Warfare dates back to the origins of mankind and has gradually become more cruel with the advances of technology. After the World Wars in the 20th century the international Western community decided to work together to prevent any more wars (especially in Europe). Still, in 2018 the world is being torn apart by international military conflicts, civil wars and terrorist threats with no lasting peace in near sight. The scholars of International Relations have been discussing and analyzing war for decades however they have not yet figured out successful peace politics for everyone to engage in. For feminists the term “mankind” is the very problem – IR has always been a male dominated discipline and so has war itself. Women are affected by it just as much as men, yet their voices remain mostly unheard and feminists claim that the female angle is what is missing for a full understanding of war and peace. This essay outlines the relationship between women and war from a perspective of three different feminist theories, arguing that women are nearly always made objects of war.
Main strands of feminist theory on war
As many approaches as there are to feminism itself, feminist scholarship addresses war in various ways, creating a lot of dispute on the topic. However, a strong sense of anti-militarism as well as the argument of war and military action being mainly defined by masculinity dominates most theories. Feminists look at war from a broader perspective that takes more factors into account than other IR theories. As well as the physical discourse normally related to war feminists also discuss the “psychological dimension of dignity” (Alkopher 2014: 10), thereby focusing on the safety of females who are put into conflicts and placed on one side of them, usually by male leaders. Not only do they have to endure the actual war, but they also look after their families and survive the chaotic times afterwards, being threatened by violence specifically against them as women. They find themselves in war zones a lot faster and for a longer period than the actors fighting (Alkopher 2014: 269). These war zones might not be defined in the traditional explanation of a military conflict, but they are still dangerous. In the following, the three main strands of feminist theory on war as stated in Goldstein’s book “War and Gender” (2001: 34-51) will be introduced to give a broad perspective on the relation of women and conflict.
For liberal feminists war, women and discrimination based on sexism are closely related. Women are given significantly less opportunities to participate in militarism because of their sex, when they are capable of and should be fighting as soldiers. Aligned with the liberal position that everyone is created equally, liberal feminists reject the idea of women being the more peaceful sex or thinking about war in any different way as men. Liberal feminism wants to get women out of the domestic into the public space and war is an integral part of that, since according to this theory you can only be equal if you are allowed to fight. Their concern is that not participating in militarism prevents women from entering careers in positions of decision making and therefore forecloses the opportunity to contribute to society for half of humanity (Weber 2006: 4). Treating everyone the same will thus not lead to major changes in warfare or peacemaking, but give female individuals the opportunity to be successful in all fields, including militarism and consequently politics (Goldstein 2001: 39). Liberal feminist thought argues that even when women have participated as soldiers in history before, they have been dismissed after the war and not given credit for their contribution. This for example is true for women fighting in the Soviet Troops in the Second World War. They clearly made a difference but were nonetheless not mentioned as combatants afterwards. In a liberal feminist view, women and war should naturally be linked just like men and war since females have proven their ability throughout history (Goldstein 2001: 127).
In contrast to liberal feminist claims, arguing that women are exactly like men, stands the theory of difference feminism stating that gender differences do exist and should be acknowledged rather than omitted. Men are seen to be naturally more aggressive, whereas women are supposed to have gentler trades. Opinions on whether the reasons for this are biological or socially constructed differ. Ideas about how to deal with these divergences range from men and women working together (standpoint feminism) to them having separate spaces in which women cannot be dominated by male patriarchy (radical feminism) (Goldstein 2001: 42).
The radical feminist idea of men being controlled by their testosterone and therefore not able to contain their aggressive nature and sexual needs may be supported by a case of a women’s peace movement in Liberia. In 2003, after having endured a long-lasting civil war, the women of the country protested for peace imposing among other things a sex strike that helped to catalyze peace negotiations rapidly (Ouellet 2013: 15). This shows that while men and women are different and women might be physically weaker, they are still superior in other ways that let them contribute to war (and peace).
Evidence for this is provided by the biological argument by essentialist feminists. Its reasoning is rooted in motherhood causing women to be more caring and morally superior (“for essentialist feminists […] war is not only affecting women disproportionately, it is the ultimate attack on ‘feminine’ non-violent ideals”, Weber 2006: 4). This “maternalism thesis” gives women an important role in conflict solving since they are the ones who usually take care of children. According to this, the relationship of women and war is less strong than the (more important) connection of females and peace. On the other hand, “being a mother” can also be understood as an abstract practice that can be adapted by men as well as by women and may therefore make anyone more open to peace politics (Conover and Sapiro 1993: 1081). However there is no convincing evidence that a mother will be more peaceful than a father.
A second approach is that women’s different socialisation and experiences in their childhood leads to them having a more opposing attitude towards war. Theorists explain this with girls identifying with their female caregivers, whereas boys tend to separate themselves from them, searching for autonomy. This will result in men and women having a different view on social relationships and males being more open to kill someone in a battle. Women on the other hand are more likely to cooperate well in groups and avoid wars (Goldstein 2001: 47). The Liberian example can again support this since the women who took part in the peace movement came from all different backgrounds and religious groups in order to unite for the sake of peace (Ouellet 2013: 14).
