THE OTHER HALF
Brutality and war
The pictures from Iraq raise an entirely new set of disturbing questions. That brutality has no gender, and that power distorts all humans, men and women ... .
LIKE the rest of the world, I was sickened by the photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. It was a bestial reminder of man's inhumanity to man. It also illustrated the brutal reality of war and the thinking that goes with it. People are not people anymore. They become "the enemy", sub-humans. As a result, people who seem normal, your everyday Joe, suddenly become these sadistic monsters who will stoop to anything to achieve the end.
And what is that end? To find out the truth. In the context of Iraq, that is particularly ghoulish as the entire exercise has been based on a lie. So what truth? Whose truth? When there are only lies, how can you extract truth from "the enemy"?
At a more personal level, the sight of a woman soldier apparently enjoying the humiliation and degradation of these Iraqi male prisoners was even more revolting. But it was also sobering. For it was a reminder that brutality has no gender, that power distorts all humans, men and women, and that war brutalises entire civilisations. So when women don that uniform, they are accepting all that goes with being part of the war machine - the power and the glory but also the torture and the brutality.
When I saw the photographs of the woman soldier, I was hoping that the picture was doctored, that her picture was superimposed and that she did not actually participate in the humiliation of these men. But in all probability she was a fully conscious participant of what now appears to be the most appalling exercise by men and women belonging to a country that claims to have humane, civilised values and prefers to call many other parts of the world barbaric. But here is proof that barbarism is not the exclusive domain of a few nations.
What is ironic about this incident is that it stands on its head established notions about women and war that depicts women at the receiving end of the brutality. Take Rwanda, for instance, the central African nation that saw one of the worst genocides in the world in 1994. In the course of just 100 days, one million people were killed, the majority of them Tutsis. Human rights groups reporting on the genocide also recorded that between 2,50,000 to half a million women were raped. This is out of a population of eight million.
Today this traumatised nation, 60 per cent of whose population lives in extreme poverty, is coming to terms with the price of war. And this is being played out in the lives of the thousands of women who were raped. These women are now HIV positive. Today an estimated 1,00,000 Rwandans needed anti-retroviral drugs to fight the disease. They are fighting another war, one that they cannot win.
At the same time, something else has come out of the ashes of the massacre of 1994. Rwanda now has the highest proportion of women legislators in the world. In the October 2003 elections to its National Assembly, women won 48.8 per cent of the seats. In the Swedish Parliament, 45 per cent of the legislators are women. The fact that one-third of the seats are reserved for women did help. But some women won from non-reserved seats. And today, women hold nine out of 28 ministerial posts.
This change did not come easily. It was the consequence of women's active participation in the post-genocide period where many of them went out to help the survivors rebuild their lives. Donor agencies also invested in projects designed to make women politically aware. Women participated in drawing up a new Constitution and ensured that women had the right to inherit property and that stiff penalties were in place for child rapists.
This is a remarkable turnaround within a decade in a country that lost a huge chunk of its population in the war. But there is still a long way to go to overcome poverty, disease and the societal crisis where thousands of women are widowed or abandoned.
Another story of women and war comes from Eritrea, formerly a province of Ethiopia. After a 30-year long war to gain Independence, Eritrea become a separate independent nation in 1993. Women were at the heart of the armed struggle waged by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. They fought shoulder to shoulder with the men and made up one-third of the rebel army. The Eritrean woman solider had become something of an iconic figure.
After Independence, these women succeeded in ensuring that women's rights were codified. They won the right to own property, to divorce and to get custody of children. Thirty per cent of the seats in the National Assembly were reserved for women. And March 8, International Women's Day was declared a national holiday.
But a decade later, the women who fought for their country's independence are now waging another battle. The President of the National Union of Eritrean Women was quoted as saying, "You can't legislate attitudes." She was referring to the fact that despite the equal rights written into law and the fact that women fought alongside men, in times of peace men would like them to sit at home, cook and wash for them and become good housewives. The least wanted jobs are left for women while men take the comfortable government jobs or the lucrative ones. A newspaper article on the free Eritrea quoted a man saying, "Men have forgotten everything. Our previous life was to work together. Now women carry the burden. It is shameful."
The stories from Rwanda and Eritrea still fit within the accepted notions of women and war. The pictures from Iraq raise an entirely new set of disturbing questions. In their quest for equal rights, should women draw the line? Or is it inevitable that once they have voluntarily signed up for institutions like the military, they are endorsing brutality and its justifications?
E-mail the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Send this article to Friends by