Zajović 1994), losing the entire basis of their former lives is often the most devastating experience of the war for women. Nevertheless, in the case of pregnancies resulting from wartime rapes, the effects can be devastating. Paradoxically, once a pregnancy is public knowledge, a raped woman may lose the respect and support of her surviving family and community as a result of traditional codes of honor and shame (see Mojab, Chapter 5 of this volume). For this reason, the overwhelming majority of the reported cases of systematic rape have been of widowed or single women rather than married ones, who have often preferred to keep their experiences to themselves (see Hans, Chapter 11 of this volume).

But it is not just the experience of war that is different for men and women. As Cynthia Enloe (1993, 2000) and others have pointed out, during a war, militarized images of femininity, whether they call women to stay at home and be good wives and mothers or to volunteer for the military industry and become a “Rosie the Riveter,” are highly necessary for the maintenance of militarized images of masculinity, which themselves can vary within and between societies (see Cockburn, Chapter 2 of this volume). Wars are seen to be fought for the sake of the “womenandchildren,” and the fighting men are comforted and reassured by the knowledge that “their women” are keeping the hearth fires going and are waiting for them to come home. Even within the military, one of the goals of women’s military service was “crystalizing the morale of the units and taking care of the soldiers of the units” (according to a 1973 publication by the Official Israeli Military Public Relations Representative, quoted in Yuval-Davis 1985). This is probably why a lecture and demonstration on cosmetics was included in the women’s basic training program. With the recent changes and expansion of the roles of women in Western militaries, there may be a certain shift in this area. Demi Moore’s decision to shave off all of her hair in the film GI Jane is symbolic of this shift. ABC (Atomic, Biological Chemical) uniforms do not allow for women soldiers’ femininity to show, and their growing (still small, but symbolically important) incorporation into combat units undermines the Powellian argument about war’s existence.

If the relationship between “the feminine” and “the masculine” in the military and war is changing, the relationship between these two phenomena and “peace” needs to be problematized as well. The link between women and peace, which has been central to feminist and other antiwar movements, needs to be examined in this light.

women’s politics and antiwar movements

The British “Greenham Common” women’s groups (Roseneil 1995), the Argentinean “Mothers of the Disappearing Children” (Fisher, 1989), and the (p.185) Israeli, Italian, and post- Yugoslav states’ region “Women in Black” groups (Lentin 1995; Zajović 1994) are but some of the better-known women’s groups that have been active in recent years. These groups have constructed antimilitarism, not as a women’s-only issue, but as an issue in which women, due to their specific positioning in society, have a specific message to transmit, around which they should organize separately from men. While some women in these and other movements have colluded with the essentialist notion of “women as the peaceful sex,” most have rejected such notions, which are so prevalent in militaristic constructions of femininity (Leonardo 1985; Enloe 1983, 1989; Pettman 1996).

The essentialist construction of men as aggressive and violent fits the nationalist-militaristic “protected-protector” myth (Stiehm 1989) in which men fight for the sake of “womenandchildren” (Enloe 1990). Feminists, like Judith Stiehm, have argued that the best way to demolish this myth is for women to participate in the military on an equal footing to men. Others, like German feminists, continue to object to the inclusion of women in the military (Seifert 1995). Many feminists, from Virginia Woolf onwards, have argued that women should publicly reject the claim that the men are fighting for their sake and withdraw their support and legitimation. Thus in Israel, for example, during the war in Lebanon in 1982, a group called “Mothers Against Silence” claimed that they were not prepared to support the state sending their sons to the war, allowing their lives to be sacrificed for the sake of a military occupation, which they did not agree was vital for the survival of Israel. A more political manifestation of the same movement, called “Four Mothers,” was active in the popular movement against Israel’s military involvement in Lebanon until its withdrawal in spring 2000.

Motherhood has played a very important role in feminist antimilitary thinking. One of the most developed and theoretically sophisticated voices in this camp is that of Sara Ruddick (1983, 1989), who has claimed that some inherent characteristics in the ideology and practice of mothering can become the foundation of an antimilitaristic movement. She calls it “maternal nonviolence: a truth in the making” (Ruddick 1989, title of chap. 7) and argues that the centrality of life preservation in the task of mothering colludes with peacemaking practices and would be against life destruction.

