The paradox of the female fighter

4 mins read

By Elin Westerling

When the El Salvadoran civil war came to an end in 1992, the guerrilla groups who had spent the past twelve years fighting against the government forces had to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate into the postwar society. Out of the more than eight thousand rebel fighters that entered disarmament programs around 30% were women. Over time and across societies, warfare has been considered a more or less exclusively male sphere, yet the numbers of women participating in the El Salvadoran conflict are by no means unique. From Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka, Colombia to Kurdistan, women have picked up guns to take part in armed struggles. By doing so they contradict gendered stereotypes that depict women as inherently peaceful and predominately victims, not perpetrators, of violence. What kind of consequences does women’s wartime activism generate? Or, more precisely, does the act of women undertaking ‘gender-bending’ roles as soldiers (really) challenge traditional gender roles?

The growing body of feminist scholarship in the social sciences have illuminated ways in which women’s experiences of war differ from those of men. Looking at the complexities of phenomenon that armed conflict is through a gendered lens have shown us how wartime sexual violence, human trafficking and prostitution takes a disproportionate and devastating toll on the lives of women. But besides the different risks and types of violence that women are exposed to during conflict, feminist authors have also demonstrated how the power relations of war are intimately connected to understandings of gender. All politics, but maybe security politics in particular, have been dominated by a male bias. When the task of protecting the nation has been ascribed to men, women have by contrast come to symbolize what needs to be protected. The power relations embedded in this discourse have made men into the primary actors, and women into passive victims, of war.

As the almost 2 500 rebel women in El Salvador demonstrate, a gendered perpetrator/victim dichotomy obscures the complexity of the roles women and men undertake during war. And moving beyond such one-dimensional depictions is important. Overwhelmingly focusing on women in terms of their victimhood risks limiting their ability to be perceived as political actors with independent agency. I am of course not arguing against the fact that women suffer and become victims of violent events during conflict – it is obvious that they do. The point I want to make is rather that a more nuanced picture of who acts and who is affected in war is needed, because it is the very foundation on which power relations are built.

Precisely by so tremendously disrupting a society, wars can open up avenues to change gender hierarchies. This has been clearly visible in many countries which have seen significant increases in female representation in their governments after conflicts. In the wake of war, states have to rebuild and reorganize institutions that during the conflict have faltered during the conflict, and actors have increasingly seized this opportunity to advocate for greater participation of women. This is definitely an important advancement in the symbolic (and sometimes substantive) influence of women, but does not necessarily reflect a shift in gendered power relations beyond the top sphere. Can war also challenge micro-level gendered hierarchies? Women’s wartime activism has been suggested to provide precisely this kind of change.

Participation in ‘gender-bending’ activities has often been considered a path for women to continue to break traditional gender norms also when the war is over. Scholars who study social movements have in this vein argued that by participating in rebel movements, women can come to perceive themselves as political actors for the first time, and through this empowerment become increasingly aware of and intolerant to sexism they experience. Rather intuitively this leads us to expect feminist activism after the war, but also greater participation in politics and the paid labor force in general.

And while this indeed happens (Karen Kampwirth has written about it at length in the book ‘Feminism and the Legacy of Revolution’), gendered change is often less impressive than anticipated. In ‘Women and War’, Jocelyn Viterna provides an eye-opening description of how women participating in the El Salvadoran conflict relate to their roles as guerrilla members. She finds that, interestingly enough, women who stayed the furthest from the frontlines, working as nurses, radio operators, or in the refugee camps, were more likely to translate their experiences into postwar activism. Many of those who fought did instead often return to a life of taking care of a family and household. A key explanation is that non-fighters had better opportunities to acquire networks and skills that could be used after the conflict. Another key explanation is that they were never subjected to the gendered stereotypes that surrounds the particular role of the fighter.

Because although women’s participation in armed conflict is neither unusual or new, ‘the female fighter’ remains controversial since the characteristics central to the role of the soldier are so intimately connected to the concept of masculinity. The female fighter will always be perceived as a paradox as long as the category of ‘soldier’ is incompatible with the category of ‘woman’. Entrenched understandings of women as inherently peaceful means that to participate in armed struggle, women essentially have to ‘become like men’. As Viterna describes it, female fighters may never come to question conservative gender norms, because these norms were essential to the very recruitment of women in the first place.

Women undertaking combat roles in armed struggles seems then to be a false promise of emancipation. It also becomes evident that while gendered norms and patterns can help us understand on a more general level women’s experiences of war, it is never entirely possible to generalize these experiences, globally, but also within countries. In El Salvador, some female rebels did become politically active postwar, some did not. But despite many women ‘bending’ traditional gender roles, participation in the guerrilla struggle never really challenged the norms of the society.

By Elin Westerling

Image: Marina Dokken

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