Is War Gendered?

When I think of war, I instinctively imagine the Marine commercials that play on the television featuring seemingly badass young American male soldiers jumping out of camo helicopters and wading in swamps at night in tactical gear.  I think of men being drafted and fighting while women stay home.  But this image is painfully inaccurate, as it overlooks the very real and often forgotten victims of war: women.   Pamela DeLargy’s “Sexual Violence and Women’s Health in War” provides insight to the historically untold facts of being a woman during wartime, unsettlingly connecting to an article I read Saturday about three Syrian women who fled to Turkey after abandoning their positions in ISIS.  Both DeLargy’s chapter on the treatment of women during and after conflicts as well as Azadeh Moaveni’s “ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape” illustrate how war is and has been gendered throughout time.

DeLargy’s and Moaveni’s articles differ in key ways, as DeLargy’s focuses on the way sexual violence is used as a tactic of war while Moaveni’s delves into the lives of women who are considered to be the property of the Islamic State’s soldiers.  Both papers, however, exemplify the notion that the war-time experiences of men and women are inherently different.  One of the women interviewed by Moaveni, named Dua, recounted the lack of control she had over her body despite being a member of the female moral brigade in ISIS.  After marrying an ISIS soldier, her new husband insisted she take birth control because, “his commanders had advised fighters to avoid getting their wives pregnant. New fathers would be less inclined to volunteer to carry out suicide missions” (Moaveni).  The enforcement of birth control on women by an organization lessens the basic right of reproduction and exemplifies how differently women experience war than men.

A women’s role changes during war, made clear by the beginning of DeLargy’s assertions that lack of reproductive care, basic security, menstruation supplies, as well as sexual exploitation all create an inherently gendered occurrence.  This is seen in the three “ISIS Women” featured in the New York Times article.  Each of them initially married a soldier to keep their families safe, an evidently female role of war in which a woman gives up her right to choose a partner for the sake of her family.  One of the young women, Dua, recalled the day after her first husband died when she realized “the Organization had made her a widow and wanted to do so again and again, turning her into a perpetual temporary distraction for suicidal fighters. There was no choice left, no dignity, just the service demanded by the Islamic State’s need to feed men to its front lines.”  Because of Dua’s gender, she was handed from husband to husband, unable to live alone and unable to create a family.

It is not the men who are drafted or volunteer to fight in violence who face the greatest risk during war.  As DeLargy finishes her paper, “in almost every part of the world, women are at a greater risk than men for both biological and social reasons, which remains true in wars as well” (13).  War is gendered and it is the women who shoulder the brunt of it.

Azadeh Moaveni, “ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape,” New York Times, November 21, 2015.

Delargy, Pamela. “Sexual Violence and Women’s Health in War.” Women and Wars. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013. Print.


30 thoughts on “Is War Gendered?

  1. Jamie, I agree with you that war is gendered and many of the struggles that women go through during war are overlooked. When people of think of war, they immediately think of the soldiers that are fighting on the front. These soldiers’ struggles and actions are often glorified. While, women’s roles are too often ignored or belittled. While the men fight, the women are at home dealing with the everyday struggles of caring for children, while simultaneously dealing with domestic violence.

    I thought it was interesting that you used an example of a woman that was forced to take birth control. In her article, DeLargy seemed to focus on the opposite of that problem. Many women facing sexual violence have trouble finding the necessary resources to perform forced infertility. One of the main reasons why women in developing countries struggle to get support with this is because the United States, a large economic support, does not condone abortion due to traditional, religious beliefs. It disturbs me that our country does not yet support the reproductive rights that every women should have to her own body. We have the resources and the money to help these women, so we should do everything in our power to keep them safe.

