Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness. — Erica Jong
Women are not the weak, frail little flowers that they are advertised. There has never been anything invented yet, including war, that a man would enter into, that a woman wouldn’t, too. — Will Rogers
The world has run up against surprises all around the globe recently. Women — who are supposed to be peaceful, reasonable, nurturing, mothering creatures — have taken up arms. All around the world in increasing numbers — or at least with increasing visibility — women have been abusing prisoners, taking up arms in revolutions, and participating in terrorist activities, including blowing themselves up and others up in suicide bombings.
What happened to the traditional idea that women are peaceful creatures, by their very natures abhorring violence? Even considering the feminist movement, women are notorious for being peacemakers, not soldiers. Where has all that violence come from?
Some of this, of course, has been going on for ages. Countess Elizabeth Bathory was famous for torturing and killing her servants. The Amazons are a popular myth of women warriors. Female fighters have been showing up in pop culture as well — Buffy was a badass cute blond girl who killed demons, and in “Alias” Jennifer Gardner took on evil villains galore. But on the whole, women have historically not participated in organized violence in large numbers, and we as a society don’t expect them to.
Traditional views still in place
We go so far as to ban American women from combat roles, despite the blurring of lines that means women in so called “support roles” do occasionally participate in combat. Despite evidence, traditional views are still in place: Men are supposed to engage in violence, either as the aggressors or as protectors. Women don’t engage in violence — they are still often seen as in need of protection, considered too physically weak and incapable of being able to stand up to the aggression of men.
Women have certainly been taking a more visible role in armed conflict. Newspapers all over the world carried images of Lynndie England giving a thumbs up to the camera in front of an abused prisoner and have written about the small children female suicide bombers have left behind. Women are in fact given a disproportionate amount of attention by the media when they commit acts of violence because they are breaking gender norms in order to do so.
The media often portrays the women as exceptions, delving deep into their lives and psyche to discern what could have possibly led them to such aberrant behavior, which misses the point entirely. Many of these women have the same motivations as men — they simply didn’t have the use of violence as an available option.
As an example, women couldn’t participate in military operations until the military allowed them to join. That doesn’t mean their capacity for violence has changed, just their means to express it. Until recently, Palestinian women were forbidden by religious leaders to be suicide bombers. Recent guerrilla movements have seen benefits to having women in the ranks and have been more willing to allow their participation. As equality grows, women will have more opportunities to commit organized violence, just like men.
Despite progress, norms tend to persist
Despite the progress made over the years in gender equality, our gender norms haven’t kept up. As a society we are still too surprised when women break traditional gender roles to commit horrific acts of violence.
As women reach for equality with men, their actions and motivations become more in line with each other. For instance, in the Abu Ghraib scandal both the men and women involved had similar reasons for participating in the abuse of prisoners. They believed they were following orders designed to obtain necessary intelligence and didn’t want to look weak by showing too much compassion to enemies. Men and women cite similar reasons for wanting to join the military. In places where gender equality has lagged, women have cited a desire for equality as a reason for their actions. Suicide bombers in Palestine have attributed their actions to wanting to prove that their commitment to the cause was as great as a man’s.
U.S. policies haven’t kept up with the increase in female violence around the world, so we aren’t prepared to handle women’s increased participation in armed conflict. One reason female suicide bombing has increased is because women aren’t seen as a threat and are more likely to be allowed through checkpoints. Women in the U.S. military are at a disadvantage when considered for promotion because of their lack of combat experience despite their good performance in Afghanistan and Iraq. Women have a hard time reintegrating after participation in guerrilla movements or rebel militias because the disarmament programs don’t recognize their role as combatants.
U.S. policy must catch up with what is increasingly obvious: Women are increasingly participating in the same kinds of violence as men. Policies across the board must change to deal with people based on their actions and capabilities rather than their gender.
Carolyn Smith is a master’s of public policy student at the University of Minnesota.