Exploring gendered narratives within armed conflict

The discourse around gender is a critical aspect of armed conflicts where patriarchal gender norms entrenched in societies magnify gender relations and characteristics. This deals with questions regarding what defines masculinity and femininity: what characteristics designate and delineate a man or a woman, or how males and females are expected to behave in society. In this paper, I will analyse the stereotypes of women that revolve around the contexts of armed conflicts. I will argue about the importance of acknowledging the ‘violent’ roles that women play in warfare. This ‘violent’ aspect in women is inconsistent with gender norms, and it is necessary to take this discourse in this context because these conflicts have inherently been a masculinist subject. Men in fighting forces are depicted as ‘fighters’, ‘commanders’ and ‘active perpetrators- individuals to be feared. While women in conflict are predominantly perceived as ‘passive’ and ‘silent’ victims. 

Armed conflict as a masculine domain

Armed conflicts are universally viewed as masculine domains. They are understood as “masculine endeavours for which women may serve as a victim, spectator, or prize”. During armed conflicts, it is common to see pictures of women and children suffering the impacts of war. Poverty and grief-stricken, hungry, teary-eyed, malnourished, displaced and victims of sexual violence are the imageries of women and children afflicted by wars. There has always been a  connotation of ‘fragility’ and ‘vulnerability’ attached to these pictures. In this sense, the meaning of ‘feminity’ automatically becomes synonymous with ‘victimhood’, ‘passivity’, and ‘weakness’. The tangible manifestations of these emotions serve to perpetuate these established stereotypes. Thus, women are confined to the sphere of individuals who are merely just mothers, daughters, sisters and most of all, deemed peripheral and rendered invisible within fighting forces. On the contrary, images of men in combat illustrate notions of strength hypermasculinity who fight against the enemy and protect the vulnerable. These representations portray the dominant mainstream narratives of masculinity as being fearless, courageous, violent and the ‘protector’. The consequences of opposing what is accepted as masculine or feminine behaviour in times of conflict could be devastating. Chris Coulter argues that women who contradict female stereotypes have historically been deemed as ‘deviant’ or ‘unnatural’ and men who refuse to fight have often been humiliated, jailed or even killed for their supposed lack of courage. 

The ‘weaker’ gender

The first stereotype that I address in this paper is that of women as innate peace-loving, passive bystanders, victimhood writ large in their lives, and as being morally opposed to violence. In his book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, Francis Fukuyama, propagates this stereotype by arguing that women are ‘peaceful’ and intrinsically lacked the so-called features necessary for war and combat. He further asserted that “men in general are, by nature are prone to violence”, and he traces this assumption to the Paleolithic age. Furthermore, as Iris Young puts it, the role of the masculine ‘protector’ automatically puts the ‘protected’ (women and children) in a subordinate position of ‘dependence’ and ‘obedience’. This automated assumption of women as the ‘protected’, by default, portrays women as “customary victims of armed conflict”. This assumption considers women to be physically and psychologically ‘weaker’ than men, and thus are expected to be unable to fight and survive during wars due to their kindness, passivity and naivety. 

Moving beyond women as ‘passive victims and ‘peacemakers’

While taking into account the devastating impacts and atrocities of armed conflicts on women, it is crucial to look beyond the victimization and the peace-keeping/loving characterization of women. The singular focus on women as ‘victims’ tends to oversimplify and provide an inaccurate image of female participation in conflicts. It is necessary to recognize that the participation of females and violence is a lot more common than what is usually recognized by the predominant patriarchal narratives featured in society. While men are still the ones who dominate the terrain of armed conflicts, it cannot be ignored that women also actively participate in this domain. This can be confirmed by women contributing to conflict as part of armies, rebel groups as well as suicide bombers. The civil war in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002 shows the active participation of both women and girls in the war. Coulter claims that women showed themselves “as capable as men” in performing violent acts such as mutilation, branding, and sexual violence. Furthermore, in countries with conservative and patriarchal beliefs and norms, where women are discriminated against and have very little say, joining militias serves as a way to escape this prejudice. Many have joined the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), an all-female militia, fighting in Northern Syria, to “escape social conservatism, honour killings, domestic violence and lack of opportunities for women”. Suicide bombing has also given women opportunities to participate in conflicts actively. The idea of ‘empowerment’ of women through violence became increasingly popular. Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a suicide bomber, and a member of the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) assassinated the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Wafa Idris, a 27-year-old became the Palestinian woman to commit an act of terror. She killed one Israeli civilian and injured over 100 other people. Her act of suicide bombing instantly turned her into a cult heroine. In an editorial titled, “It’s a Woman!”, Al Sha’ab wrote,” it is a woman who blew herself up and with her exploded all the myths about women’s weakness, submissiveness and enslavement” (Al-Sha’ab 2002). Their participation in suicide bombings strongly contradict the stereotype that women are inherently peaceful in nature and instead demonstrate that women are oftentimes ‘active’ agents during times of conflict.   