    • There are two truly sad and alarming articles addressing women’s experiences in war and in the current war with ISIS and Islamic extremism. While men’s roles are violent and often fatal, women as described in these two pieces are faced with a role which on the one hand could be described as passive, and to me is equivalent to slavery–forced to abandoned their emotional and physical wellbeing to the imposed priorities of the Islamic State. Similar to prostitution these young women are forced to marry these soldiers in exchange for their survival and possibly the survival of their family. However i must disagree with your conclusion that women’s roles are more painful than a males. When men are trained for suicide missions, no such comparison is possible.

  2. I agree that war is gendered. Men and women face different struggles and challenges in wartime. While men have generally been the main focus of war, as they are presumed to be the ones fighting, women are at a greater risk in many ways than men are and experience atrocities and violence unique to their gender. For example, women are often raped during war for a number of reasons. for one thing, by raping the women of the enemy side, soldiers harm the community of the women. They create both physical and psychological problems for women and they also cause lasting problems for the family and community of the women. One problem that is caused is that the women being raped brings shame to their families, to the point that sometimes their husbands blame them and the women are often ostracized from their communities. Additionally, families of the women are often forced to watch or even participate in them being raped. Sometimes men on the winning side of a conflict feel entitled to take the women, as if they are just another one of the spoils of war. Women are seen as property in this way and are sometimes seen as only serving the purpose of reproduction.

    • War is definitely gendered in the sense that men and women face it differently and often play different roles within it. That being said, traditional ideas of machismo fail to address that women are not only effected by war but they often take just as active a role in the conflict as Men. Kurdish women fighting against ISIS, for example, are leading the charge into combat and argue their equal worth to any ISIS fighter. Vice has an interesting documentary detailing the gender specific struggles these women face on a daily basis.

  3. Jamie, I agree completely that war is inherently gendered. Women face far worse consequences in the events of war than men do. Rape is a common threat, sexual abuse, genital mutilation; none of these things are particularly uncommon in war time circumstances as both you and Delargy so eloquently indicated in your posts/articles. I would also draw your attention to the fact that there have been positive movements to alleviate these consequences are impose strict penalties for the perpetrators of women. For Instance, Delargy points out early on in her article that “history shows that wartime rape is not inevitable… historical evidence of sanctions of rape in warfare, ranging from the death penalty impose for rape by Richard II in England in 1325 to the FARC’s execution of its own members who commit rape in Colombia today” (Delargy, 55). I am in no way saying that this excuses or make up for the current gendering of rape in warfare, however I hope to draw attention to the fact this does not need to be a reality. I know you alluded to this in your article, but even countries like India after the horrific rape of a college student “Nirbhaya”, have imposed strict penalties for rape. However, these mandates in countries like India and indeed the recent movement in America to eliminate the threat of rape from college campuses are gaining momentum but more substantiating results need to be seen before anybody (and it should be women who adjudicate on this since they are the primary victims) can safely declare that we have solve the problem. I agree completely, currently war is a very gendered issue, women bear the brunt of the burden and consequences. Hopefully though, these historical instances and recent trends not only prove it does not need to be this way, but that it can in fact change for the better.

  4. I agree that war is gendered. When men experience injury as a result of war, they are glorified. However, when women experience injury, whether through direct warfare or sexual violence, they are not praised to the same extent. Also, when people think of war, they usually imagine a group of young men fighting another group of young men. People do not and – in many cases – feel that they can not imagine war as women fighting women or as women fighting other men. Furthermore, the media contributes to war being gendered. In most articles that discuss war, writers use language to highlight the masculinity of war; they never use language to feminize war. In documentaries about war, people often get interviews from injured young men who have fought in war; I never see documentaries about war that include a women’s perspective or about her sacrifices during war, except for when their son has died in war for the country. Some people, if not most, are not even aware of the problem of sexual violence in war; the media would rather conduct interviews or write articles about the wounded (male) soldiers. Moreover, people become angered by the idea of having Hillary Clinton – a woman – as president; these people do not feel that a women could be fit to be Commander in Chief. They have become uncomfortable with this idea because it is new and it deviates from history; they do not understand that it will create history as well. Overall, war is gendered in our society. In order for there to be change, we have to change our institutions about war, the media has to reveal and emphasize the harsh consequences that women face, and society has to acknowledge and appreciate women’s role in war and in society more generally.

