Women and War

Worst Victims

Among the worst victims of any war are women as they have been traditionally picked out by the dominant male power as the most vulnerable civilian enemy targets during military engagements. You actually succeed in subverting the very basis of your enemy's virile power if you succeed in violating the enemy's woman. Then rape becomes disguised military destruction as you also inevitably destroy the enemy's morale and legitimacy and his masculine, fighting qualities in the process. Any war necessarily leaves behind a trail of devastation in its bloody wake as noticed in widows and mothers who have lost their sons and sisters who have lost their brothers and daughters who have lost their fathers in action. We read about such feminine suffering in the epics and war novels and watch movies, admire paintings and listen to music that focus on related themes. But reality is perhaps always more disturbing than art. Prisoner of War camps, the handling and exploitation of comfort women by soldiers in combat, Nazi and Japanese battle atrocities against women during the Second World War, the collective memory and killing fields of Vietnam: they all bear grim testimony to the fact that woman, being a most ordinary civilian and, therefore, a non-military subject, nevertheless becomes a most prominent military target during invasions. War times are insane moments in human history when the exercise and passage of civilized law and order and governance (let alone good governance) are temporarily suspended to encourage widespread plunder, inhuman brutalities and mayhem.

Impact of Mass Violence

We have to look into the possible impact of mass violence against women and the violence this triggers off as a dangerous chain reaction with mind-blowing consequences. Children suffer, dependents suffer, the service sector of the economy suffers and the entire domestic ethos of a given people may even be destroyed with the destruction of women (not necessarily in the physical sense) and their sanctity in war. Woman has always been the weaker, fairer other in the context of both martial and masculine hegemony. It becomes convenient, therefore, on the part of fighting men to attack and appropriate the women first and, in this logical process of culmination, to eventually appropriate the otherness of the enemy's territoriality with a kind of xenophobic frenzy because the woman in the final assessment is a man's property and nothing much else (according to the dominating male discourse). The enemy is not only then brought to his humble, submissive knees but the very core of his dignity and sanctimonious moral values is also simultaneously ripped out and violated in public. Just recall the Court Scene in the Mahabharata when Queen Draupadi, who was even menstruating at that point of time, was manhandled (without any effective protest whatsoever) before her famous and macho husbands and all the royal elders. Lord Rama fought with Ravana and ultimately killed him over the issue of a single woman: however, Rama also asked his wife Sita to prove her (unspoiled) chastity by entering into a circle of fire once the war was over. Therefore, Rama had fought the war not to prove his affection for Sita but to prove his unfaltering machismo.

Double Jeopardy

It is true that wars have been declared because of women (recall Helen of Troy) and wars have been instigated by women like Cleopatra. But it is an even greater truth that women have always been exploited and finally destroyed during combat. A woman faces a double jeopardy during war: she has to suffer as a woman and she has also to suffer as the symbol of pride, prestige and property of her man. Invading armies have been traditionally given the license to gang rape women, often before their helpless men at gunpoint: this not only results in distorted sexual gratification for the invaders but also effectively breaks down the enemy's final vestiges of any meaningful resistance. So the Women and War interface would come across as both a gender and a humanitarian issue to which international Institutions and Non-Government Organizations should accord immediate and topmost priority. They must help formulate agreements like the historic Geneva and Berne Conventions. This would at least constitute the first faltering step toward a better human civilization and a Brave New World in this most insecure new millennium.

Quo Vadis?

But the disturbing question remains: is woman simply a construct that has to be effectively destroyed during warfare or is woman a human category that has to be addressed critically by the discourse of violence and the violence of politics? An opposite trend has emerged in recent times after the invasion of Iraq by the United States of America. Male prisoners of war at the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison have been sexually assaulted and harassed by American security forces that included women personnel. This is a pathetic twist that indicates history making one full turn where human nature tends to avenge human nature by equating sexual domination with power games. Our original position about Women and War thus takes on a different existential stance in the light of recent military engagements worldwide. Admittedly Abu Ghraib happens to be an exception when one recalls military excesses committed against women in North-East India and (reportedly) in Jammu and Kashmir. Such atrocities are the logical fallout of protracted army presence in civilian areas on the pretext of battling terrorism. Manhunts without any warrant, disrespect to human rights and disregard for the rule of law in disturbed times lead to the subversion of the sustaining moral fabric of any civil society. So much so that the aged women in North-East India protested against the brutality of security forces by parading naked in public.

Reconciliation and Reprieve

There cannot be any conceivable reconciliation between the forces of violence and the subjects of war at such a critical juncture. The only reprieve that one may construe long after the effects of violence have somewhat subsided lies in the core of civil society and social capital that may help conjoin the sanity of the collective with the goodwill of the State. For often it is the State and its array of repressive apparatuses that are responsible for sponsoring violence against women during anti-terrorism military exercises. But the State unleashes its own brand of sexual violence and widespread terror in this process.


There cannot be any convenient conclusion with regard to this most critical discourse on Women and War. But civil society organizations, voluntary associations, human rights activists, peace workers and academic institutions may deliberate upon such disturbing issues in order to explore practical solutions to this problem. Sensitization workshops should be held to train the security forces worldwide so that they may read notions of human rights into military maneuvers and tactics and in the process learn to respect the dignity and sovereignty of the human body. It becomes a sort of body politic treatise in the process that teaches one to respect the human body and its sanctity. Force may not always be deployed in a sanitized manner but at least its aftershocks may be restricted to military and not civilian (and therefore vulnerable) soft (?) targets like women.     


More by :  Dr. Prasenjit Maiti

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