Why the War Is Sexist
efusing to be silenced as a military parent,
Cindy Sheehan’s voice lent new urgency to stopping the war
in Iraq. She has been likened to a Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement.
Both widely recognized women served as symbolic figures to help
bring the weight of a larger base of organizing to bear on the public.
Yet today we have an anti-war movement that largely fails to point
out connections between war and patriarchy or gendered domestic
inequalities. To galvanize organizing against militarism to its
full potential, we must question its gender-blind approach.
What would it mean to put not just Sheehan’s son at the center
of outrage, but women like Sheehan, as military mothers, wives,
and partners? How have these women, not just the troops, been militarized,
manipulated, and exploited? What would it mean for the anti-war
movement to interpret women like Sheehan as activists and agents
fighting against exploitation that directly affects them in their
own right, not just as stand-ins for others’ struggles?
What follows are suggestions for how to apply a gender analysis
to war and its links to patriarchy.
Soldiers are not the only—or main—casualties of
. The ideology of militarism glorifies soldiers, focusing
attention on their heroism and sacrifice. In the 20th century, 90
percent of all war deaths have been unarmed women, children, and
men. As the occupation wears on, more and more Iraqi women and girls
are killed—reported as “collateral damage.” Bombs
and modern war weapons murder and maim noncombatant women in approximately
equal numbers to noncombatant men—even if from the U.S. perspective,
men make up the vast majority of our war dead. Soldiers are not
those primarily losing their lives in this current occupation. U.S.
imperialism benefits from strategies that maximize “collateral
damage” (such as using long-distance, high tech weapons rather
than infantry) because these also minimize our own soldiers’
deaths and the potential public relations blowup. The tendency to
devalue the enemies’ lives is reinforced by not only racist,
but also sexist ideologies—history is made by “our boys,”
while female enemy deaths are not even acknowledged.
Additionally, due to remarkably high industrial injuries and deaths
on the homefront in previous conflicts, such as WWII, historian
Catherine Lutz observed, “The female civilians who worked on
bases or in war industries can be seen as no less guardians or risk-takers
than people in uniform.” This is not to downplay the amount
of suffering and exploitation soldiers are forced to endure, but
to widen our scope of who we recognize as affected in war.
The economic harms of war are exacerbated by patriarchy.
the destruction of Iraq’s economy, women and girls especially
have suffered from deprivations. In the U.S., poor women bear the
brunt of public service cuts. In Massachusetts, for example, most
Medicaid recipients, students at state and community colleges, welfare
and subsidized childcare recipients, are women—and all these
programs have faced budget slashes. Most families living in poverty
are headed by single mothers.
Furthermore, imperialism helps to intensify and increase unpaid
labor that is performed by women in their traditional gender roles.
Childcare, healthcare, and homemaking all become heavier without
public sector aid, whether due to economic collapse in occupied
lands or imperialist austerity in the aggressor nation. For instance,
as hospitals are destroyed or become unavailable or less affordable,
women in both Iraq and the U.S. disproportionately shoulder responsibility
for their families’ healthcare. As schools close or childcare
becomes too expensive, women are strained with extra work watching
children. Alarmingly, industrialized nations plan to impose IMF
Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) on Iraq because of its sovereign
debt. Feminist scholars have documented how SAPs have disproportionately
harmed Third World women across the globe in terms of health, education,
U.S. women from military families and wives of government contractors
are saddled with the unpaid task of holding the family together
until their “spouse” returns. As the heads of single-parent
households, these women take responsibility for homemaking and childcare,
on top of their jobs. One brother of a serviceperson put it: “Soldiers
may enlist, but their families are drafted.”
That the military depends on such women to figuratively “oil
its machinery” by maintaining troop morale is evidenced by
its creation of “support groups” for military wives, even
while it lengthens troop deployments to cope with overstretch. Rather
than being dismissed as a service for needy women, these support
groups should be seen as an attempt to harness and propel women’s
labor—including their performance of correct, sexually loyal
roles—that the troops’ emotional functioning and lack
of rebellion partly relies on. The Pentagon is responding to its
post-invasion recruitment shortage by drawing on reserves, increasing
deployment, and laying the economic, emotional strain on women in
At the same time, our government’s distorted agenda harnesses
and compounds economic sexism that pre-dates the Iraq war. Given
U.S. history, patriarchy’s operation cannot be disentangled
from pre-existing structural racism either. Racist incarceration
that disproportionately targets black communities intensifies black
women’s unpaid labor heading single households. Arab, South
Asian, Muslim, and immigrant women are strained by the detention
of their partners and family members in the “war on terror.”
Militarization intensifies the sexual commodification of women.
Feminist anthropologists such as Cynthia Enloe have documented how
the U.S. military perpetuates the sexual commodification of women
around military bases to manage and motivate its largely male workforce.