  5. I agree with all the points stated above, however I would also like to add on, specifically to the role of women in war. The role of women in war is partly influenced by the patriarchal system of war, which DeLargy brings up. Many soldiers view as war as protecting their home, children, and women. So when given the chance, they will rape the opposing sides women, to humiliate the women and show foreign dominance, which shows “winning” to the other side (DeLargey, 61). Patriarchal systems view women as property, and since part of war has been a fight for land, the system would view rape as like burning house per say. While obviously this way of understanding wartime rape isn’t helpful entirely, it shows that war still has patriarchal views which have influenced war to this day and it will not change until the nature of war changes as a whole. The view of war must become not gendered, which means for example inclusion of both sexs in roles of war, not raping anyone on the opposite side regardless of gender, and many other reasons.

  6. While I do agree with what is stated above, that war is inherently gendered and that women experience a much different and more insidious form of violence during war, I disagree with many of the characterizations put forward. This is mostly because these characterizations focus around a perfect victim; The helpless woman or child that is being subjugated by sexualized male dominance both on and off the battle field. Delargy’s article, while important does continue this narrative by hinging many solutions on foreign aid organizations, and the United Nations, which operate within the framework of women being passive subjects to the violent, often sexualized, tendencies of men. Instead we should try to break out of that constraint and evaluate women as persons with agency. Women have the ability to be active agents and advocates for peace and do not necessarily need to be viewed as a victim in need of men to save them. This view has been gaining traction within the international sphere and should continue to do so. It is important to recognize that war is gendered, but that is just a first step. We should then take the next step and ask ourselves, if this is true what can we do to prevent this, and how can we empower women to speak up and become agents for peace in their own countries?

  7. I agree with your analysis of this work and am fascinated by the article that you included in your post. The connection is so recent it really puts this idea of a gendered war into perspective. Dua proved that women can be casualties of war by being passed around from man to man, almost as if she was a toy to take the men’s minds off of war. This psychological trauma for the women is heartbreaking. The women do not need to be in battle on the front lines, or even die, to be a casualty of war. The demoralization of women proves to be enough to scar them and some must flee, like Dua. In Delgary’s work, the different ways women can be sexually abused are explained. I learned that it is not only sexual abuse that takes place but it is also slavery, exploitation, forced pregnancies, and abduction. All of these issues are irrelevant to the war itself and innocent civilians should not be involved. The war is in fact gendered because of these terrible situations that happen to women while in war. Going back to your article, Dua is unable to create a family, something most women aspire to do. This is a psychological trauma because she does not have a stable husband, but she also cannot create a family of her own and a life of her own. Her body and life is a slave to ISIS and what they believe is necessary for war time. Dua is unable to be in charge of her own body and because of this, she is a casualty of war. Her individuality and spirit has died along with the thousands of other women who this is currently happening to.

  8. I do agree that war is gendered. DeLargy’s chapter demonstrates that although men have more direct injuries related to war, women suffer indirect injuries such as rape and psychological problems. Men are considered heroes for killing, while women on the other hand, are looked at as weak for being victims. Women face danger everyday during wartime, and these parts of the conflict are normally ignored. DeLargy opened up my eyes to the fact that in order to understand the consequences of war you need to look past the battlefield. I think one of the most telling arguments in the chapter is with regards to Africa when DeLargy says, “there have been nine indirect deaths for every direct death” (DeLargy 74).

  9. I agree that war is gendered however, it has a different impact on each gender. As DeLargy lays out, men suffer the direct physical and psychological repercussions of war. Women are the casualties of a system of war dominated by men, it is not uncommon for opposing forces to rape the opposing armies women and children in order to show a lack of respect and assert their dominance. War is typically over property and in the patriarchal system women are viewed as property and can be dealt with in such a way, at the disposal of the winning force. This seemingly patriarchal system of warfare will not be changed until we change the very institutions surrounding war, this means implementing both genders to fight. Delargy forced me to reflect on war when he talks about the civilian casualties who are rarely taken into account. We as a worldwide society must recognize and help to empower women who are in harms way and keep them from becoming a statistic.

