In a world where the definitions of both war and gender differ vastly not only from place to place but also over time, how do we come to understand the role gender plays in armed conflict? The United States are presumably global champions of women’s rights, tolerance, and gender equality: to the extent that we will fight decade long wars to defend them. In beginning to examine these issues and how they came to be, it is important to turn first to the mainstream media for a clear look at the information and ideas being disseminated to the population. In some cases, articles focus on the historical significance of female diplomats calling for war instead of political compromise, and the importance of women participating in armed combat. In others, the focus is on “oppressed” women in need of rescue: typically veiled women of Middle Eastern countries, these women and their lack of “equal rights” are used as justification for war. In both cases, it is assumed that the wars we wage are just and that gender equality is at stake in the waging of said wars. I have chosen two articles from contemporary news outlets to illustrate how portrayal by mainstream media of women as either a defensive or offensive weapon of war is problematic and not consistent with the idea of “gender equality”.
First, the media’s assertion that female politicians and their “unique” role in the call for war is problematic and implies that the skills and tactics used by female politicians are somehow different than those of their male counterparts. In his article “Libya Airstrikes: The Women Who Called for War”, John Avlon takes a look at the diplomatic team which led the call for military action in Benghazi in 2011. Avlon focuses on the gender of the team’s members (female) and posits that their gender is not only “historically significant” as the first female led coalition advocating military action, but also evidence of the United States’ “constant evolution to a more perfect union”. He then credits the success of the coalition of women to the triumph of their moral arguments, “branded ‘emotional’ or not”, over “the cold language of interests.” Avlon, without citing specifics, assumes that the arguments which led to a military strike were somehow a victory of a team of women fighting an emotional battle on the side of what was morally wrong. His emphasis on the revolutionary new nature of these “moral” arguments, made by women, implies that women have a softer, more emotional approach to negotiations and foreign policy. This, in fact, undermines the main point of his article: that women ordering military action is an example of revolutionary new levels of gender equality. How can he claim evidence of gender equality while celebrating the mystical, motherly, morality of women? Simply put, it once again relegates women to the role of “other”.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the media’s obsession with the rescue of “subjugated” women in countries we hope to invade. It is in this way that women are made into another weapon of war, albeit a defensive one. In a Seattle Times editorial published soon after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, we read of oppressed Afghani women “coming out from behind traditional burqas”, luxuriating in their “moments of freedom and reawakening”, and reaping the many obvious (and universally appreciated) benefits of US invasion and occupation. “Once again,” the editorial reads, “they can live and feel like people.” The first assumption the editorial makes is that all Afghani women wore the burqa not by choice, but by force. This implies that Afghani women are not only helpless, but lack agency. The second assumption is that the freedom and opportunity felt by Afghani women is a direct result of US occupation. This is a dangerous assumption to make, especially considering the reports of increased violence and sexual assault in the years following the invasion of their country. Finally, and perhaps most dangerously, the editorial makes the assumption that before they were forcibly invaded and unveiled by US troops, Afghani women did not live like people. The implication follows that these women had to be saved from their backwards culture and from themselves. Using women in this way to justify the invasion and occupation of a foreign country also negates the main point of the editorial: women have no agency. The editorial would have us believe that they are lesser and weaker people and often times don’t know what is best for them. This does not champion the cause of gender equality. It harms it immeasurably.
In conclusion, the sensationalist articles found in the mainstream media don’t often fully address the complex issues of gender, equality, and armed conflict. Whether the focus is on the unique, contemporary woman and her “hawk-like” role as aggressor in the theatre of war, or rather on the subjugated and oppressed woman and her need of a great white savior, the idea of women as unique weapons of war is a disturbing one.