Following a pattern observed across different conflict regions by
feminist scholars, Iraqi women face increasing pressures to earn
their subsistence from men by bartering their sexuality. This is
due to a lack of other economic options under both military attack
and oppressive gender relations. In Baghdad prostitution reportedly
became widespread between the fall of the Hussein administration
in April 2003 and November 2003, as women disproportionately suffered
growing poverty. Today, reports have surfaced of Iraqi teens working
in Syrian brothels after being displaced from Fallujah, where U.S.
forces launched brutal offensives and chemical weapons attacks on
civilians. Sexual violence, as well as the trafficking of Iraqi
women and girls, showed huge rises almost immediately after the
invasion and continue. While initially perpetrated largely by Iraqi
men, these rapes and abductions were exacerbated by the occupation
force’s negligence and inability to establish security.
Sectors of the U.S. anti-war left have been unsure how to address
such violence, let alone suggest an adequate remedy to the problem,
besides calls for resistance. But an understanding of the gender
dynamics typical of wartime economies would press the need to provide
solidarity for Iraqi anti-occupation movements for women’s
rights and freedom from sexual violence as a human right equal to
Iraqi struggles for food, water, shelter, and healthcare. Meanwhile,
as the occupation persists, with growing contact between military
forces and Iraqi civilians, sexual brutality by both U.S. troops
and Iraqi police under occupation authority has increased.
Jennifer Fasulo is co-founder of Solidarity with Organization of
Women’s Freedom in Iraq (SOWFI), a U.S.-based group providing
political support to an anti-occupation, feminist women’s group
in Iraq. She reminds us of the specific historical and geopolitical
context of the occupation, pointing out that the conflict has intensified
the growing religious fundamentalist movement in Iraq—opposed
by Iraqi feminists and socialists—including segments that systematically
perpetrate violence against and harassment of women. The rise of
Islamist fundamentalism throughout the Middle East is not merely
indigenous, but has U.S. support, which recruited and imported Islamist
militias in opposition to secular, democratic, and socialist movements
throughout earlier decades.
Militarization helps perpetuate sexual violence, domestic
violence, and violence against women.
Even though women serve
as soldiers, the U.S. military is a misogynist, homophobic institution
that relies on patriarchal ideologies and relations to function—with
effects on larger society, as well as the countries we occupy or
where we have bases. The U.S. military trains men to devalue, objectify,
and demean traits traditionally associated with women. It molds
men into a gender role of violent masculinity defined in opposition
to femininity. “Violent masculinity” is a mode of operating
that glorifies violence as a solution to tension.
Furthermore, soldiers are purposefully trained to eroticize violence—from
a heterosexual, male-aggressor perspective, even if some soldiers
are gay and some are women. For example, during the first Gulf War,
Air Force pilots watched pornographic movies before bombing missions
to psyche themselves up. Until 1999 hardcore pornography was available
at military base commissaries, which were one of its largest purchasers.
The military teaches soldiers to internalize the misogynistic role
of violent masculinity so they can function psychologically. At
the 2003 Air Force Academy Prom, men were given flyers that read,
“You Shut the Fuck Up. We’ll Protect America. Get out
of our way, you liberal pussies.” They were then treated to
a play that provided instructions on how to stimulate a female’s
clitoris and nipples to get her vaginal juices flowing (in case
she was otherwise unwilling?).
Alarmingly, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, over
80 percent of recent women veterans report experiencing sexual harassment
and 30 percent report rape, or attempted rape, by other military
personnel. Crimes of sexual violence by military personnel are shocking
yet are institutionally ignored. Lawyer Dorothy Mackey of Survivors
Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel reports that of
the 4,300 sexual assault and abuse cases she is handling, only 3
were actually prosecuted. In Mackey’s own experience as a survivor
of repeated sexual assault by military personnel, her attempt to
press charges was opposed by the Department of Justice as a threat
to national security.
The U.S. Inspector General reported that military service is more
conducive to domestic violence than any other occupation, citing
the military’s authoritarianism, use of physical force in training,
and the stress of frequent moves and separations as factors. (The
military’s institutional sexism and indifference to violence
against women could be added.) A checklist used by the military
to determine if rape reports are valid lists a women’s financial
problems with her partner and “demanding” medical treatment
as factors indicating she’s lying. The Army recently offered
the perk of free breast implants for servicewomen, so its surgeons
could “get practice.” Meanwhile, it has a drastic shortage
of rape kits in combat regions and refuses to pay for servicewomen’s
abortions even in the case of rape.
A therapist who practices near a large Army base, and treats soldiers
returning from Iraq, reported escalating domestic violence once
troops began coming home. Wife-killings at military bases are at
an all-time high, she says, but are being covered up by the Army.
She also reported on soldiers’ addiction to pornography as
a source of sexual selfishness and abuse towards their partners,
training the soldiers to use women’s bodies as masturbatory
patriarchal role extends into larger culture, not just ideologically
in terms of how boys are taught to be soldiers, but institutionally,
as well. Phoebe Jones of Global Women’s Strike and Survivors
Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel places the Abu Ghraib
scandal in the context of a prison-military complex of abuse: “It’s
all connected…. You have prison guards here, like Charles Grainer
[implicated in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal], who go to Iraq and
abuse people there. Then you have soldiers [who] come back from
Iraq or Afghanistan getting jobs as prison guards and they rape
and abuse people. The military could stop it if they want to, but
they don’t want to. They’re socializing men into doing
Prison torture was also outsourced to U.S. companies using personnel
from domestic prisons. Beyond the prison-military complex, the impact
of rape culture nurtured by the military can be traced through U.S.
society further. In 1997 the number one reason for veterans to be
in prison at the state, federal, or local level was for sexual assault.