  10. I would definitely agree that war is gendered. I also think that the media does have a role in this case, as several navy , army, and other military forces commonly use group of men to depict soldiers. However, as Delray mentions within his article that this distinction between the traumas men and women face during war have been increase come under more scrutiny. More measures are being put in place to not only help women prevent sexual violence during war, but also to help those who have experience those traumas already. That being said, reading Delargy’s article has made me rethink my views on war, specifically in regards to the dangers and violence that women face today. While improvements on preventing sexual violence and civilian casualties show how these issues are now being brought up, it also shows that there is still much work to be done.

  11. It is hard to argue against the idea that war is gendered, especially in regard to women and their unintentional involvement with the runoff effects that war causes. DeLargy makes it clear that yes, war affects both genders greatly, but in entirely different ways. While some may argue that women are unaffected due to the inability to be drafted and the statistical ratio of women / men in the army, those that are not enlisted face less direct violence that is an outcome of war. The article on ISIS that you connected with Delargy’s is a perfect example of his claims of the degrading nature of war on women. Although men also face the direct effects from war (physical and psychological) they often are treated as men of valor and honor, while women are treated with shame and disrespect. So yes, war is gendered which is often overlooked until made clear by articles like Delargy’s

  12. I do agree with the notion that war is gendered. Fundamentally, the conflict behind the institution of war is inherently tied up with our cultural assumptions of masculinity- of violence and dominance, of strength and power. Furthermore, the system of war is a patriarchal one- and historically, women have subsumed under this framework as chattel as opposed to equal participants and stakeholders. There is a dichotomy- when men suffer the consequences of the (sometimes necessary) barbarism of war, they are heralded as heroes whereas women that have the brunt of the same unfair system are dismissed as weak- one of the hallmarks of our understanding of femininity. These are all aspects of an outdated cultural consciousness which should be cast aside in favor of a more refined understanding of gender, and of the role of women in war and more broadly in society.

    • I also agree with Jamie that war is gendered. Women are not often portrayed as being part of war and even if they are they are not as strong and capable as their male counterparts. When you hear about women being part of war, it is commonly because they are being effected by war instead. They are victims of war either by being murdered or because rape is commonly used as a weapon of war. I also agree with Jamie that women’s freedoms are more greatly restricted then men’s freedoms during war. Women being forced to take birth control or having to make personal sacrifices about their family lifestyle such as who they should marry, is something that is not imposed upon men. The gendered nature of war is something that is ignored and DeLargy’s article supports the fact that women are just as effected by war as men are.

  13. I completely agree that war is gendered; in fact, there is no argument that can challenge the obvious fact that men and women have different experiences during war, as evident through the realities of those in non-Western countries. The set of examples that DeLargy lays out, while all containing different reasons for the mistreatment of women during war-times, also makes apparent that many of them are more culturally driven than others.
    Fundamentally, I believe the act of rape during war is primarily utilized to intimidate the opponent. On the other hand, instances of ethnic cleansing during the Balkans War and the vicious attacks during the Rwandan genocide, although terrible, would not take place, if they involved more religiously moderate societies. The countries that carried out these attacks have long-standing traditions of suppressing women, assuming them not only inferior to men, but as mere objects who possess no societal purpose other than reproduction. In relation to Moaveni’s article, the traumatic experiences that these ISIS women encounter are the product of cultural beliefs rather than wartime actions. They live in an antiquated society that uses women as cogs in a machine, not just during war, but in every day life.

  14. I believe that war, to an extent, does exclude women because of the biological paradigm that differentiates the strength of men from women. However, now, as warfare is becoming more mechanised, I believe that there is a shift towards more women-inclusive warfare.

