However, permission to participate in the direct “combat” was much slower. The United States only allowed participation in 2013. Even Israeli forces, widely hailed for their gender equality, have been slow to admit women to many positions. Today, full integration is still blocked in many countries by fears that women will feminize war or distract from their male counterparts.
The relatively rare presence of women in combat therefore helps paint a cause as necessary and just.
Just as Kurdish women who oppose ISIS were seen by many as inspiring liberators of their people, Ukrainian women fighters have also been portrayed as advocates for democracy. When Russia entered Ukraine in early 2022, photos of former Miss Ukraine Anastasiia Lenna flooded social media. Armed with a flawless hairstyle and trigger discipline, Anastasiia reportedly “traded in her high heels for combat boots.” Her presence joined other media reports highlighting Ukrainian women drawn to the front lines by love, family and righteous anger. It didn’t matter that Anastasiia didn’t join the fight, or that her weapon was just an airsoft gun.
The idea of her, a beautiful woman drawn to combat, made the battle for Ukraine all the more just.
women’s activism and resistance in the face of oppression can fuel incredible things, including new forms of international feminist solidarity. Some see female soldiers as the front line of political struggles and may argue that praising them advances gender equality.
However, context matters. And the types of stories that we in the United States and beyond tend to tell about female combatants can entrench existing stereotypes about gender, as well as race, religion, class and other identity markers.
Deserved as it is, the glowing media coverage of Kurdish women in Syria has played on Orientalist and anti-Muslim biases by seeming to confirm stereotypes about gender dynamics in the Middle East. Brown women were portrayed as homogenous oppressed victims in need of rescue, while brown men were often viewed as extremist and violent perpetrators of backward and immoral customs and traditions.
This model is nothing new. Ideas of ‘women’s rights’ and ‘gender equality’ have often been used to justify military occupation and invasion. Decades ago, theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explained the overlap of colonialism and women’s rights as “white men saving brown women from brown men.” The quote originally referred to the British colonial government using “oppressed” Indian women to justify imperial violence. But the case is not unique. After 9/11, US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair employed the same logic when they used the liberation of Afghan women as justification for starting a war.
Yet, as sociologist and activist Dilar Dirik and other Kurdish scholars have repeatedly argued, projecting preconceptions about armed women defenders is not the same as investing in their movement.
When women are portrayed as victims in need of rescue by strangers, then women fighting to save themselves become the ultimate act of desperation and heroism.