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Experience April/May 2024

Gender and War: Where Are We Heading?

Keshab Giri

Gender and War: Where Are We Heading?

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We’re living through an extraordinary time, where it feels normal to wake up to daily reports of both intrastate and interstate wars dominating the screens of traditional and social media. Amidst ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Stockholm Peace Research Institute data shows military spending has shot up, further accelerating the militarization of everyday life.

The war in Ukraine, in particular, has swiftly rekindled the centrality of military in the existential struggle of western liberal democratic order against the authoritarian aggression. Unprecedented levels of deaths and destruction in Palestine, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, and Sudan have further militarized any conversation on conflict resolution and making and building peace.

Though it never seems an opportune time to ask perennial feminist questions, we’ll address them here. Where are women in this conversation? What military work are women doing? What value do feminist insights bring to conversations about women and the military?

Militarization intensifies, citizen army emerges

From the militarization of peacekeeping missions at the international level and the global war on terrorism to the use of military language in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the domestic level, the militarization of society has continued unabated in the decades after the triumph of the neoliberal order. However, this militarization has intensified in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Talk of impending war on European soil and the potential need for mass mobilization or a citizen army may sound alarming. The head of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, is among the latest figures to characterize the current world as a “ pre-war world,” calling for the citizen army to prepare for a potential clash with Russia in Europe. Previously, Robert Peter Bauer, a lieutenant-admiral in the Royal Netherlands Navy, currently serving as the chair of the NATO Military Committee, alerted his European counterparts to “ expect the unexpected.”

The idea of citizen army has already taken roots in various forms of conscription in countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and Sweden in “prepping for war.” At a time when recruitment in the military in Western states is diminishing, policymakers are turning their attention to women, an untapped reserve constituting 50 percent of the population.

The history of women and war

Women have been in military combat since pre-modern times, but they’re made invisible, and their experiences of war have been largely excluded from the public memory and imagination. From Boudica, Joan of Arc, and women cross-dressers in the American Civil War to women fighting in two world wars, women have consistently served in war as combatants.

Yet their involvement has often been regarded as “a temporary aberration in time of extremity.” The deeply entrenched essentialized idea of men as just-warriors and women as beautiful souls shrouds the political and martial agency of women into “mothers,” “monsters,” and “whores” to emphasize their perceived exceptionality.

Thanks to the relentless campaigns from liberal feminists, the number of women serving in the military in several countries has gone up. Currently, NATO has around 12 percent of its military as women. Women make up as high as 30 percent of the military in heavily militarized countries like Israel and Eritrea, 19 percent in the Australian military, 16 percent in the U.S. military, 11 percent in the UK military, and less than 1 percent in the Turkish military. In Ukraine, more than 22 percent of soldiers are women.

The perennial debate: Is it equality?

The inclusion of women in the military has elicited passionate and polarizing debate on whether women serving in the military marks a sure journey toward gender equality and emancipation.

Liberal feminists stress that women’s participation in the military enhances gender equality while also enabling them to fulfill the duties of citizenship, including the “right to fight.” Moreover, the entry of women soldiers in the military, particularly in combat roles, destabilizes both hegemonic masculine norms and the very nature of masculinity and femininity.

Critical and radical feminists, however, express the concern that joining military organizations instrumentalizes women. Critics of equal participation argue that claims of gender equality or gender neutrality center masculinity. It consolidates militarism, legitimizes war, and sustains global power hierarchies, ultimately placing the lives of women around the world at risk. They contend that the centrality of the military in women’s equality and empowerment degrades anything that’s nonmasculine.

Many feminists in Ukraine and Central and Eastern European countries criticize “abstract pacifism,” calling pacifism disconnected from the realities of resistance on the ground that privileged elite feminism fails to capture. In response to the Feminist Resistance Against War manifesto, Ukrainian feminists developed The Right to Resist: A Feminist Manifesto as a self-defense against Russian imperial aggression.