  15. I agree with you, Jamie that war is gendered. It’s pretty split in the fact that men experience the direct effects of war (physical and psychological) while women experience the indirect effects of a patriarchal system. The military system in the U.S. has been somewhat updated with men and women both serving but there is still a disparity. In other cultures, women are used as a tool to defeat the morale of the opposition because the reason the opposition is fighting is being attacked front on. In terms of Maven’s article, I took Understanding Terrorism with Professor Kibbe and we learned that in radical terrorist groups, they psychologically control the women into carrying out bombings. One example would be a woman’s husband or brother who was in the terrorist group being killed, the group would use this to influence the woman into finishing the job. The woman would then be forced to pretend to be pregnant to bypass security but she would be strapped with bombs. Overall, job well done summarizing and analyzing.

  16. You make a persuasive case that war is gendered. I wonder, though, whether this is a magnification of the gendered nature of the societies that are at war, or something that is different in kind. Is the extreme loss of marital or reproductive autonomy you describe something unique to war, or instead an exaggerated version of the limited marital and reproductive autonomy that women endure in the cultures that inflict these abuses on the women of their enemies. Some sexual crimes during wartime may be attributable to individual bad actors freed of the constraints of society, but I suspect there is a correlation between those armies that engage in the most widespread abuses and the plight of women in the cultures from which those armies are drawn. Those cultures that are most inclined to abuse the women of their enemy may also be the ones most inclined to abuse their own women.

  17. I really enjoyed this blog post- I am currently in a Sociology of Gender class and we rarely discuss topics such as war and violence or even many non-Western issues. Both of your articles discuss women under rule of the Islamic State, who face threats to their social and reproductive rights. This made me begin to think of the origins of such threats, and I believe they stem from religious interpretation. Religion is a very powerful force and is one of the oldest gendered systems in the world. When institutionalized, religion can enforce gendered norms and expectations that typically devalue women’s social and reproductive rights, and these expectations are harder to break because they are backed by a long history and tradition. Religious beliefs and interpretations become manifested in the government and as a result, greatly affect the way women are viewed and treated both in everyday life and during times of war. Based on the two articles you discuss, it seems that the reduction in women’s rights become even more exaggerated during times of war due to increased chaos, high levels of threat and casualty, and a reduction of resources.

  18. History has shown us clearly that War – in any context, under any circumstance, regardless of gender, race, religion or nationality of combatants, represents only failure: failure to address the cause; failure to foresee the consequences; failure to respect international law or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Winston Churchill, famously quoted as saying “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”, would have been amazed to witness the seemingly endless violence that continues to this day…and would have traced it back – perhaps to 1919 and the negotiations that followed “The War that Ended Peace” (Margaret MacMillan)…or even earlier, to the family squabble between cousins (George V of England, Kaiser William II of Germany and Tsar Nicolas II of Russia) – and the beginning of “The War to End All Wars.”

    -Posted by Peter Kirby

  19. I agree that the article in the NY Times describing the ISIS women is an excellent and

    timely example of the differences experienced by men and women during war. Prior to

    the occupation of Raqqa by “the Organization”, the three women were free to pursue

    their intellectual interests in college, read novels, explore the internet to develop a world

    view, have boyfriends and establish their own identities. They could imagine a better

    life, one in which they could realize their full potential and choose their own spouse.

    Once the Islamic State controlled their home, their life became one of adhering to strict

    gender roles with no opportunity for self-expression or self-improvement. They were

    expected to wear abayas and veils, their husband was chosen for them, and their

    reproductive rights denied. To protect their families, they married fighters and to have

    some amount of freedom and income, they joined the Brigade. Despite making these

    compromises, they had fewer rights than foreign women, they couldn’t go for a walk

    without a man at their side, and access to the internet was unheard of. While men were

    being glorified for fighting for ISIS, these women were robbed of their rights, most

    importantly, the right to control their own destiny and have a meaningful life. They

    chose to flee from their home but life has hardly returned to “normal” and likely never