An exploration of the effects of militarism on socialization and
institutions, from school to family, are outside the scope of this
essay, but must be considered.
The impact of violence against women cannot be separated from racial
and economic hierarchy, even though these pieces are often analyzed
without reference to each other. One result of Hurricane Katrina
was the devastation of domestic violence shelters and sexual assault
services. The Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence describes
poor women forced to live in homeless shelters, experiencing rape
and physical abuse from partners. Needless to say, poor and non-white
women disproportionately face a lack of resources to gendered violence.
For instance, although violence against women cuts across class,
women on welfare suffer especially high rates of domestic and sexual
violence—a direct result of having less freedom to leave their
abusers. Again, government policy is involved; welfare law, purportedly
to encourage “strong” families, denies funds to poor women
who leave their partners, requiring their economic dependency and
endurance of abuse.
Militarization and war decrease women’s control over
Just months after the invasion, increased
back alley abortions were reported in Baghdad, as women lost access
to healthcare and contraception. In the U.S., budget stringency
means that policies like universal healthcare and free contraception
on demand appear to remain distant realities. The lack of reproductive
healthcare is an issue of women’s equality, affecting women’s
control of their labor, bodies, and futures.
Further, a Christian right-wing takeover of the U.S. political scene
has reframed debates over “morality” in terms of issues
like abortion and gay rights —diverting outrage away from,
say, economic exploitation by this Administration and its war policy
to the treatment of a clump of cells and who one loves. The Christian
conservative movement focuses its political intervention more on
directly controlling individuals’ personal behavior than on
altering the structures of society to alleviate inequality and meet
human needs. In this historical context, the ideology and agenda
of limiting women’s control over their reproduction is connected
to U.S. imperialism and thus has much broader implications than
strictly women’s reproductive health. For one, imperialism
relies on a gendered reproductive division of labor, that trains
poor men to be soldiers while valorizing motherhood for women, the
better to exploit women’s paid and unpaid labor.
Militarization and conflict situations result in a restriction
of public space for women, thereby impacting their political expression
Feminist scholars have observed the physical barriers to women’s
public access in conflict situations time and again. In Iraq, due
to insecurity, women are restricted from seeking healthcare, attending
school and work. Such limitations have shaped the trajectory and
form of women’s organizing as well. When the political actors
are men, women’s bodies and behavior risk becoming a battleground
to be fought over by others. Women risk marginalization in the political
sphere unless they are able to actively organize around an agenda
that takes into account their gendered position.
Within the U.S., some of the anti-war movement’s troop-centered
analysis has shaped women’s space politically, if not necessarily
physically. Military mothers like Cindy Sheehan are publicly recognized
for their connection to the troops. An analysis of gender that problematizes
the effects of violent masculinity is less welcome.
Occupation will not bring about women’s liberation
As an occupier with little accountability to the Iraqi people (or
the U.S. public), the U.S. government is not capable of or interested
in bringing democracy and liberation to Iraqis. U.S. officials have
“played two sides of the fence” with regard to women’s
rights, bartering them away when convenient in order to maintain
power. But at worst, events have made it tragically clear that the
continued occupation’s primary goals have been the economic,
political, and military interests of a U.S. elite, with as much
non-transparency as possible for the sake of public relations.
Imperialism requires particular gender relations to function. Boys
are taught that soldiering is a rite of passage, a vehicle to manly
respect. The public learns that soldiering—and now serving
as security or emergency personnel—entitles a special claim
to citizenship to this country and its offerings, even if such promises
do not actually materialize. By valorizing the violent, masculine
protector, the state and society extract women’s labor at undervalued
rates, preserving a gendered division of labor at women’s expense
and reinforcing male sexual entitlement. Part of the military’s
appeal to (heterosexual) men is the male privilege it promises to
offer over economically dependent, sexually available women.
Additionally, the military uses the work of women, sectored into
patriarchal and exploitative economic relations, to function as
marginalized soldiers, military wives, sex workers, or civilians.
Recognition of the connections between imperialism and U.S. patriarchy
widens the spectrum of people we must consider the casualties of
war and deepens our understanding of imperialism. Not only does
war perpetuate sexist inequality and patriarchy, it also enlists
patriarchal relations—economic, sexual, and ideological—to
carry out its operations. Righting these injustices requires special
attention to gender, and is not guaranteed by merely opposing the
war. We must recognize the connections between the war in Iraq and
patriarchy at home and resist.
Amee Chew is active in anti-imperialist, feminist, and immigrant rights
activism in Boston.