Demography

Women warriors: the world of female fighters

In the second of a three-part series on women in the military, we look at two very different examples of their roles and challenges: Germany and Syria.
Female German air force soldiers attend the first swearing in ceremony for women sodliers at the .../ Credits: Reuters
Women now account for 10% of the German armed forces, and they have been able to ascend to some of the military’s most elite ranks; in 1994, Verena von Weymarn became Surgeon General of the Air Force, and in so doing also became the first woman ever to reach the rank of general in Germany's armed forces. In 2007, at the age of 25, Ulrike Flender became Germany’s first female fighter pilot.

However, the Bundeswehr, or German Federal Defense, has also experienced some gender-based controversy. The German navy was scandalized by the deaths of two female sailors aboard its training ship the Gorch Fock; in 2008, one cadet drowned, while in 2010 a young woman fell from one of the ship’s masts.

Allegations of aggressive behavior and sexual harassment followed, and the government launched an investigation that received considerable media attention throughout Europe and generated heated discussion on the role of women in the military.

“I had to perform even better than the men”

Other female service members have spoken out about sexism and the difficulties they have experienced within the ranks. “I really had a lot of superiors who made it clear that they are not in favor of women in the German armed forces,” Diana Lydia Wade, an army captain, told German newspaper Die Tageszeitung in December 2012. “I had to prove myself, I had to perform even better than the men.”

German journalist Jasna Zajcek, who accompanied soldiers in training and missions in Sudan and Kosovo, wrote a book about her experiences, “Among Women Soliders” and has often voiced a more positive view of women’s role in the German military.

In a 2011 interview with Der Freitag, when asked whether women were now accepted within the military, Zajcek responded, “I’d imagined worse. I thought there would be more misogynistic speech… Even the smallest complaint is taken seriously. I have never personally experienced gender discriminatory behavior.”

Syria’s women fight for freedom

Outside of official military duty, women also play crucial roles for other fighting forces around the world. The global news media have called women “indispensable” to Syrian revolutionary forces; at least 1,900 women have been killed in the uprising so far, some of whom protested alongside men, others working behind the scenes.

There have been reports of women participating in the frontline ranks of the revolution, some allegedly trained by and fighting alongside their husbands. TIME magazine also reported that on the other side of the conflict, Syrian president Bashar Assad has been arming and training women for a national militia.

“It’s every woman’s duty to participate in the revolution,” said Samar, a Syrian woman who spoke to Egypt’s Daily News in September 2012 about her secret support missions for Syria’s ‘freedom forces’. “Not necessarily with guns but with whatever they have in hand, negotiating for medicine sales, aid, hiding Free Syrian Army fighters."

Samar also pointed to the importance of women’s role as motivators for change. “Our participation is an encouragement for men to carry arms instead of us; we need men to go to the frontline and fight instead of us, while we can help by other means possible. A lot of men who were observers of the revolution are now following our example and joining the fight.”

On Friday, March 8, we'll honor International Women's Day with the final segment of our series on 'women warriors', in which we’ll examine gender politics and the difficult balancing act many military women face.


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