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Separate Spheres

The second Gulf War has been framed as an ideological struggle: the enlightened West versus the fundamentalist Moslems who purportedly "hate our freedom."  In the current Orwellian doublespeak, we're not invaders but liberators, bringing democracy and freedom to the ignorant Iraqis.  Propaganda in support of the war often cites the cultural differences between the United States and Iraq, and a frequent justification for the war is that the women of Iraq --and previously of Afghanistan -- deserve the civil rights that women in the U. S. enjoy.  No doubt we'll soon be hearing stories of how mistreated Iranian women are (but don't expect the oppressed women in Saudi Arabia to get much news coverage; we wouldn't want to offend our allies in the Saudi government).

Ironically, the loudest supporters of the war are conservative Republicans whose attitudes toward women are closest to those of the fundamentalist Moslems they decry.  They may not be campaigning for burqas (yet), but they're doing their damnedest to restrict access to birth control and abortion, and to bring back traditional Father Knows Best-style gender roles.  Nowhere is this attitude more apparent than in their treatment of female soldiers.  These advocates of separate spheres believe that war is men's business, and that women should stick to keeping the home fires burning.  It's the high school football game view of war - the boys take the field, and the girls cheer from the sidelines.

Even when women act with great heroism, conservatives believe that war is against their natures and that women shouldn't be asked to make the sacrifices that the military routinely asks men to make.  The possibility of rape or sexual abuse is seen as proof that women shouldn't be allowed in combat.  For example, when former POW Jessica Lynch was rescued, rumors rapidly spread that she had been raped, and she was held up as the prime example of why women shouldn't be allowed in combat.

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In fact, it seems that female soldiers are at a greater risk from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy; according to this article by Marjorie Cohn, several military women in Iraq have died from dehydration as a result of limiting their fluid intake, so that they wouldn't have to visit the latrines after dark, for fear that they would be raped.  The military's response to this fear, and to complaints of rape, has been an unstaffed hotline that is answered by a recording.

When things go wrong, the conservatives are right there, pointing the finger at the women involved.  Both male and female soldiers have been indicted for mistreating and murdering prisoners, but the face everyone remembers is Lyndi England's.  C. S. Lewis said, "Wars are ugly when women fight," but isn't it more likely that war itself is ugly, and that both men and women can be driven to commit horrific acts in times of war?

The separate spheres argument suggests that women won't be affected by war so long as they stay out of the way and let the men handle it.  Of course, this is a nonsensical view; civilian women are faced with the absence and loss of fathers, husbands, and sons, as well as changes in their living situations that result from the men in their lives going to war.  And for the Iraqi women who are living and working in the midst of a war zone, the consequences are impossible to escape.  Even those who don't actively fight are at risk of being kidnapped and used as bait to capture their husbands.

In one documented instance the mother of three young children, including a nursing 6-month-old, was detained for two days.  Anyone who's ever nursed a baby can tell you what happens when you go four or five hours without breastfeeding, much less two days (I find it highly unlikely that this woman was offered a breast pump).

So for the crime of being married to someone that the U.S. Army finds suspicious, this mother was separated from her children and subjected to extreme pain and the risk of a serious infection, as well as other, longer term, complications. And let's not forget that her children were left without their mother. The baby would have been confused and hungry, and the mother would have been aware of this and constantly reminded of it by the pain in her breasts. Even if this woman was incarcerated in relative comfort, she was being subjected to excruciating torture which could have long-term effects for her and her child.  In spite of some talk that these women "had substantial knowledge of insurgent activity and warranted being held" there seems to be no real indication that they were prisoners in their own right.  They were spoils of war, nothing more than tools to strong arm their husbands into cooperating with U. S. forces.

In a classic bit of misdirection, President Bush and his cronies have manufactured a war out of nothing but rumors, innuendos, and the jingoistic conviction that Americans are always right.  In order to sell this war, they've co-opted progressive language about liberation and civil rights, but they've made no attempt to actually follow through on those ideals.  For a realistic view of how the U.S. government views women, look at its actions, not its words.  We've been told repeatedly that the goal is "to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis," and to bring democracy and civil rights to an oppressed people, including (perhaps especially) women.  I'm not a psychologist, but I don't think abducting noncombatants, torturing prisoners, and holding people without trials is the most effective way to transmit your cultural values.  Perhaps before we forcibly attempt to fix other countries' gender inequalities, we should address the imbalances that remain in our own system.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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