Rather than defining the topic as a question of the connection of war and women as a sex, post-modern feminists distinctly differentiate between sex and gender. Women and men clearly have different biological aspects, but female and male gender are socially constructed and do not stick to either one of the sexes. Different cultures may have variable ideas about what is “feminine” and “masculine” and while it is female trades that might be more helpful for peacemaking they can be adapted by men as well as by women (Goldstein 2001: 50). For example, it could be argued that countries which value feminine trades such as reciprocal support, as oppose to (masculine) competition, are more economically successful and socially stable and have therefore less reason to start a military conflict. In a “feminine” country women will also less likely be subjects of (domestic) violence within times of war in societies dominated by men.
Post-modern feminists explain the fact that women are often (sexually) controlled by men in conflict ridden times and countries with a higher female infanticide in these areas due to the cultural thought that it is preferable to have a boy than a girl. Thus, in times of war women will be in a minority position and more vulnerable to sexual violence however this is not necessarily because they are the weaker sex for genetic reasons (True 2015: 559). Therefore, post-modern feminists reject the idea of women being seen as objects of war that need to be protected. Their view upholds a woman’s ability to take care of herself and make her own decisions during a military conflict (Alkopher 2014: 271).
Looking at women’s post-war conditions in Iraq, this argument is evidence that a strong (masculine) country “taking care” of women being mistreated without giving them a chance to be a part of the process does not secure women in a war zone or solve equality problems. Females might be the subject of the conflict for a while, but since they are not actively included they still remain objects of the actors fighting. In the case of post Saddam Iraq they even suffered worse while and after they should have been “rescued” (Brown, Romano 2006: 27).
Women as objects of war
“According to the crossnational International Violence against Women survey, the number of women who have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since age 16 is between 20 and 60 percent, with an average victimization rate of over 35 percent” (True 2015: 560). These numbers show that for women violence is not limited to the period of the actual, traditional war, but that it is much more long-term. Some feminists even question that women are ever out of a war zone, since they are never completely safe from domestic violence (“…, through 2012, [in the United States] more women were shot and killed by intimate partners than all US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined”, True 2015: 560). It is extremely difficult to find reliable data on how much violence women experience since most victims are too ashamed to report the harm being done to them. Even if they do, in times of war acts of domestic violence or sexual harassment, often enacted by the other side, will hardly be acknowledged or punished since they are being used precisely to undermine minorities or disgrace the enemy.
The best current example for this weaponization of rape is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Different groups are fighting to gain control in the area and using sexual violence against women as a an effective war instrument. Sometimes “rape may even be a ‘shrewder military tactic’ than others since it is hard to prove and seldom prosecuted in war crimes tribunals” (Kirkby 2012: 94). On top of that it is the cheapest arm. Therefore, sexual violence against women in times of war is not supposed to specifically hurt women, but it serves as an easy way of warfare and is consequently consistently used all over the world (Kirby 2012: 91-97). When talking about military conflicts, females are rarely mentioned to be participating, but their experiences are of as much horror as a man fighting in a battle (“From 1989 to 2003, over 80% of Liberian women were sexually assaulted […] many were raped with objects including blades and knives. Most lost their homes, their access to drinking water, and their children who were systematically recruited as soldiers […]”, Ouellett 2013: 13). Feminists explain violence towards women with economical as well as tactical reasons: Protection money can be demanded to stop the raping of the women in a specific area and pillage can be combined with acts of “violence […] intended to shape the behavior of a targeted audience by altering the expected value of particular actions” (Kirkby 2012: 100) such as stopping a community from supporting an oppositional force. Breaking a woman’s will by raping her helps to gain control over half of the population relatively easily and arguably even more if the male members of the family feel affected by it, too. Therefore, all they do is serve as tools.
Having looked at several feminist approaches to explain the relationship between women and war, it is not possible to draw a straight line on how women are affected by and themselves affect military conflict around the world. While a woman in the United States might lose a son or a husband who is willingly going to fight for his country, a woman in Congo or Afghanistan actually experiences war, sexual violence and possibly even sees her children die before her eyes. Therefore different war experiences might lead to different views in feminist thought such as liberal feminist theory saying women can fight like men or difference feminist theory claiming that the sexes are completely different and that women have a natural connection with peace rather than war.
However all feminist theories correspond that women are unrighteously made objects of war and therefore have to face much greater dangers than men. Even though some feminists are of the opinion that women are able to fight battles like men, females still remarkably often occur as the more peaceful sex claiming that a female perspective can not only change warfare but help to achieve peace. If a woman will be pictured as a fighter, she will more likely be seen as a peace activist than an actual war participant.
Most feminist theories on war and IR in general come from white Western women that speak on behalf of all women and claim if “their” side was taken into account many issues would be honed. But feminism has different classes and angles, too, and without including the voices of women of colour of all cultural minorities the full pictures can still not be seen. The only sure fact is that letting women become an integral part of war will not have a more negative outcome than the catastrophes which are usually brought to us by (military) violence. If warfare will actually be changed or even seized can only be proven by establishing a world-wide equality of male and female. Then we will see how strong the relationship between women and war really is.
Written by Amuna Wagner
Photos by Badi Khlif
(These photos were taken in Badi’s homeland Syria in 2013 and 2014. Badi is currently living in Germany.)
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[3 January 2016]