The three narratives

‘Mothers, monsters and whores’ constitute my second stereotype. Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry discuss the three primary narratives used in the IR discourse to comprehend the reason why women engage in conflict. In ‘Beyond Mothers, Monsters, and Whores’, the authors argue that a woman’s participation in political violence is usually denied or deplored or assumed to be influenced by personal and apolitical forces. The ‘mother’ narrative puts forward the notion that a woman’s participation in violence is not driven by a belief in a cause, but is driven by their failure as a mother. 

The ‘monster’ narrative suggests that there exists a “biological flaw that disrupts their femininity”. Therefore the behaviour of violent women is explained by “maternalism, mental instability or deviant sexuality”. Gilbert explains that violent women often fall into this category as ‘incoherent’ or ‘discontinuous’ beings who fail to conform to the gendered norms of our culture. This narrative views male violence as inherent and obvious in (hegemonic) masculinity, but views women’s violence as something that is exceptional or unusual but most importantly disrupting the ‘natural’ gender makeup. As ‘monsters’ a woman who engages in violence (contrary to stereotypes of ‘passive victims’) is reduced to a product of ‘insanity’. Lynndie England, one of the guards serving at the Abu Ghraib, was characterized as ‘out of control’ for torturing and dehumanizing the prisoners. What is interesting to note is that England’s male counterparts were not labelled like this. This goes to show that a woman’s violence is treated differently than a man’s as his show of violence and brutality conforms to gender norms. 

Lastly, the ‘whores’ narrative focuses on the woman’s sexuality as a reason for their violent actions. Sjoberg and Gentry argue that a woman’s violent behaviour is due to her “insatiable need for sex with men, men’s control and ownership of their bodies, or their inability to have sex with men”. This narrative links the violent actions of women to either be influenced by compensating for their inability to please men or hypersexuality. The portrayals of violent men and violent women within the context of armed conflicts are significantly different. Men who commit violent atrocities are framed as ‘suicide bombers’, ‘extremists’, ‘rebels’ and ‘rapists’- terms that seem indifferent to genders. However, when women engage in similar violence, they are framed in ways that emphasize their gender- female suicide bomber, female rebel, women extremists, etc. This emphasis on the gender characterizes violent women as a result of their skewed femininity as opposed to ‘normal’ femininity which makes it seem incredulous for women to be violent. 

Hidden victims

The third stereotype that I have taken up is: “women can only be at the receiving end of sexual violence whereas men are largely immune” which is a typically gendered narrative of conflicts. Though it is undeniable that sexual violence against women is at a far higher number and is more prevalent, sexual violence committed against men and boys in contexts of armed conflicts usually goes unnoticed. An explanation for this can be derived from the stereotyped notions of a woman’s ‘passivity’ and ‘weakness’ that pins them down as the perpetual victim of sexual violence. The gender norms concerning masculinity serve as an obstruction to recognize sexual violence against men. Lewis (2007) defines sexual violence against males as “a complex psycho-social process in which homosexual and/or feminine attributes are designated to the male survivor. Irrespective of the gender of the perpetrator or the survivor, the attributes of a ‘man’ is designated to the perpetrator, whereas the characteristics of a ‘woman’ are attributed to the survivor. Men being on the receiving end of sexual violence supposedly emasculates and humiliates them thus leaving them at the bottom of the societal power structure. Furthermore, the societal notion of sexual violence primarily being perpetrated against women further provides reason to the under-reporting of sexual violence against men. The idea of being ‘victimized’ or being ‘dominated’ by someone else is contradictory to general notions of masculinity, particularly in societies where a man should’ve had the strength to prevent himself from being attacked. Further, the abuse that men suffer during armed conflicts are largely viewed as beatings or torture, but it important to acknowledge that sexual violence should be included in these forms of abuse. It is imperative to recognize the ongoing prevalence of sexual violence against males. Further research and awareness about this subject can help eliminate the stereotype of women solely as victims of sexual violence and men only as perpetrators. 

. Gender stereotypes, norms, roles and expectations of men and women are often-times deeply rooted in society. Thus when looking at gender in the context of armed conflict, women are often stereotyped as incapable of violence due to their ‘passive’ and ‘silent’ nature. Conflicts are therefore perceived as ‘masculine’ domains due to these stereotypes. However, in reality, women are becoming a lot more active within the field of conflict thus taking charge and being ‘active agents’. By moving beyond the victimization of women and studying their participation closely, women have deviated from traditional gender norms. Furthermore, the prevalence of sexual violence against men during conflict has also been discussed. To conclude, both genders play a multitude of roles in conflict and it is imperative to understand that women are more than just ‘passive’ victims and men are more than just ‘perpetrators’. 

Nayana Vachhani is currently a third-year undergraduate student of Psychology and International Relations at Ashoka University. 

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