Although Sara Ruddick denies her arguments are essentialist, they nevertheless have an essentialist tinge to them that is similar to the decoration of the fences of the American Missile camp in Greenham Common with nappies in the early days of the antimissiles peace movement. What is particularly problematic is Ruddick’s attachment of life preservation to the kinship system. Ruddick, like Carol Gilligan (1982), from whom she draws inspiration, presents a certain paradox in her construction of women’s morality. On the one hand, Ruddick presents women’s psyche, especially that of mothers, as universal, not constructed historically by ethnicity, class, age, culture, and (p.186) so on. Although Ruddick (1989) recognizes that not all women behave as she would like them to behave, she continues to use the generic women out of respect (to the many women who do pursue nonviolence) as much as out of what she calls “stylistic laziness” (164). Through this “idiom of achievement” (164), women are assumed to view the world and to judge it in a way that differs from the more abstract, universalistic way in which, she claims, men’s view of the world is constructed. However, if women’s view of the world is so particularistic, then obviously their family, community, and ethnic and national collectivity should matter to them more than to men. The archetype of such a construction of motherhood is that of Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage, whose sole interest and struggle, during wartime, is the survival of her own children. Such a construction of “preservative mother’s love,” to use Ruddick’s term, heroic as it may be, can hardly be a basis for an antimilitaristic women’s peace movement that opposes war because of a general concern about human life, a concern not just for their own children but also for the children of the “enemy.”

In reality, of course, there are many women and mothers whose “preservative love” transcends their love of their children. A recent example is the mothers of soldiers in Chechnya who traveled from Moscow to Chechnya to plead with the Russian soldiers, their sons, to stop their atrocities in Chechnya—just to be taunted and pushed away by those same soldiers (National Peace Council 1995).

The specific positioning of women in peace movements can be explained by rationales that are very different from the biological and social constructions of women as mothers. First, women, unlike men, are virtually nowhere drafted and forced to fight in wars of which they don’t approve. They always join the military as volunteers. Even in Israel, where they are drafted, they are not drafted to the reserve army, which constitutes the bulk of the military, nor are they allowed to serve in the battle front lines. M.P. Geula Cohen has pointed out that in Israel, if women are not soldiers, they are mothers or sisters or wives of soldiers and as such are all entrenched in the military system (Yuval-Davis 1985). Nevertheless, they are somewhat freer to protest against militarism and war without being subjected to the same pressures and sanctions as those who are actually members of the military.

Second, some women prefer to organize autonomously within antiwar and antimilitaristic movements as part of a more general feminist conviction that this autonomy allows them to be more assertive than they would be in a mixed organization. Even so, they often tend to cooperate and work closely with men’s and mixed groups and organizations with similar political goals.

Third, some women’s antimilitaristic and antiwar groups see their work as a spearhead in the fight against the patriarchal social system as a whole that they see as dominated by male machoism and violence. “Take the toys from the boys”—one of the slogans of the Greenham Common women—typifies (p.187) such an approach. Such a standpoint might lead activists to an automatic link between feminism and antimilitarism and pacifism (Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group 1983). A debate around this question has often arisen in international conferences whenever First and Third World feminists come together. Feminists from the Third World justifiably argue against simplistic universalized notions that some First World radical feminists, such as Robyn Morgan (1989), hold of “the terrorist” and their automatic condemnations of all acts of violence that do not take into account who carries out the violent campaigns and why. They also contend that they cannot afford the luxury of being antimilitaristic because the national liberation of oppressed people can only be carried out with the help of an armed struggle. Interestingly, Sara Ruddick (1983) has been sympathetic to this claim because “fighting is significant for any powerless or stigmatized group” (472). Such a concession might be interpreted, however, as encouraging women to resist patriarchy by using violence, which does not seem to be in line with her general politics.

There is no space here to enter into this debate in detail (see Yuval-Davis 1997). However, this Fanonite ideology of the oppressed, who are called “to reclaim their manhood” by violence, has been to the detriment of many black and Third World women who have suffered from the misogyny that has been central to the macho ideologies sustained by most interpretations of this sentiment. As long as the struggle of the powerless is to gain power rather than to transform power relations within the society, so-called “national liberation” often brings further oppression to women and other disadvantaged groups within the new social order. While armed struggle may sometimes be the only way open to fight against oppression and occupation, the ways this struggle is organized, its targets and social structures, are crucial.

It is perhaps not incidental that during the second Palestinian intifada, which relies much more on gunfire and the armed Tanzim, women’s participation is much more marginal and less visible than during the first intifada, which was focused much more around civil disobedience. However, while the huge Israeli military machine is engaged in attempts to suppress the intifada and, while doing so, is continuously destroying the economic, political, and civil infrastructure of the occupied territories, the voice of Israeli women’s peace activists is central in resisting the Israeli occupation. In June 2001, the Israeli Women in Black managed to organize simultaneous vigils against the Israeli occupation in 157 global locations, as well as in various locations inside Israel. These locations included a couple of places within the Arab world, as well as in the region of the former Yugoslav states, where Women in Black has been very active. In 2001, in a rare moment of recognition of the power and effectiveness of women’s peace movements, the Nobel Prize committee nominated the international Women in Black movement as a formal candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

