Stereotyped Gender Images in War and Peace

This is an archived article

Throughout history and in many cultures gender roles in times of war are stereotypical: Men fight, women do not – with few exceptions. This is slowly beginning to change, not least because in many countries there is an increasing number of female soldiers. These gender roles, the product of historical and social developments, have, however, in the collective consciousness, become “biologized”: Aggression, propensity for violence, and courage are attributed to men, passivity, peacefulness, and motherliness to women. Men are seen as warlike, women as naturally peaceful.

Thus on both sides there are two models: On the one side “soldier” and “statesman,” on the other “beautiful soul” and “Spartan mother.” Warriors and politicians are counterpoised to those to whom this discourse assigns the contradictory roles of “natural comforter” or “motherly patriot.” This is even more true in extreme nationalism and militarism. Cynthia Cockburn and Meliha Hubic state: “The nationalist discourse aims at generating a dominating, hyperactive and combative masculinity and a domesticated, passive and vulnerable femininity.” Women are made into a vulnerable symbol of national identity in need of protection. It is precisely the apparent polarity of these two roles that makes them the primary elements for constructing militarized gender personae; they belong together, they complement each other, and thus form the basis for the social legitimization of violence. In many societies such stereotypes lead to a close linkage of masculinity with the propensity for violence. Such aggressive notions of masculinity are especially evoked in times of war and crisis; they become fundamental features of “hegemonic masculinity,” even if they contradict the ideas and the practice of many men.

» Read Hegemonic Masculinity

However, men are not involved in violence everywhere, and not equally so. Some refuse to accept their intended role, such as conscientious objectors and deserters, or those who flee from conscription.

Women are not only victims of violent conflicts. They can be part of a culture of violent conflict and share responsibility for the escalation of conflicts, directly or indirectly legitimizing violence against “the enemy” – for example as members of social groups, as weapons producers, nurses, smugglers, or mothers and wives. Some women use violence themselves and others reinforce and motivate men in the use of violence. Examples for the complicity and involvement of women in structures of violence are the female wardens in Nazi concentration camps, or the wives of SS men who spurred on their men.

Women and men have different approaches to violence. First of all, this is especially true of the state’s monopoly on violence. From a global perspective, there are still not many policewomen and female soldiers, even though their numbers are increasing almost everywhere and are an indicator of the status of women in the respective state. Second, in the case of interpersonal violence, men have greater physical strength and use weapons more often. As to sexualized violence, in 98 % of all cases men are the perpetrators and women the victims.

» Read Female Soldiers

However, in all other violent crimes, men are not only in the majority of perpetrators, but also of victims. Men kill, wound, rob, and insult other men first and foremost. Also, in many of today’s wars, it is predominantly men who die – contrary to common assumptions in feminist circles. One example is the massacre at Srebrenica where some 8,000 Muslim men were killed; another is the Kosovo War, where three out of four civilians killed were male. The Liu Institute suspects therefore in its “Human Security Report 2005” that “with the exception of sexual violence, men, not women, are more vulnerable to the major impacts of armed conflict.”

In armed conflicts, women frequently act as mediators between the warring parties. They frequently play important roles in peace alliances, maintain social networks and connections with the “enemy,“ and are the first to resume such contacts once a conflict has ended. However this is not an expression of a particular biological predisposition toward peace, but rather a consequence of their social roles: Women bear the responsibility for children and other family members; since childhood, they have learned to mediate.

» Read Women’s Peace Groups

But women also belong to paramilitary groups and armed movements. Women took part in anti-colonial liberation struggles, such as in Algeria, or in guerrilla groups, such as in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Even in intra-state conflicts in Africa – for example, in Liberia and Sierra Leone – women served as combatants, which in practice, however, often meant being sex slaves of the commanders. In such societies, women have been socially marginalized and discriminated against in post-conflict periods: Their legal status has been downgraded (e.g., Algeria), or their status as former combatants has not been recognized (e.g., Guatemala and Nicaragua).

» Read Liberation Movements and the Battle of the Sexes