Demography

Women warriors: the right to fight

In the first of a three-part series on women in the military, a look at the impact of the recent US decision to lift the ban on women in frontline combat roles.
US soldier Pfc. Janelle Zalkovsky, from civil affairs unit of 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery .../ Credits: Reuters
The “woman warrior” has appeared in many forms throughout history. In ancient Greek mythology, the Amazons were a fierce tribe of female fighters who lived in separate societies, rebelled against male dominance and bravely fought in many wars, including the Trojan War. In Vietnam, the Trung Sisters led an uprising against Chinese occupiers 2,000 years ago, and are now revered as national symbols of freedom with a yearly holiday to commemorate their deaths in service to the country. They are often depicted riding giant elephants and wielding swords.

The modern-day female fighter may not necessarily carry a weapon, but across the world women are involved in military operations on a variety of levels. Traditionally active in support roles such as medics and technicians, women are now also eligible for combat duties in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Sweden.

Success based on qualifications, not gender

In America, women have just recently been permitted to take on combat roles. “I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation. And every citizen who can meet the qualifications of service should have that opportunity,” said Leon Panetta, United States Secretary of Defense, in a press conference earlier this year. “It is clear that women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission of defending the nation.”

Established in 1994, the Direct Ground Combat Definitions and Assignment Rule forbid women to serve in front-line combat positions. In November 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of four female veterans, challenging the constitutionality of the rule and claiming the Pentagon was not moving quickly enough to modernize its policies.

But the military was already taking steps. Earlier in 2012, the US military announced a series of modifications to the ground combat rule that opened up 14,000 new positions, some of which were involved with combat units. Calling the resulting experiences “very positive,” Panetta announced in January 2013 that the military was now repealing the ban on women in combat and moving forward to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.

Panetta noted that 152 women in uniform have died in the US military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although officially these women were serving in support roles, “men and women are fighting and dying together, and the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.

“I fundamentally believe that our military is more effective when success is based solely on ability, on qualifications, and on performance.”

Should women fight alongside men?

However, not everyone within America’s military agrees. Decrying the changes as “a vast social experiment,” retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, spoke out on behalf of many of the military’s skeptics. Noting the extreme physical toll, “abysmal” living conditions, and the potential for conflicts due to sexual tension between the genders, Boykin claimed that including women in frontline combat roles “may impair the military effectiveness of our ground forces.”

Citing concern for women currently in the military who may not want to be subjected to front-line duty, Boykin warned, “This policy change may have the ironic effect of forcing women to reconsider their place in the armed services.”

In 2001, Germany lifted its ban on women in combat positions after female electrician Tanja Kreil filed a lawsuit in the European Court of Justice. In the next article in the series, we’ll take a closer look at some of the experiences and challenges women face in military operations in Germany, and elsewhere in the world.


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