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How We Celebrate Women in War

Updated on October 2, 2014
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Jamal is a graduate from Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

A Peshmerga soldier somewhere in Northern Iraq
A Peshmerga soldier somewhere in Northern Iraq

The war against the Islamic State across northern Iraq and Syria has garnered world attention for many reasons. For example, their claim to reestablishing the Islamic caliphate in the region, a claim not taken seriously since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 as the last caliphate; The undisguised brutality of their interpretation of Islam and most infamously, beheading those who resist them. The conflict however is setting another bench mark. It is bringing resurgence to the argument of women in combat roles.

Lyudmila Pavilchenko  was a  Soviet sniper with 309 confirmed kills during WW2. The Eastern Front was one of the most violent conflicts of the 20th century.
Lyudmila Pavilchenko was a Soviet sniper with 309 confirmed kills during WW2. The Eastern Front was one of the most violent conflicts of the 20th century.

An Unknown Tradition

There is already a long historical precedence for female warriors. For the most part though, it’s a precedence that is either unknown or played down because it wasn’t in recent memory, or if it was, it wasn’t as publicized.

Notable examples are Sabiha Gokcen, the first female aviator who joined the Turkish military in 1936. Lyudmila Pavilchenko and Alija Moldagulva who were decorated snipers in the Soviet Union during World War Two, and the fact that in the modern era many countries allow women to serve in fighting roles with the exceptions of Britain and until 2013, the United States.

Yet in many societies across the world when we think of soldiers, a woman shooting an Ak-47 or dropping bombs is not what comes to mind. For many westerners in particular it seems it comes as a surprise. The war has forced the issue to the forefront again with the female Kurdish soldiers fighting in Northern Iraq with the Peshmerga, and Marial-al Mansouri, an F-16 viper pilot flying the United Arab Emirates air force in combat missions against the militants.

But why is this huge news? Women have had more high profile in war since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started way back in 2001. So news of Arab women fighting in the Middle East should be no surprise right? If anything you’d think we ought to be thinking,

It’s about time you guys caught up’.

Generally, there are three reasons I would put forth.


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Playing Catch up

One is that the United States military is the one still struggling to catch up. Besides seeing women in military commercials, we also see them involved in military scandals involving sexual harassment from male officers…the ones reported anyhow. The most recent event was that of Army drill Sgt. Angel Sanchez for a number of sexual assault counts and mistreatment of women.

Then there’s the number of service women who have had their lives destroyed by sexual assault by reporting the crime, but nothing was done. Often times the perpetrators walked away with little or no punishment while the women suffered being kicked out of the service, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression and suicide just to name a few consequences.

I would argue that when we think of service women, this is the image that first plays out in our minds, and that is a tragedy equivalent to war itself. Most would argue that these crimes are wrong and justice be done, but it is still a struggling justice and one more put forward than say Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney of the US Air Force whom on 9/11 took an unarmed F-16 to prevent further airline attacks, which meant ramming the attacking plane. Perhaps the closest one- sentence summary comes from the 1970 war movie, Patton, whom in part of his speech says,

“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser”

I’m not calling American service women losers, but am addressing our mentality that we don’t like to dwell on struggles or bad news. We like to dwell on success, only giving serious credence to the struggle when it either becomes too large to ignore or is cram down our throats so that we’re choking on it. It’s not right and it’s not fair but I would argue this is what plays out.

Despite her nation's human rights record, Marial-al Mansouri of the UAE is becoming the poster child for women s' potential in modern war.
Despite her nation's human rights record, Marial-al Mansouri of the UAE is becoming the poster child for women s' potential in modern war.

“In any team, everyone must earn their way; I will earn my tab if given the opportunity,”- Lt. Della Smith-Del Rosario who has tried 32 times for apply to Ranger Training and was rejected each time.

Exam Time

The second reason why there’s a differential treatment in the two perceptions of women soldiers is that we judge people by their ability to meet standards and past tests before we put that person into the situation. This applies to both the civilian workforce as well as the military, and if you don’t make the cut, you are rejected.

The US Army recently announced that it is seeking female applicants for its 2015 Rangers training program, Army Rangers being one of the special forces units employed by the American military. While many applauded this, many also are against it, arguing that the physical demands demanded for infantry and special forces missions is beyond a woman’s capability. Combat has not happened yet because they have not been deployed, because they still have to pass.

The women currently fighting in the Middle East don’t have that luxury. War is on their doorstep and trying to kick it down, therefore there is an immediate need. Though there were rumblings of women fighting IS, the first celebrated action was retaking the Mosul Dam that had captured on August 7th and had threaten the whole region. Peshmerga fighters took part in the retaking of the dam and what made it so celebrated was one, this wasn’t a distant historical footnote. It happened now and in our time with the internet, and two, we don’t think of Arab cultures to allowing such a feat.

It’s the same with Marial-al Mansouri. The UAE is known for being an extremely conservative country with a bad human rights record. That they allow a woman to fly one of the most advanced planes in the world, let alone into combat, is in our stereotypical mind frame, unheard of.

War is one life’s great equalizers. It doesn’t care who gets caught up in its wake or what gender they are, nationality, or religion. All who enter it face the same risks, the same potential final outcome; death. War itself becomes the test. So far, the success form this unlikely sector of the world is going well. Thanks in large part to the internet the idea may take affect faster.

The Mosul Dam is considered a major strategic location.  It's recapture from IS was one of the groups first major defeats.
The Mosul Dam is considered a major strategic location. It's recapture from IS was one of the groups first major defeats.

Old Habits

The last reason for the differential treatment is culture. One of the great contrasts that have occurred during this war has been the challenging of cultural perceptions of women and what we really think. Many Americans believe Muslim women to be essentially sex slaves living in a backward part of the world. We consider ourselves to be more progressive, but this was challenged when after the news of Marial-al Mansouri went viral, one the first responses came from a Fox news correspondent who jokingly referred to her and possibly the Peshmerga soldiers as ‘boobs on the ground’.

Many in the Arab world already consider Westerners’ flaunted women’s’ rights as lies because they have to be sexualized to be that free and successful. The Fox news comment probably reinforced that view. It’s not only Americans who struggle with this aspect.

Israel is recently coming under fire for its lack of frontline female combatants, though the country proudly promotes that all citizens must do time in the army. One of the arguments for this is heavy Orthodox Jewish influence within the military, which still hold very conservative views of how the genders interact.


Silver Lining in a Dark Cloud

No one is celebrating the war against IS. Yet the one thing that can’t be argued is that one of its fruits is providing irrefutable credence to an already pre-existing fact; a woman is just as capable of achieving military success as her male counterpart. Those that would resist women becoming frontline soldiers are going to be harder pressed to justify it.

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