English, Politics How is female violence in war perceived?
Lynndie England was sentenced to jail due to her participation in violation of human rights at Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq. Image: US Army

English, Politics

How is female violence in war perceived?

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Women who commit atrocious actions in war tend to be seen as a product of a “damaged biology

In many societies, social constructions have shaped women’s image as peaceful individuals. In this sense, when violence and women are mentioned in the same sentence, the latter usually appears as a victim of the former, as Herjeet Marway, professor of the Department of Philosophy at  the University of Birmingham, points out. However, women also choose to act violently. Still, when American female officers appeared in images abusing Iraqi prisoners at the detention center of Abu Ghraib (Iraq) in 2004 the case made the news headlines for weeks, in part due to the “peculiarity” of the situation. The fact that smiling female soldiers had molested prisoners in a war in the 2000s, “violating” women’s image of peacefulness, became as important as the abuses themselves. Thus, how did the media and the public opinion react to such behaviour?

The main narratives used to explain the episode portrayed the female officers involved as incapable of making decisions, bringing to the centre of the discussion their allegedly dysfunctional sexual lives as a justification for their actions. In this sense, part of the public opinion blamed the improper conduct on an allegedly sexually “dysfunctional” behaviour, instead of flaws of their character or the institutionalisation of violent behaviour in the American armed forces. Violent women were discribed as a product of a damaged biology, the negative influence of men or even ideology. Similiar lines of thought have also been used to explain the female suicide bombers of Chechnya, a Russian Republic that has been fighting for independency for decades.

The images from Abu Ghraib depicted several naked detainees in degrading positions, with evident signs of torture and sexual abuse. Cases of torture in war are not unusual, however, the execution of such crimes by women was assumed to be. Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman and Megan Ambuhl were accused of sodomizing prisoners, forcing them to masturbate in public and to perform homosexual acts on each other.

Part of the public opinion sought an explanation for England’s misconduct on her sexual relationship with Charles Graner, a former U.S. army reserve specialist also involved in the case. Shockingly, the media saw as relevant information listing the couple’s favourite sexual positions and portraying England as “under the control of Graner”. Her actions, according to such views, were not motivated by personal choice. In this sense, she was removed from the ability of reasoning and intelectually manipulated by a dominat and smarter man.

Harman’s homosexuality was presented as an erotic dysfunction. Even Megan Ambuhl’s, who was not convicted of participating directly of any of the abuses, was exposed. She was involved with Graner while maintained a relationship and had a child with England.

On Abu Ghraib’s human rights violations, the media and sectors of the public opinion created a direct link between the alleged sexual “abnormal” behavior of the women involved in the case and the crimes committed by them.  That is, their supposed “dysfunctional” sex lives would be a more important factor for the crimes than a their failure of character or choice.

In addition, all three women had their names inserted in pornographic websites, some of them recreating the Abu Ghraib abuses in sexual contexts. On the other hand, the men involved in the episode did not attract the same attention, their sexual lives were not exposed and their mental capacities were not challenged at the same extent as the women involved.

In this sense, part of the public opinion exempted itself from the debate about how the violent structure of the US armed forces, in which crimes such as torture and abuse of prisoners were naturalized, contributed to the actions of the women and men involved in the episode.

Read also:
Gender in post-2000 wars: the role of women in the battle field 
Women in war: exclusion from combat and proscription of violence

The scenario does not differ much when the subject approached is the female suicide bombers of Chechnya. Used as an instrument of pressure on Moscow, the “Black Widows” were responsible for 42% of the 110 suicide bomb attacks in the Chechen region in 2008. Usually, the Black Widows are considered victims of mental disorders or personal trauma, such as problematic relationships with men or imposed hardships of life, including the loss of sons and husbands. In this sense, their assumed vulnerability make them perfect victims for terrorist organizations.

Once recruited, their suicide would be a form to reunite with their deceased husbands (some of them considered martyrs) since they cannot remarry. These women are also described as raped, drugged, or blackmailed into the missions, even though sometimes they lead them. In societies more receptive of female violence, such women are celebrated only as “good mothers” that offered their sons, husbands and themselves as fighters of an ideology.

In this sense, these explanations for women violence in warlike situations are deeply problematic. They seek, among other things, to reinforce that men owe the monopoly of force. Therefore, wars and conflicts post 2000s have been restrictive to women not only on the battle fields, but also intellectually. The rhetoric of alienated women denies them the control of their own rational capabilities, restricting to men the ability to reason. Thus, even though women can use violence by choice, they tend to deprived of some responsibility for their actions. And, if they cannot be in control of their decisions, they would not be fit to lead men in wars.

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