Women in combat: All fair in love and war?

Are gendered media frames shattering our ideas about what a fighter looks like?

Many people are still not comfortable with seeing groups of strong women in battle, writes Zulver [AFP]

In the past few months, western media headlines have focused on the various wars, rebellions, and revolutions springing up around the world. A noticeable trend in the coverage is the inordinate attention given to female soldiers participating in these conflicts – from pro-Russian Ukrainians to the Kurds fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

Why the obsession with female soldiers? A thorough reading of the many articles does not uncover an angle, or any indication that mainstream media may be using women as a way to reach a wider readership. Nor does it appear to be meant to convince the public of the righteousness of a particular cause, or as a way to show the “progressiveness” of a particular armed group for its inclusion of women. 

Why, then, the multitude of headlines that emphasise the female-ness of the fighters involved?

For example, an Independent article entitled “Kurdish female suicide bomber attacks Isis in fight for Kobane” does not make any reference to the women’s groups fighting in the area, but still chooses to highlight the sex of the suicide bomber in the headline. The Telegraph equally published the headline: “Kurdish female fighter in suicide attack on ISIL amid fighting for key Syria town“, yet makes only cursory reference to the female-ness of the bomber.

Both articles did mention that it was the first reported incident of a woman being involved in a suicide attack in this conflict. With that said, little attention beyond her being “a first” was paid, thus making it difficult to explain why the individual was always referred to as “the female suicide bomber” as opposed to merely “the suicide bomber”.

Crumbling stereotypes 

“From Boudica of the British Celts to Corporal Klinger, few things unsettle the male mind like a lady in arms,” begins an article published in Vice. This statement is made in poor taste, given the seriousness of the context, but does in fact offer insight into the deeply gendered media frames employed by western news outlets.

One outcome of the multiplicity of stories about Ukrainian or Kurdish women is that readers are finally beginning to question their beliefs about women in war.

Setting female fighters against the “male mind” is another example of how ideas of war and fighting are deeply gendered. Many people are still not comfortable with seeing groups of strong women in battle. Men are inherently war-mongering beings, women are inherently peaceful beings – or so goes the trope.

Therefore, when confronted by images that people are not used to seeing, there emerges a desire to categorise these women. How can their actions be understood if they are so opposed to all of the previous understandings of the nature of men and women, and the nature of war?

It was only a few months ago that the headlines were filled with stories of the pro-Russian Women’s Battalion in Ukraine fighting against Kiev. The Reuters UK website has a slideshow that shows pictures of female fighters dressed in camouflage, with some of the photos taken as recently as two weeks ago.

These photographic projects (which also exist in the Kurdish case) are further evidence of an attempt to understand and categorise female fighters. It’s not enough to write about their military gains or downfalls, the media has to publish portraits of these women, to create a new taxonomy in order to come to terms with the fact that existing ideas about what a fighter looks like are being shattered. 

Put this in the Muslim world and ideas about “how things are” become even more confusing. Doesn’t western media barrage the public with images of Muslim women in the Middle East as people who wear veils and need protecting? How can readers and viewers come to terms with that fact that instead of donning burqas and keeping their heads down, these women are donning fatigues and only putting their heads down to focus their rifles on a target? 

Dominant ideas

It is worth mentioning that Ukrainians and Kurds are by no means the first groups of armed female combatants. The International Business Times wrote an article about the various groups of women on the front line throughout history – women involved in the Israeli Army, the Red Army, the Tamil Separatists, the Lebanese Civil War. There also exists much research that delves into female members of the FMLN who fought during the Salvadoran Civil War, as did their Nicaraguan and Mexican neighbours. These histories, however, have not been sufficient to change the dominant ideas about women in war. 

Today, media outlets are not publishing the plethora of stories about female fighters in order to break gendered stereotypes. Rather, one outcome of the multiplicity of stories about Ukrainian or Kurdish women is that readers are finally beginning to question their beliefs about women in war. Projects like the photographic essays have the effect of demonstrating that these women do not have to conform to masculine traits in order to fight, but rather are “normal” young women who feel a need to defend their cause. They aren’t forced to hide the fact that they are women, but rather seem to revel in the social capital of fighting with a group of like-minded combatants. 

As such, perhaps western society is reaching a tipping point, a threshold at which there is now so much evidence to abolish existing ideas about women and war, that readers crave more nuanced reporting of female fighters in the media in order to begin the process of reconstructing the ways in which war has historically been masculinised. 

The extreme coverage of these types of stories is perhaps a self-fulfilling cycle: the need to be able to understand the rise of female fighters drives readers to seek more information; the consequent increase in the number of news articles forces them to confront previously held beliefs, as there is evidence-based proof that some stereotypes are not accurate; they are then driven to seek further information in order to shape and mould new constructions of women in war.

The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse announces that the Kurdish women fighters are “bringing the fight to ISIL“. The bigger picture, however, reveals that female fighters around the world are bringing the fight not only to their enemies, but also to the deeply engrained stereotypes we have about gendered roles of individuals in war. 

Julia Zulver is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Her upcoming thesis focuses on women’s mobilisation in El Salvador.