Women in Combat: “Mothers, Monsters & Whores”

women in combat mothers monsters and whores centre for feminist foreign policy wiktoria schulz

Women in conflict are often perceived as merely ‘victims’. However, this narrow view completely obscures the multiple roles women do play in conflict: willingly or not. This article will argue the importance of acknowledging the violent roles women play in conflict, focusing on unconventional warfare, and female fighters in guerrilla groups and militias. Doing so not only provides a deeper understanding of the conflict itself; it also helps to inform peacebuilders about how to reconstruct societies post-conflict by knowing what mechanisms need to be in place to help such individuals to re-enter society and prevent war from breaking out again.

Within the media, it is common to see images of women and children suffering the impacts of war: poverty, malnourishment, physical assaults, displacement – to name just a few. These women are mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, but above all, they are victims of the violence and conflict that surrounds them. Thus, women are confined to the private sphere: the home and domestic life. They are considered the ‘spoils of war,’ meaning the property of men[1]. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is thus seen as an injury against the male estate rather than an attack on the individual. Women are perceived as passive victims, disengaged from conflict, inherently peaceful and morally opposed to violence.

On the contrary, the images commonly seen of men in conflict display them in situations of strength and manliness; they are combatants fighting the enemies and protecting the vulnerable[2]. This dominant malestream narrative of the role women and men play in conflict relates to gender stereotypes tied to one’s culture, history and values. In this sense, oftentimes, femininity is understood to be a synonym for weakness, fragility, beauty, passivity, and victimhood. In opposition, masculinity is tied to notions of strength, violence, agency, combat, and heterosexuality. This, however, ignores the nuances of individual lived experiences in war. Being a combatant or perpetrating violence is not limited to men. Likewise, being a victim of war and violence is not limited to women.

The roles women play in conflict zones are hardly acknowledged by the predominant patriarchal, conservative narratives featured in the media and wider society. Often, women can be seen managing logistics, providing medical aid, fighting on the frontline, perpetrating violence against enemies and civilians, carrying out missions (such as assassinations of religious/ political leaders and suicide bombings), and perpetrating SGBV. Women who fight in conflicts are considered to be violating traditional gender roles, resulting in them being alienated by their families and societies at large. This gender essentialist perspective, arguably, takes away the agency of women in taking an active part in war by the assumption that women’s biological makeup prevents them from doing so.

A study by Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry (2007) succinctly breaks down the three main narratives used in IR discourse to understand why women engage in conflict: “mothers, monsters, and whores”. A violent woman’s womanhood is “the primary explanation or mitigating factor offered up in any attempt to understand her crime”[3].

Thus, the ‘mother’ narrative suggests a woman’s violence is not driven by a belief in a cause, but by their failure as a mother drives them to violence[4]. This relates to the ‘maternal self-sacrifice code’ - the notion that the desire to engage in violence derives from a desire to be needed. To serve honourably means to sacrifice not only the men in their families but also themselves for the greater good.

The ‘monster’ narrative suggests that there is a “biological flaw that disrupts their femininity”[5]. Female aggressors are thus stripped of their agency and responsibility for their actions as they are reduced to being products of insanity. They deny their own womanhood by engaging in violence.

Lastly, the ‘whore’ narrative characterises violent women’s actions due to their sexuality. In other words, these women engage in violence because of their “insatiable need for sex with men, men’s control and ownership of their bodies, or their inability to have sex with men” [6]. The implication of this is that women’s violent acts become fetishized; the men who fall victim to a woman’s violent act become “lower than low because they are susceptible to women’s erotomania or women’s erotic dysfunction”[7]. This resonates with the women fighting in Kurdistan as part of the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), as the ISIS jihadists they are fighting are said to fear being killed by a woman because they will not enter paradise when they die[8].

Women are more than just victims. Men are more than just fighters. Both genders play a multitude of roles in conflict

An alternative perspective offered by Feminist Security Theory challenges these reductionist narratives by returning women’s agency and demonstrating that women and men often engage in conflict for the same reasons and carry out similar roles.

Another example is The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. The ethno-nationalist conflict/ civil war can be traced back to the colonial period of British rule between 1802-1948. The British favoured the Hindu Tamils, giving them greater opportunities than the Buddhist Sinhalese. Following independence from British rule, constitutional changes made by the Sinhalese resulted in cultural nationalism that systematically discriminated against the Tamil minority. The Tamil Tigers were formed in response to this.

Nationalist aspirations amongst female combatants led them to join the Tamil Tigers to fight for the independence of the Hindu Tamils.[9] Just like their male comrades, they joined the fight out of a sense of duty for their country. Likewise, both men and women faced similar experiences of persecution, poverty, and lack of other opportunities: joining the militia was a way to a better life.

Moreover, a more recent example is that of the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) in Kurdistan. Kurds are scattered across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria vying for their own independent state,  as promised in the Treaty of Sevres (1920) following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire[10]. The Kurdish people have faced discrimination in all states in which they reside, resulting in the creation of various nationalist separatist groups fighting for independence. One example is the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, which has been branded a terrorist organisation.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) are offshoots – the YPJ is an all-woman combat unit formed in 2013[11]. Like the Tamil Tigers, many female soldiers joined the YPJ out of a sense of duty to fight for the independence of Kurdistan, freedom, and self-determination. This demonstrates that both women and men can be motivated by the same reasons to engage in conflict.