    -Sue Benz

  20. I feel this post did a solid job at covering and explaining women’s roles in modern warfare, where they often viewed as “prizes of conquest.” In a 2013 “Mother Jones” article on the Vietnam War, journalist Nick Turse explains that many Vietnamese rape survivors don’t have the same opportunities to tell their stories as American soldiers do because of racism, sexism and western-centric historical accounts. Turse said, “you’re not likely to encounter the story of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by Americans in ‘the literature.’ And yet the sexual assault of civilians by GIs was far from uncommon, even if you can read thousands of books on the Vietnam War and have little inkling that it ever happened. Hints about the harassment or sexual assault of American women—nurses, enlisted women, and so-called Donut Dollies—also rarely make it into the histories.”

    Military rape is inexcusable, especially towards women civilians in nations that are invaded by US Troops, and it is disgusting that we continue to whitewash the deeds of military men in order to glamorize and promote own interests across the globe.

  21. Well done this was a very interesting piece to read. It was very insightful to see the women’s side of war and membership in ISIS as they are often silenced and not talked about. You really put into perspective how much women in ISIS are objectified and have to almost sell themselves to protect their families, while receiving nothing in return.

  22. I have very much enjoyed following this discussion and was happy to learn that my article in Women and Wars is still seen as helpful. It was written before the rise of ISIS, of course, and I think that the role of gender in the current war(s) in Syria and Iraq deserves much attention. In particular, I am very curious about the motivations of young women who leave the West to join ISIS. If anyone finds some good analysis of this, please share it!

    I am working on issues of the Mediterranean migrations now. The gender aspects have been very much neglected in the media and among those Organizations frantically discussing the policy implications for Europe. But I do find it interesting that the general public ( at least as expressed in social media and in responses to media articles) has lots of opinions! Many people in these media accuse the Syrian refugees who are men of being cowards who should have stayed home to fight for their country (no details on which militia they should join!) or of having “abandoned” their women. Or even go so far as to say that since the early groups were mostly male, that they were not “real” refugees, but we’re economic migrants. Then when the proportion of women and children increased, mothers were accused of being irresponsible for bringing children on dangerous journeys. It has been fascinating to watch how the xenophobic responses have been tinged with gender biases, as well.

  23. I agree that most of the time war is focused primarily on the male figures fighting. No one thinks about the hardships that the women must go through while their husbands are away at war. Not to mention the women who chose to marry an ISIS soldier to keep their family safe. The constant regret and fear these women must live in is almost too hard to contemplate. Using women as objects or a “stepping ladder” to manipulate troops is wrong and clearly a problem in ISIS controlled states. I believe that this article illustrates that problem and how it is one that is worldwide. Its time to do something to change this recurring issue.

    -Friend of Jim Connolly

  24. I agree that woman bear an incredible burden during times of war. I think that conclusion demands that woman be a large part of the solution in the fight against terrorism. Nicholas Kristof wrote, “sometimes a girl with a book is more powerful than a drone in the sky” ( War is gendered, and the way that we prevent war, and respond to groups like ISIS, needs to be similarly gendered. Educating girls needs to be our priority.

  25. I agree with Jamie Davidow that war is gendered and the role of women by ISIS in conquered towns is to be either raped or sold and the woman deemed to old are killed. Cengiz Yar, reporter for Slate,wrote of the retaking of Sinjar by the Kurds in his Nov. 27th article and described the killing men and woman that and those that lived either escaped or were sold.

  26. I really enjoyed reading this and definitely agree with how war is gendered. I used to also think that men were drafted and fighting while women simply stay at home, but in my gender law class this semester, I learned that it’s so far from the truth. My class and I went over the history that women started entering the work force to take over the positions most men had left as well as they had to make some type of income to support their family once men went to war, but when the war was over and men were coming back, they expected women to just leave their jobs and give it back to the men. War just takes advantage of women in such a multitude of ways and with the current issue with ISIS, it just keeps coming back.

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