What is the difference… between a war zone and the situation faced by a female student walking across campus to reach her university library after dark? The similarities between the two [are] striking first degree rape. A woman walking across her university campus… faces the prospect of immediate injury or death… Why is only one of these scenarios normally described as a war zone? – Thom Workman (1995, 1-2)
Recently, I asked my wife what it was that made her feel uncomfortable about walking alone from our university campus to our home at night. When I asked, we were returning from a dinner date, and we had been light-heartedly joking about some of the evening’s activities. As soon as I asked the question, however, her demeanor instantly changed from light and playful to heavy and serious; she answered me in a nervous tone. She explained that she always called me for a ride or to walk her home because she did not feel safe walking down the dark, shrub-lined pathways that lead to our home without anyone nearby for protection. I pressed her for more explanation, and she replied that, if she actually were to be attacked, she would have no recourse for protection. She could not expect that anyone would hear or respond to a cry for help in that part of campus, she could not likely outrun an attacker, especially since she is currently pregnant, and she is too small to defend herself physically from a male attacker.
My wife’s responses to my question, and especially the emotions that showed on her face while she talked, opened my eyes to the rawness and truthfulness of the fear that she feels. Men often hear women speak about the difficulties that they face in dark, isolated places, when they are on their own, but it is hard for most men to comprehend exactly why women have those feelings because they are so different from the things that men experience. Her feelings of fear and anxiety give credence to the observations that Thom Workman makes in his paper, “The Hidden Agenda of Mars: Race, Class, and Gender in Contemporary War” (Workman 2005). In his paper, Workman equates the “threat of injury and death, the preoccupation with survival… the forging of special reliances, rising anxiety, [and] stress” that characterize the feelings of men and women trapped in war zones with the feelings that female university students, like my wife, feel when they must walk alone in the dark (Workman 2005, 2). He argues that, since people in both situations have the same negative feelings, the practical difference between the two is, at least in this case, unimportant.
Workman’s larger point, however, is that women are specially exposed to violence in both war and peace because violence is an inherent and fundamental part of the sociocultural practices enshrined in the patriarchal world system (Workman 2005, 5). This feminist perspective on war and violence, as he describes it, is that there is a tendency for patriarchal violence to focus on women because women are largely absent, even invisible, to security planners and to governments in general. This invisibility is rooted in the masculine ideal of security, and it is not an aberration that exists outside of the societal fabric. Rather, it is an integral part of what the leaders, and even the citizens of patriarchal societies understand to be normal and acceptable.
In Carol Cohn’s article, Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals, she takes this idea a bit further. She analyzes the significance of the pervasive sexual metaphors in the language of the defense community, and specifically in the area of nuclear deterrence. In her estimation, the specialized, sexual language of the defense community “both reflects and shapes the nature of the American nuclear strategic project” (Cohn 1987, 690). In other words, it is largely impossible to comprehend the culture and ethos of the defense community in non-sexual terms. Further, Cohn makes the argument that sexual metaphors and sexist language play “a central role in allowing defense intellectuals to think and act as they do,” and that feminists have to carefully choose their words in order to speak to the right audience (Cohn 1987, 690). She feels that the men of the defense community would not be able to comprehend the feminist ideas of security because these ideas are readily expressible in the normal vernacular of the defense industry.
The effect of Cohn’s argument is to strengthen the idea that Workman referred to when he proposed that war, and violence in general, are inherent parts of patriarchal systems. The same language the men use to talk about sex and sexuality in everyday life is applied to discussions about missiles and tactics. Violence and sexuality are inextricably linked in the defense world (Cohn 1987, 692-693), because the defense community, like every other segment of society, is dominated by patriarchy and mostly closed to the meaningful participation of women.
The consequences of the masculinization of the defense community are similar to the consequences of ignoring women in other aspects of society. In development, the outdated policies that excluded women from their calculations resulted in inefficient practices and failed efforts (Man-made Famine 1986). In what amounts to a terrible irony, women are usually the most adversely affected portion of society when development and reform measures fail (Cornwall 2003). Similarly, in the defense establishment, the decisions about when to go to war, what weapons to use, what tactics to follow, and who to identify as the enemy are all made without taking the female perspective into consideration. Women are invisible in defense circles, inasmuch as their perspective is ignored, and their invisibility results in egregious problems like the official policies of some militaries that advocate the use of rape as a weapon (Bumiller 1999, Kristof 1995, Mydans 2001, Sanger 1992, Shapiro 1995, Simons 2001a, 2001b, and Tetreault 1995). It can also result in abysmal security situations that make rape a common and poorly prosecuted crime (Makiya 1993, Polgreen 2005, and Sengupta 2003), and in a warped view of women that equates motherhood and maternal duty with martyrdom and murder (Bennet 2002a, 2002b, and McGirk 2007). Thus, the masculinization of the defense establishment all around the world makes women a special target of violence during times of conflict.
Violence against women in society in general, even during times of peace, is rooted in the same problems that motivate violence against them in times of conflict: patriarchal dominance, sexualized language, and female invisibility. Women are special targets of violence because of their uniquely vulnerable position in society; the structure of most societies ingrains the second class status of women into the male and female psyches from birth to death, and their second class status makes women more likely to become victims of violence, because it renders them the least able to influence society through politics or law.