Does Khaki Become You?
issue 221 - July 1991
Does khaki become you?
Are women pawns or players in the war game? Cynthia Enloe investigates.
Think about the words 'women' and war'. Chances are another word will soon flash across your mind: victim. This is to be expected. Four out of five victims of war today are civilians - and most of them are female. Women are the majority of the world's refugees fleeing the violence of interstate wars with their dependent children. In the conventional iconography of militarization women are the victims and men are the perpetrators.
A woman in El Salvador who is imprisoned and tortured by her own government's army or the police has her life shaped by their needs - by their idea of who or what is 'the enemy'. She is forced to hand over control in a very fundamental way.
There are more subtle ways in which the transfer of control to the military can occur. Two years ago women from seven countries toured the United States to tell Americans what it was like to live under the shadow of a US military base. They came from Honduras, South Korea, the Philippines, Britain and Germany, and were joined by a woman from Poland who described what it was like living near a Soviet army base.
They spoke of the proliferation of prostitution, the health hazards of military wastes and sonic booms, the loss of arable land and competition for housing. They talked about harassment on the streets at night, the spread of VD, AIDS and drugs, and the pervasive racist assumptions about local peoples' culture.
Poor people inevitably get the brunt of all this. But what is often overlooked is how differently it affects men and women. Men may feel humiliated watching so many poor women from their society providing sexual services to male soldiers - especially if those soldiers are foreigners. To retain their own sense of honour they may insist even more strenuously that the women in their families remain 'pure'. Or the men may turn their humiliation into anger at the foreign bases and thus into nationalist campaigning.
But the women will feel fear and anger not only towards the soldiers but also towards their overbearing husbands and fathers, obsessed with female 'purity'. And while prostitution is frequently used as a rallying point for newly mobilized nationalists, the opinions and political analyses of the prostitutes themselves are disregarded.
Yet the step-by-step process by which the values and needs of the military gains primacy in any society's life cannot be entrenched without considerable co-operation from women. The most obvious example is if they become soldiers themselves.
During the Gulf war the women in the pale khaki camouflage fatigues kept appearing in our magazines and on our TV screens.
Although women have supported regular armies of warring states for the past 80 years, this war was the first in Which they played such a central role in soldiering.
Thousands served the US 'manpower planners. They attracted a lot of media attention precisely because they over-turned the stereotype of the female victim of war. Interviewers wanted to know how they were handling chauvinism in their mostly male crews? Did they expect to be in a combat zone? Did they worry about being good wives and mothers to the families they had left back home?
Some did not come home. By the time the Bush administration declared a cease-fire in the war against Iraq, five had been killed in action, seven more had been killed in non-hostile operations.
Other countries sent female soldiers to the Gulf too. The British military sent approximately 300. The Canadian Government - recently forced to drop its women-in-combat ban as a result of a rights suit - sent 33 to its base in Qatar. And the Australians broke new ground in January 1991 by deploying seven female sailors to a potential war zone for the first time.
Women were not so obvious in Middle Eastern forces - but their numbers are growing. Most served in 'non-combat' units such as air supply, cartography and administration. Others were used in home-front militias. Even highly patriarchal Saudi Arabia began civil defence training programmes for women during the crisis.
The presence of these soldiers also raised questions in many people's minds about the exact relationship today of women to militarism. Was a radical change going on? Some believed the tightly-knotted bond between masculinity and militarism was being loosened. Others suggested that this would force armies now dependent on female staff to shed at least a few of their patriarchal ways.
More worrying perhaps was the notion that in their quest for equality, women were becoming more receptive to militaristic ideas. Many believed they could win first-class citizenship' the way men can by serving in the uniformed military - in spite of all the contrary evidence of sexual harassment and discrimination.
The fact is, women are very vulnerable to military values and beliefs even though these rarely, if ever, serve their long-term interests. This vulnerability is crucial - for if women stopped giving support the system would collapse.
For example, the Bush administration was probably only able to sustain the public legitimation it needed to conduct the American war against Iraq because the gender gap between women and men over the issue of use of force shrank dramatically.
In a mere five days after the launch of the air war against Baghdad, American women's opposition to their Government's resort to force contracted from over 40 per cent to a little over 20 per cent. Why and how did so many women start supporting military policy makers, despite the fact that militarization robs women not only of physical security but of political influence too?
The answer lies in the way in which military beliefs and values are gradually internalized. Like imagining that serving in your country's forces is more honourable than working as a social worker; or thinking that national security issues are more politically relevant than issues of nutrition. Or valuing high-tech weaponry over low-tech agricultural equipment or feeling more national pride when your government has won a war than when your government has resolved an international conflict diplomatically. Alternatively, you could find yourself according guerilla freedom-fighters higher status than members of the community who perform unarmed roles.
Militaristic beliefs aren't so much concerned with what you consider good or bad but how you think the world works. Perhaps you assume that the world is full of enemies and that it is naive to expect most conflicts to be settled without violence or coercion. Or that hierarchical arrangements are the most natural and efficient way to organize people.
For years, historians and social commentators have described this process as if the only ones affected were men. Or else they have simply failed to distinguish between male and female citizens. But today feminists from many parts of the world are exposing how women as women internalize militaristic values and beliefs.
Why does it happen? The fundamental reason has to do with sexual equality - or rather the lack of it - in our societies. Ironically, it is because women are oppressed that they end up internalizing and supporting military values and beliefs. They do not espouse these in a vacuum but in the process of trying to live up to their society's standards of femininity.
For example, an Iranian wife who has lost her husband in the Iran-Iraq war may feel she has to accept her government's portrayal of a patriotic widow as a woman who will agree to muta - a short-term marriage-of-convenience with a returning veteran.
A Vietnamese worker may have to swallow her disappointment and resentment at having to give up her job to a male soldier returning from service in Cambodia because she believes that men have done the more important work of defending the country's interests. She may think these men deserve access to civilian jobs - even if this means unemployment for many women.
And if women cannot be the fighters themselves they can at least prove their patriotism by urging their sons to enlist, or by coping proudly with war-caused food shortages.
In their everyday lives women all over the world are both victims and participants in the militarization game. It presents us with many dilemmas. For example, how does someone aspiring to be a good mother show support for her soldier son or daughter without voicing support of her government's use of armed force?
Recognizing women as both victims and participants may cause unease. But focussing on everyday examples does help us realize what a contradictory thing militarism is - and how much it relies upon women to maintain it. This, in turn, could lead us to developing ways of opposing it.
Cynthia Enloe teaches at Clark University of Massachusetts. Her latest book is Bananas, Beaches and Bases (Pandora, 1990).
I am a dangerous woman
I am a dangerous woman
I am a dangerous woman
Joan Cavanagh has served many jail sentences for acts of civil disobedience. This poem appears in My Country is the Whole World (Women's Peace Collective, Pandora Press 1984).
This article is from
the July 1991 issue
of New Internationalist.
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