(p.188) conclusion

This chapter has discussed the gendered relations of militaries and wars. The specific tasks that women fulfill in different militaries in different historical contexts vary, as does the extent to which they are formally incorporated into the military. Yet it is only very rarely, if at all, that differential power relations between men and women have been erased, even in the most socially progressive national liberation armies or in Western professional militaries. Moreover, except for a few liberation armies, such as the Eritrean and Tigrean, where women are “allowed” to a lesser or greater extent to fulfill “men’s roles,” some sexual division of labor continues to operate. This is true even when technological innovations in modern warfare have made biologistic rationalizations of women’s exclusion mostly obsolete. Technological innovations not only make physical strength less important in combat roles but also have phased out many of the manual clerical roles that women have traditionally filled in the military.

These considerations, however, are still only marginal in most contemporary wars, especially those that Miriam Cooke (1993) has called the postmodern ones. It is men, in these wars, who are mostly selected to fight and to be killed, and it is women who continue to sustain all other facets of social life, often finding themselves in the aftermath of brutal attacks and rape as displaced refugees who must continue their fight for survival for themselves and their children.

Feminists have been divided on the question of whether, as feminists, they should struggle for the entry of women into the military on an equal footing with men in order to gain equal access to the social power and social resources it can offer and thus to become citizens in the Marshallian sense of “full members of the community.” Others have argued that, as feminists, they have a special role to influence their community and state against militarism and war. Some, like Sara Ruddick, have called for both: that is, for women to volunteer for the military in order to stop it from being militaristic.

Many people support a draft on the grounds that conscripts are less eager for battle than self-selecting volunteers. Women conscripts might be especially reluctant to fight, conscious that their families might be particularly appalled to see them on the battlefield. Ruddick (1983) argues that a “peaceful” army fights “only the most necessary and clearly just battles, fights them as humanely and briefly as possible, and in its fighting does nothing to increase chances of escalation to more destructive conventional weapons or to nuclear arms” (477). This is, of course, a hopelessly idealized notion of womanhood because it has been found again and again (and not just by pointing at Margaret Thatcher) that when women’s positioning is not different in power terms from that of men, their behavior is not necessarily different from men’s.

(p.189) However, this does not mean that women’s presence in the military could not affect its social and political role. If wars are fought “for the sake of womenandchildren,” then the presence of women next to the men on an equal footing might undermine at least part of this macho myth (Stiehm 1989). Moreover, while I do not see, as many feminists do, the necessary connection between women “fulfilling their patriotic duty” and their entitlement to full citizenship rights, I do feel that citizenship, as full membership in the community, does or should involve responsibilities and duties that might include a national draft in a specific historical context. Being excluded from the military, like being excluded from night shifts and other so- called dangerous jobs in the civil labor market, has been paternalistic and often to the detriment of the social positioning of women.

No discussion of gender relations in the military can remain on this general level of discussing “women” and “men.” National, ethnic, race, class, regional, age, and ability divisions are crucial in the positioning of specific individuals and groupings of women—and men—in militaries and wars. If we do not explore these specific social relations, our understanding of how women or men will affect and be affected by these major social and political arenas can only be partial and misleading.

NOTES (p.190)



An earlier but different version of this chapter appeared as part of Chapter 5 of my book Gender and Nation (Sage, 1997).

(1) . Over the years, however, this practice has produced its own contradictions, with the growing resentment of the secular sector and the growth of a fundamentalist religious nationalist sector, especially among the settlers in the occupied territories. Recently the Supreme Court declared this state of affairs illegal, and the Israeli parliament is in the process (deferred as a result of political pressures) to legislate special ways for ultraorthodox men to take part in the national service.

(2) . The Israeli Women’s Corps has recently been dismantled, and the women soldiers have been integrated into mixed frameworks as is the structure in the American military.

(3) . Recent press reports put the rate of rape as high as a third of women soldiers.

(4) . A lot has been written in the last few years about rape in war, especially since the systematic rape of women by Bosnian Serbs has been exposed by the media (e.g., Amnesty International 1995; Pettman 1996; Zajović 1994). Similar reports were made about Rwanda (Bonnet 1995) and the war in Bangladesh in 1981 (see the film The War Crimes Files, directed by Gita Sahgal, shown on Britain’s Channel Four on March 5, 1995). Significantly, as feminist human rights activists like Rhonda Copelon have pointed out in debates at the NGO Forum of the UN Conference on Human Rights in 1995 in Vienna, rape was defined by the Geneva convention as “a crime against honor” rather than as a mode of torture. Honor—of the men and the community, rather than necessarily that of the women themselves (see also Mojab, Chapter 5 of this volume).