An opinion piece on women on the frontline
by Isabel Manfield
As featured in the upcoming issue of wom*news: “herstory”, out this friday!
I was on YouTube during my exam preparation period (one of my routine procrastination rituals) after being linked to a men’s rights website I had never come across before by a friend and the site eventually lead me to a video discussing the opinion that men should not have to pay for abortions, as the abortions were a result of ‘sluts who can’t keep their legs closed’ and because such treatment was discriminatory of men. I was shocked to learn that no feminists had commented on the video and every single comment seemed to be in support of such an argument. Perhaps the most disturbing of the rather misogynistic comments that plagued the video was one saying that women should finance abortion because men had enough troubles being killed in wars, when all the women did was cook food behind the scenes. In support of my opinion that this sort of thinking is bred purely from in-education, the user said the same applied for the Cold War (no formal military combat occurred during this war) and even though countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and now Australia have implemented plans to engage women in proper Combat Units. Despite this, the truth is that women even today are tragically limited and underrepresented in the defence forces on a global stage.
Women are rarely given the opportunity to participate in the military. When the opportunity does arise, ridiculous restrictions on the roles these women can participate in are maintained. In fact, only 13 out of the total 196 countries in the world harbor female frontline soldiers. Women have reportedly been drafted into the Israeli Defence Forces at a consistent rate of 1, 500 women per annum since its very beginnings. Sadly, these women are conscripted for numbers alone, not out of respect for the women or for acknowledgement of their abilities. Figures such as Joan of Arc have shone through herstory as flickering candles of light on this subject, but her canonization only indicates how this was considered unusual and her ability only a reflection of God (who was thought of as masculine), suggesting a woman would be incapable of such endeavours without God’s aid. The Royal Norwegian Navy was the first force to legally allow women to serve on submarines in 1985, and Britain’s Royal Women Pilots’ Association has been effect since 1955. However, these women are regarded as extraordinary; masculine; abnormal.
Australia has put into effect a five-year program to fully incorporate women in the Australian Defence Force as of late 2011, including a new conscription policy fully encompassing the Australian female population. This legislation has not been passed without debate by any means. Australian Defence Association’s executive director Neil James possesses the same false information that has held women back from this kind of process in the past; women are not biologically capable to be as competent as men in the field. As was aptly discussed in the 2012 GoMA Talks series ‘Sex and Science’ session, “science is political” says Christina Lee, discussing how the discretion of research is subject to funding, political, cultural or social public interests and how conclusions drawn from research are tainted with personal interpretation, particularly where psychology and gender are involved. Does anyone really fully understand the differences between females and males? This idea that women and men are fundamentally different not only causes false reason to deny women combat positions, but also the perceived impractical need to segregate the genders in bathing and sleeping quarters, further limiting the chance for women to participate fully in the military by creating unnecessary financial difficulties.
What else is holding women back from the frontline? I have a school friend who wants to be a pilot for the Royal Australian Air Force and she, like 84 percent of American women according to a study done in 2008 by Jennifer M. Silva, is reluctant to commence her military career because of the certain barriers such a career constructs for a woman to get married and have a family. The question I have is: are these concerns practical and reflect the time military personnel invests in their career, the inconvenient placement of such individuals in various locations for military purpose, or is there some part of this reluctance that is cultural? Are women worried that they won’t be fulfilling their traditional roles looking after the children and the household, or even that no one would want to marry a strong, powerful woman in such a ‘butch’ profession? Every individual perhaps has a little bit of each of these holding her back from a defence force profession. Even the reality that society has perhaps moulded the female into such a gendered, feminine being by the time she is an age to make her career choices may indirectly construct a barrier for women’s involvement in the military.
We must also consider the traditional belief that women achieve success in any form through manipulation and use their sexual allure to persuade their male counterparts to do things they otherwise wouldn’t regard. Of course, this sort of behaviour would be dangerous in a combat scenario, and such ideas could be in the back of the minds of those who do not support the issue. Other practical complications such as romantic relationships could also distract an individual of the military duty they possess. This is again a cultural issue that plays on stereotypes (that all people are heterosexual) and also again touches on the idea of women as being very sexual creatures who are not only capable of but are willing to be deceitful and promiscuous. This is very much an underlying assumption of the debate against women being a part of the front lines, echoed in the fear that women could accidentally or even deceitfully either become pregnant, preventing themselves from being an able candidate for the frontline. Herstorically, I believe this has been the most crucial pointer against women along with the idea that women are fragile and require protection. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka use this notion to their advantage by inserting women, particularly very young women, into the rebel group for the purpose of deterring their opponents from attack. In addition, there is a dotted record of women participating in war disguised as men, particularly in the American Civil War (despite both the Union and Confederate armies disallowed female participation), some of whom have stories we shall never be aware of. The way these women have fought alongside men without being discovered just shows the female potential and ability.
The frontline has traditionally been a place for men alone; a truth dictated entirely by the stereotypical view of femininity as a weak, dependent, manipulative, deceitful and physically incapable gendered personage. These false characteristics are defined by perceived biological differences and universality of feminine stereotypes. The more interest women present in being participants in the military, the more likely the attitude to women serving in the military and frontline will be, which in turn will help break down the gender stereotypes that prevented women from taking part in the military in the first place.
~ Isabel Manfield
You can read more of Izzy’s posts at her blog Izzysays.