Published November 8, 2011 at TheAtlantic.com.
As wars become less about states and more about societies, women can play a greater role in shaping or ending conflicts. So why do we still think of war as inherently male?
Asked to describe war, most Americans would probably throw out words like troops, tanks, guns, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Our historical and cultural understanding of war is shaped by our focus on the men who fight — and it is still overwhelmingly men who fight — and the tools they use, and this has become the prism through which we understand war and its consequences. War is a male domain, says conventional wisdom, in which women play little direct role.
But the idea of war as a male domain is increasingly out of touch with the way that war is fought today — and whom it impacts. Across the globe, conflicts are primarily fought not by well-trained armies at the behest of their governments but by non-state groups with complex motivations and little incentive to obey the laws of war. In these wars, civilians are often targets, not just collateral damage; 90 percent of conflict casualties are civilians, many of whom are women and children. A 2009 study by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo concluded, “men are more likely to die during conflicts, whereas women die more often of indirect causes after the conflict is over.” When our understanding of a given war focuses so overwhelmingly on its male soldiers and statesmen, we miss the larger context — namely, we underestimate the many roles women can and do play — which makes it harder to end war and create durable peace.
Our common understanding about what war is and who participates can change, but it’s a slow process. For example, the idea that wartime rape is a crime against humanity — rather than an inevitable byproduct of war — is relatively new. After the Holocaust, there was little effort to collect evidence of systemic rape; at the Nuremberg trials, no charges of rape were filed. In contrast, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia opened a case devoted solely to sexual crimes — a watershed moment in the development of international law regarding the intersection of women’s rights and conflict. As part of their excellent, five-part Women, War & Peace series, PBS produced I Came to Testify, a documentary that tells the story of Fo?a, the town in Bosnia that was the site of multiple rape camps during the war there. The site later became central to the International Criminal Tribunal’s efforts to prosecute rape as a crime against humanity. Prosecutors were able to collect physical evidence from Fo?a and gather 16 women willing to testify before the court. The inclusion of women as witnesses, lawyers, and judges was key to the case’s success and to the establishment of systematic rape as a crime against humanity.
Through ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has begun to appreciate the importance of gender in war — and not just as an artifact of political correctness. As the U.S. moved to a strategy of counterinsurgency, they put less emphasis on killing bad guys and more on engaging with locals as a way of de-escalating violence. The military, though a male-dominated institution itself, became increasingly aware of the role of women in society and their influence over the men in their families. The military created Female Engagement Teams, whose members can talk directly with Afghan women (whose culture forbids them to talk to men outside their family). That was a strong start, but the idea that traditionally female spheres are of secondary importance during war and are not a male concern still persists, and may hamper future counterinsurgency efforts.
Men still tend to dominate peace negotiations — often the same men who were responsible for starting the war — in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Women are still in the minority at these talks, if they’re invited at all. The 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell tells the story of the women of Liberia, who ended the decades-long conflict there by pressuring dictator Charles Taylor to attend peace talks in Ghana — then followed him to Accra to keep the pressure on. The women were led by Leymah Gbowee, who, along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent work to ensure women’s voices were heard in the peace process. In the documentary, Gbowee discusses the talks in Ghana, where the men acted like they were on vacation until the women staged a sit-in and refused to allow the negotiators to leave their conference room until they took their work seriously. The imagery is telling: the men are inside bargaining while the women are outside, with no direct influence over talks that could change their lives until they decide to use their bodies as doorstops.