Women in combat face daunting challenges that are often misunderstood or neglected in armed forces settings. To move beyond the logics of masculinity in conflict, militaries need to better examine the intersection between gender, militarism, patriarchy, and war.
One of the more poignant pictures of the direct Russian invasion of Ukraine since February this year remains a woman seemingly taking her child to school carrying a gun on her back. It was posted on the Twitter account of The Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security, under the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, with the caption, “Every Ukrainian mother deserves to be called a Wonder Woman.” While this picture conveys a progressive image of gender equality and the strength of women, it also symbolises the double burden women face while transgressing traditional gender norms.
Women in Ukrainian Military: A Brief History
Women have been included in Ukraine’s military since 1993. When the armed conflict broke out in the Donbas region in 2014, many Ukrainian women with little or no military background volunteered for combat in an ad hoc militia known as the “volunteer battalions.” In 2014, 257 women received state awards for their combat service in Donbas. Despite such accolades, while women engaged in combat, they were an “invisible battalion” until 2017, when the Ukrainian Armed Forces finally allowed women to officially enlist in 62 combat positions. In 2020, the number of women serving in Ukraine’s Armed Forces represented 15.6 percent of the national force, including 900 senior command positions. While previously there had been formal limits, women now serve in a variety of combat roles.
Military service in Ukraine for women is voluntary. However, Kyiv issued a decree in December 2021 requiring women who are “fit for military service,” working in a range of professions, and between the ages of 18 and 60 to register for the military draft. This has since been postponed until October 2023, undoubtedly due to Russia’s invasion in February of this year. Even so, women now account for about 22 percent of Ukraine’s military, and this figure continues to climb in the wake of the ongoing conflict.
Outside the military, women have been contributing to the war effort at the rear line in a variety of ways. One example of this is grandmothers making flak jackets, preparing and packing food, and helping with the provision of first aid kits, bulletproof vests, helmets, medicines, and hygiene products.
Women’s involvement in the Ukrainian military is not merely a product of the expediency of war. Throughout Ukraine’s history, representations of female empowerment are found in proverbs, rituals, epic songs, folk tales, historical artifacts, ethnography, and visual and literary representations of myths. This resilience of the matriarchal myth, feminist culture, and relative autonomy in marriage and other life decisions are also important for analysing women’s participation in war.
Women in Military: Arguments for Better Security
Beyond Ukraine, many countries have taken steps to include women in the military and remove combat exclusion based on sex. For example, NATO is seeking to increase the participation of women in the organisation through the three principles of integration, inclusiveness, and integrity. Such a trend is consistent with the historical participation of women in war as combatants more generally.
This inclusion of women in the armed forces has been advocated for three primary reasons. Like in any sector, recruiting from 100 percent of the population pool in society can get the armed forces the most talented, committed, and competent human resource. Having women and men in security provides more responsive and better security to society and all its members.
Secondly, the entry of the most talented, committed, and qualified women into the armed forces not just addresses human resource shortages, but also improves the operational capabilities of an army. This is especially the case in modern wars, since the nature of warfare has become more complicated due to the rise in new technologies requiring various and new skills beyond traditional ideas of physical conflict.
Finally, ending the exclusion of women in military service is also associated with citizenship rights and the “right to fight.” Women’s inclusion can unsettle patriarchal myths and logics of masculinist protection that propel the essentialist notions of gender. Often cliched but a useful adage in the favour of women in the military is the idea of being in the system to change the system.
Women in Ukrainian Military: Gain in Gender Equality?
Coming back to Ukraine, all the reports of women transgressing traditional gender roles and breaking the “brass ceiling” might look like quantum progress in women’s rights and equality, except they are more complicated than they look. As soon as the leadership in Moscow decided to invade, Kyiv imposed martial law, asking Ukrainian women and children to leave while battle-aged men had to stay to fight. Pragmatic concerns aside, at the core this implied a masculine protection logic where all women are considered weak and vulnerable, unable to defend themselves, their families, and their land. Embedded in such rhetoric and practice is the relationship of gender power, where women are seen as weak, vulnerable, and dependent, needing the protection of men. The enduring configuration of men as “just warriors” and women as “beautiful souls” is hard to dismantle even if the reality on the battlefield is different.
Despite the potential for dismantling masculine protectionist logic, war has a pernicious long-term impact on women. In Ukraine, it has reduced the radical possibility for a feminist solution to ending war beyond violence. For instance, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda largely prioritises military security while failing to connect it to the austerity policies and the gendered structural inequalities deepened by the ongoing conflict.
Women in Military: The Violence of Inclusion
Equal opportunity for women in armed forces settings currently suffers from an overcorrection in roles. Put differently, women’s roles have come to include a requirement for more qualities than their male counterparts. That is, they are required to be as masculine and capacitated as male soldiers while also retaining the feminine duties of motherhood, care, compassion, and empathetic leadership from which their male counterparts are usually exempt. Women’s inclusion comes with an additional burden to make the military more sensitive to gender issues and civilising the armed forces. This is an interesting proposition in light of the sexual violence, sexism, and misogyny that has come to light in the Australian, American, British, and Canadian armed forces. One response has been to have more women in military so that such sexual violence and abuses against women soldiers can be mitigated.
Most importantly, the structure and terms of inclusion of women in the military are negotiated and written without meaningful participation of women. In other words, the yardstick for women’s inclusion and performance in the military is masculine in nature, therefore degrading femineity. Finally, the image of empowered women is predicated on the militarisation of their bodies, wearing military fatigues, bearing arms, having the ability to kill, ultra-patriotism, and intense hatred of the “other.”
While the participation of women in the military allows them to fight patriarchy at its core and allows empowerment, it is not a sure sign of gender equality in itself. The case of women soldiers in Ukraine demonstrates this. Inclusion in security forces cannot be detached from equality in political, socioeconomic, legal, and cultural spheres or it becomes tokenistic and inadequate. Most importantly, while promoting the idea of an inclusive security force for peace and security is important and necessary, a radical reckoning would be to inquire about the intersection between gender, militarism, patriarchy, and war.
Dr Keshab Giri (he/him/his) is a Lecturer in International Relations at The University of Sydney. Dr Giri’s research has been published in journals like International Studies Quarterly, International Studies Review, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and Global Studies Quarterly. His PhD thesis titled, Experiences of Female Ex-Combatants in the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal: Endless Battles and Resistance, received the 2022 Thelma Hunter Gender and Politics PhD Prize by Australian Political Science Studies Association (APSA). His research interests include women combatants, intersectionality, gender and war, violent extremism, leftist-insurgencies, critical security studies, rebel governance, governance of intimacy in rebel group, geopolitics of South Asia, and digital sovereignty. His book, Intersectionality and Experiences of Female Combatants is coming out in 2023.
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