Arguments for women in the military

Beyond Ukraine, many organizations and countries have taken steps to facilitate inclusion of women in the military. For example, NATO supports the participation of women in the organization on three principles: integration, inclusiveness, and integrity. In March, Denmark’s prime minister announced a plan to expand conscription to women.

In 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the commitment by announcing gender equality as “an integral part of all NATO policies, programs, and projects.” Likewise, the NATO 2021-2025 Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security aims to achieve this by integrating the WPS agenda through the alliance’s three core tasks: collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security.

Such inclusion of women in the armed forces is motivated by three major reasons. First, as in any sector, recruiting from 100 percent of the population can get the armed forces the most talented, committed, and competent human resources, thereby expanding and strengthening the military.

Secondly, the recruitment of the most talented, committed, and qualified women improves the operational capabilities of any military. This prepares the military for the evolving nature of postmodern warfare, particularly due to development of new weapon systems that require multidimensional technical skills.

Finally, as noted, strong advocacy on gender equality in past decades has been instrumental in encouraging women to join military service. Military organizations like NATO, the African Standby Force, and UN Peacekeeping missions have prioritized the inclusion of women as part of their commitment toward gender equality.

The gendered logic of war

However, we can’t understand the inclusion or exclusion of women in war without understanding the underlying intensification of the contestation of the gender order and gender imaginations between traditionalist Russia and liberal Europe.

Every war is gendered, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has explicitly exposed the fight for so-called traditional values against gender equality and gender order promoted by so-called “decadent Europe.” The Kremlin has presented itself as a fortress of virtue and natural order, claiming to have undertaken the mission to restore the traditional gender order within and outside Russia.

In response, the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, promptly adopted the Istanbul Convention, which is an important step toward gender equality in the country. The adoption of the WPS agenda in Ukraine is predominantly focused on facilitating and ensuring gender equality in the military.

Feminist activists and scholars are quick to point that the dominant gendered logic that celebrates women in military may still harm women’s rights in the long term. They point out that the humanitarian crisis caused by the invasion is exacerbating preexisting intersectional inequalities from Palestine to Ukraine.

Services and access to the support for the survivors of gender-based violence have decreased, intensifying those challenges during the conflicts. In the context of Ukraine, the discussion of recovery is blind to social reproduction, which has long-term gendered consequences.

Today, despite important gains for women in the military, many militaries’ special force units—such as U.S. Navy SEALs, the British SAS, and their exclusivist counterparts— remain resistant to any attempts to challenge institutionalized hegemonic masculinity and sexism.

In Britain, endemic sexual harassment and assaults in the Royal Air Force has forced women to end their military career. Many American women are leaving the military due to suffering from trauma, known as military sexual trauma, after sexual assaults by their male comrades. Many experts agree that many cases go unreported and underreported by women because of a lack of trust in the military to deal with their complaints.

Gender, class, race, and militarism

Inclusion of women in military for better security also has raised questions about which women participate in the military and their particular experiences while serving.

Western military services have attracted particular socio-economic groups of women with the promise of a better socio-economic status. Currently in the U.S. military, Latinas comprise about 21 percent of all active-duty women despite constituting only 18 percent of all American women. Black women make up 29 percent of all active-duty military women yet represent 12 percent of all U.S. women. In the absence of opportunities, military service offers not just better economic opportunity but also a venerated social status.

As voices of inclusion start to amplify in Western militaries, inclusion of marginalized women or gender-diverse people calls for attention to intersectionality, the interconnected and overlapping systems of power affecting the experiences of people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While promoting the idea of an inclusive military force for peace and security is important and necessary, inclusion that’s detached from equality and inclusion in political, socioeconomic, legal, and cultural realms can’t prevent the violence that women and gender-diverse people face daily. War often exacerbates existing inequalities and vulnerabilities for marginalized social groups.

A radical solution would be to end all wars. The military as an institution primarily designed to make war becomes part of the problem despite its purported focus to find solutions that avoid war.