Yet, women also engage in violence for gender-specific reasons. In countries with patriarchal and conservative cultures where women have few rights, joining militias was a way to escape them. For example, many joined the YPJ to “escape social conservatism, honour killings, domestic violence and lack of opportunities for women”[12]. In a recent interview, a spokesperson for the YPJ said, “War is not only the liberation of land. We are also fighting for the liberation of women and men. If not, the patriarchal system will prevail once again.”[13]

For women joining the Tamil Tigers, it was a way to escape sexual assault from opposing forces and seek security. Chastity is an important issue, as raped women are ostracised by their communities because they are seen to be impure and unworthy of marriage. The Tamil Tigers exploited this to recruit women to their cause. Moreover, women joined both the YPJ and Tamil Tigers respectively to fight for a fairer society and gender equality. Nevertheless, female liberation was always seen as a subordinate objective to nationalist aspirations. As such, some scholars have labelled the women in the Tamil Tigers as “armed virgins” – they act like male fighters but without the same rights.[14]

Nevertheless, in both the YPJ and Tamil Tigers, women participated actively in all aspects of war. This included mundane, everyday tasks - such as cooking and cleaning - to fighting on the frontlines lines and carrying out missions. In the YPJ, the men and women shared the work. While a gender hierarchy persisted in the Tamil Tigers, this did not mean women did not actively participate in violence. The world’s first female suicide bombing (known) was carried out by a Black Tiger named Dhanu, (the all-female suicide bombing unit in the Tamil Tigers), in 1991, who killed the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and 14 others during a public ceremony.[15]

Ignoring female combatants can have significant implications post-conflict. For instance, it is often required for combatants to exchange their weapons for entry rehabilitation camps. Oftentimes, female combatants have their weapons taken away by their commanders to be given to male fighters or sold to civilians who can then reap the benefits of demobilisation[16].

The women that manage to enter these camps often do not receive the required medical attention needed to respond to the effects of the trauma they have experienced. Many of these rehabilitation camps are run by NGOs or state organisations, but still within traditional frameworks that fail to create culturally appropriate or effective strategies for women’s empowerment post-conflict[17]. This also has a significant impact on male soldiers who have suffered trauma caused by the war, including SGBV. Silence on these issues fails to help both men and women who require specific aid to rehabilitate and re-enter society in an appropriate and sustainable way.

Women are more than just victims. Men are more than just fighters. Both genders play a multitude of roles in conflict. By acknowledging the full spectrum of the roles played by all genders in conflict this can help deliver a more holistic and better-informed post-war reconstruction strategy by ensuring all relevant agents receive the help they require as part of demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration.

Wiktoria Schulz is a MSc International Relations Graduate. 

List of References:

1] Kennedy, C. (2012). Chapter 9: Gender and Security. In. Collins, A. ed. Contemporary Security Studies. Third Edition. Oxford Univerity Press.

[2] Enloe, C. (1991). ‘Womenandchildren: Making Feminist Sense of the Persian Gulf Crisis’, The Village Voice, 25 September.

[3] Wight, A., and Myers, S., (1996). Introduction. In Myers, A., and Wight, S. (Eds.) No Angels: Women Who Commit Violence. London. Pandora.

[4] Sjoberg, L. and Gentry, C. E. (2007). Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. Zed Books.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Mezzofiore, G. (2014, October 7). Syria: Isis Jihadists Terrified of Fanatical Kurdish Women Soldiers who will Deny Them Place in Paradise.

[9] Alison, M. (2003). Cogs in the Wheel? Women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Civil Wars, 6(4), pp.37-54.

[10] Hale, T. (2014). A Short History of the Kurds.

[11] The Rojava Report, (2013, September 29). Women Are the Guaranty of Revolution in Rojava.

[12] Crilly, R. (2014, September 20). ‘Isil Fanatics ‘Fear Being Killed by a Woman Will Deprive them of Virgins in Paradise’, The Telegraph.

[13] McKernan, B. (2017, January 4). Female Kurdish Fighters Announce New Training Academies for Arab Women to take on ISIS in Syria, Independent.

[14] Stack-O’Connor, A. (2007). Lions, Tigers, and Freedom Birds: How and Why the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Employs Women. Terrorism and Political Violence, 19(1), pp.43-63.

[15] Anderson, J. L. (2011, January 17). Death of the Tiger: Sri Lanka’s Brutal Victory over its Tamil Insurgents, The New Yorker.

[16] Denov, M. (2008). Girl Soldiers and Human Rights: Lessons from Angola, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Northern Uganda, The International Journal of Human Rights, 12(5), pp.813-836.

[17] Rajasingham-Senanayake, D. (2004). Between Reality and Representation: Women’s Agency in War and Post-Conflict in Sri Lanka, Cultural Dynamics, 16(2-3), pp.141-168.

Marissa Conway