The Frontlines: A Man’s World?

“Valor knows no gender” – those were the words uttered by President Barack Obama at the announcement by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifting the military ban on women serving in combat roles on the front lines. The President further stated: “This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today’s military.” Although this move is portrayed as a ‘historic step’ by President Obama, it should not be associated with a state of complete gender equality in the military, as in reality it reflects a much more complex social construction of gender.

Image courtesy of US Department of Defense, public domain.

Image courtesy of US Department of Defense, public domain.

Dr. Caron Gentry, a lecturer specialised in gender studies at the University of St. Andrews, argues that allowing women on the front lines is more complicated than just fighting gender discrimination. “Allowing women to fight does not grant them equality.” She states that gender inequality is still prevalent, especially in politics where women are severely under-represented. In the United States, for example, according to a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in August 2011, the country ranked 91 on the worldwide ranking of women in legislature, with women only representing 16.9% in the US Houses of Congress.

Dr. Gentry raises an interesting anthropological question: do we want to receive equality by adopting masculine characteristics or by breaking down gender binaries? Coulter argues that there is a common dichotomy in conflicts between both genders where women are seen as victims and men as perpetrators. We can relate this to a social construction of gender. Henrietta Moore, studying the anthropological aspect of gender roles, brings out the idea that women are associated with nature, whereas men are closer to the definition of culture. Moore associates this with the western idea of motherhood, taking Malinowski’s analytical framework of the family as the basis of her argument. Ideas of women and motherhood overlap in modern societies. Mothering is emphasized where women are seen only for their reproductive attributes to bear children.

Dr. Laura Sjoberg, also specialised in gender studies, states that women are perceived as “removed from reality” and “in need of the protection provided by men”. She bases her argument around the idea of “beautiful souls” by Jean Elshtain where women are seen as the cause to fight for in wars. They are the ‘beautiful souls’ that desire protection and are traditionally marginalised in conflicts to prevent the corruption of their innocence. Sjoberg takes the example of literature to illustrate her argument such as the Trojan Wars where the abduction of Helen of Troy is the official cause of the war.

Dr. Gentry believes this idea of ‘beautiful soul’ is still present in modern warfare, as many countries, such as the United Kingdom, still ban women from frontlines. Women are venerated for their sense of fragility, and so a woman in combat is a distortion of this gender construction.

It is usually argued that women hold a different status in the military because of their inferior physical capabilities. There is no denying that women lack the same amount of testosterone as men, but it would be discriminatory to generalise the biological superiority of men to all women. Some women have demonstrated physical capabilities similar to men soldiers, such as Captain Philippa Tattersall who in 2002 received her green beret by completing the eight-week commando course, which is regarded as one of the toughest military tests in the world. She was still however denied the ability to participate in direct combat, despite proving the same capabilities as the best men soldiers.

It is also important to acknowledge that the state of warfare has evolved.  Modern warfare, with its common use of advanced weaponry, has made military operations more skill-based than strength-based. Dr. Gentry sees the general reluctance to view women in the military as a social construction of violence. “Men are supposed to be harmed as soldiers. We do not have a problem with that. If women get harmed as soldiers, it is usually seen as an affront. Thus, women in military are often masculinised.”

The idea of women in warfare is indeed a transgression of traditional gender boundaries. Therefore, women in the military are usually not perceived as just women, but are associated with masculine characteristics. Chris Coulter writes about women fighters in Sierra Leone who are breaking the conventionally vulnerable image of the female gender. Women represented 10-30% of the fighters in the conflict, with most combatants actually being abductees who were trained by rebel groups to fight. Women fighters have reversed their traditional marginalised role and are said to be more violent than their male counterparts. Indeed, these Sierra Leonean women soldiers are viewed as barbaric. To invert the gender stereotype associated with victimhood, fighters usually are said to obey orders without question and to be particularly ruthless.

By breaking gendered social conventions, some women are perceived as men or as deviant women. This gender dichotomy is truly at the heart of the problem concerning the stigmatisation and discrimination of women in warfare. The anthropologist Gilbert Herdt says that studying gender does not mean entering the realm of classification. He believes it is impossible to truly define masculinity and femininity, as these two notions can overlap and vary as cultural conventions.

Therefore, women holding combat positions cannot so simply achieve gender equality. Dr. Gentry states that permitting female violence does not empower women. She does not believe violence shows strength, whether it is committed by a man or a woman, and thinks military action should only be used as a last resort. Allowing women on frontlines marks progress, but it does not mean that the binary construction of gender has been removed. It is about giving women the same opportunities as men and more importantly, giving them a choice. However, gender equality should not equate to the masculinization of women. Gender equality in warfare is really about women defining themselves as women in the military.