WMC Features RSS

Category: Politics, International, Violence against Women

How War Trounces Women's Rights

| November 8, 2010

In her new book Unmaking War, Remaking Men, feminist sociologist Kathleen Barry argues that by demanding a violent and aggressive masculinityliterally making men expendablewar precludes equality for women.

What happens to women when America goes to war?

War invigorates violent masculinity. No matter how many new laws to establish equality are put in place by the occupation forces in Afghanistan, men's assertion of themselves as protectors of women is their justification of extreme control over them.  Still Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regularly affirms that the United States invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is not only "liberation" of the country but of women in particular. In fact, the war has intensified the Taliban. 

War regresses the condition of women—both in every country where it is fought and in every country that invades another country.

In Afghanistan, the education of girls began in 1941 and became compulsory by 1978, a year before the Soviet invasion.  Women's rights, which emerge with increased economic development, were only nascent in Afghanistan, but beginning in 1959 women were not required to be veiled and then won the right to vote. Women studied and taught in universities—and then the Soviet Union invaded and occupied the country.

The 10-year Soviet war and occupation was followed by a Civil War, and now the U.S. war in Afghanistan is going into its 10th year.  The Mujahideen, holy warriors of Islam, fought the Soviets. Tribal leaders were again all powerful and the misogynist Taliban, as Afghan feminists call them, came to power. To this day, girls caught going to school may have acid thrown on their faces, teachers of girls face execution and bravely persist with secret schools, and the ubiquitous Burqa hides women from view. President Karzai last year proposed a bill to accommodate the tribal chiefs that would, in effect, legalize marital rape. Amended before it was adopted, it allows a husband to withhold food from a wife who denies him sex.

The American media conveniently and consistently fails to contextualize the condition of women in the Islamic and Arab world in its own history. In America and around the world, both men and women, by and large, have come to believe that with the U.S. war, life could only get better from the sorry condition of women under Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Despite Hillary Clinton's assertion that the United States is "liberating" Afghan women—a claim that makes for a soothing public relations campaign—the fact is that women are suffering more because our president decided that it was in our national interest to be at war in a country that had not planned to and did not attack the United States. And when he was trying to negotiate with Karzai over other issues, he ignored the proposed marital laws that were punitive to women.

American women do not fare much better from the upsurge of violent masculinity for war against Iraq and Afghanistan—one in three of U.S. military women are victims of sexual violence from American soldiers. That makes being in the military more dangerous for women than being in a war zone. The rate of domestic violence is higher for military wives than it is in the general population. The culture of war emboldens the vitriolic far-right, which would strip women of many of our rights, including the right to control our own bodies. These are only the most evident and visible violations of women that intensify in war-time. While women's rights and status are given and taken away depending on whether a state is in peace or at war, a deeper problem governs the ultimate conditions of women during war—the expendability of men. 

In my new book, Unmaking War, Remaking Men, I identify core masculinity as foundation for socialization of boys into men across all cultures and in all states. It works like this: boys growing up to become men are set to be protectors of women, children and their tribe or their state. Although there are many variations in masculinity, this protector role is at the core of socialization.  It is learned and reinforced by the media, peers and the society. Violence and aggression, the main elements of core masculinity, are essential to being a protector. 

The military builds upon core masculinity in training their recruits for combat. And while the United States does not officially assign women to combat, some women stationed in war zones will see combat if they are caught in a firefight or sent on a combat mission. Yet the expectation of the "soldier's sacrifice" purportedly for the protection of his state derives from core masculinity itself. Making men, who are expendable for war, protectors, I argue, encourages men to know themselves as superior to women, the defender of those who are weaker and therefore lesser than they are. Certainly this phenomenon does not account for all of women's inequality, but it goes a long way in explaining it.

Women across all cultures and classes are expected to accept men as protectors—while one in four are subjected to violence from those same men from whom they often have to seek other men's protection. I suggest, in more detail than I can go into in this article, that men's expendability is a death sentence inherent in the gender expectation that they will fight our wars. It so violates their own humanity that many turn their anger reinforced by their sense of their superiority against women and children in their homes. Then with the encouragement of the military, they randomly shoot and kill civilians on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

If men are suppose to be the protectors of women, children and their state or tribe, why do so many of them turn on us, women, with their violence?  I rephrase that question in Unmaking War, Remaking Men, to "can women ever expect full equality in a state or society where men who deny that equality to women are rendered expendable?"

Even if successful, struggles for peace do not end violence against women. Violence against women in the home and on the streets remains the breeding ground for the next wars, where macho is enacted and men ready themselves for other fights. That suggests that an effective struggle for peace requires an alliance between feminism and the peace/anti-war movements. Especially the feminist work on violence against women needs to inform and help direct the strategies of the anti-war movement. That work assumes that men take responsibility for remaking masculinity as women undo our complicity in male expendability.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

To support women journalists who are changing the conversation, donate to the WMC here.
To read other recent WMC Features, click here.

To receive WMC Features by email, click here.

Comments