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Outsiders On The Front Lines

December 2, 2011

Listening to political protest from women soldiers in Israel

Women have a long history of protesting war, but anti-war protest by women who’ve served as soldiers is a relatively new phenomenon. While there’s a growing rate of women serving in western militaries (with some women in combat roles), little is known about how military service shapes the political attitudes of women and connects them with larger antiwar movements.

A new study looks at this from the perspective of 20 Israeli women soldiers who’ve served in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), whose testimonies regarding their military service were published as “Women Breaking the Silence.” (Breaking the Silence is a protest movement founded to oppose the Israeli presence in the OPT; it first appeared in the public arena in 2004 and was composed of men who had completed their compulsory military service in the occupied territories.)

The women’s voices introduce new perspectives into the field of antiwar protest, in Israel and beyond. Lead author Orna Sasson-Levy, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University – Israel, says the research shows that “military service can be a new source for women’s power in politics.” She co-authored the work with professors Yagil Levy and Edna Lomsky-Feder. The paper will be published in the December issue of Gender & Society.

While their experience in the occupied territories gave the women who were studied a new authority to speak out, they are still seen as outsiders within the military. On the one hand, the women are told that they are needed; indeed, only women soldiers may search Palestinian women at checkpoints or handle the Jewish female civilian population. Despite this, during their military service “the women have to cope with hostility, discrimination, exclusion, and silencing” from their male counterparts. The men showed their hostility and distrust to the women through ongoing initiation rites, including challenging them to exhibit more violence toward Palestinians, researchers found.

Caught in this contradictory position, researchers say that the female soldiers who testified about their military service focused their criticism of the occupation on two major themes: criticism of “militarized masculinity” and identification with the suffering of Palestinian civilians. Yet when male soldiers spoke out in protest, the focus of their testimonies wasn’t empathy with Palestinian victims. Rather, the soldiers saw themselves as victims of the occupation rather than as victimizing others.

Tal, a female solider, described the behavior of her male counterparts during house searches. When a deputy company commander came back bragging about how badly troops had “messed up” a house they’d searched, Tal says, “Instead of thinking ‘We are such men,’ in my mind I was thinking about those poor women who are now cleaning up the mess that the soldiers made, and the fear of the children who are at home, seeing their house getting messed up. I mean, things like that happen and then we’re surprised that at the age of 18 they blow themselves up?”

What’s Different?

Like other women in Israel, the women in this study were drafted around the age of 18, for two years. Often, they were the first women in combat companies, or they were the first women to serve in support roles in the OPT.

In the past, women engaged in anti-war protest as mothers — citizens concerned with the next generation, or feminist or human rights agendas. Now, with more and more women engaged in active military campaigns, they can — and are — using “their military service as a source of symbolic capital that can serve to legitimize criticism of the military and its actions.”

As antiwar voices, these narratives are unique. The women don’t challenge the occupation directly, but they do critique the military’s sexism, and portray occupation itself as a masculine phenomenon that shapes both the soldiers’ behavior and the damage they inflict.

This ambivalent military experience for women — serving in combat zones on the one hand, and being perceived as outsiders who have to struggle for their legitimacy on the other — introduces new themes into women’s discourse of protest.

The women who spoke out in Israel criticize the behavior of the soldiers they’ve seen abuse Palestinians, and describe it “as raging, infantile, military machismo.”

The few women who dared raise even the most measured criticism were marked as leftists and informers, were socially ostracized, and had to pass more initiation rites than others to prove their loyalty to the army and the state, researchers say. Other women mentioned the loneliness of service carried out by only a few women among dozens of men in a sexually charged atmosphere brimming with contempt for women, inferior living conditions, and undervalued roles.

Women Soldiers in the U.S. vs. Israel

Just as women in Israel are speaking out, U.S. women returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have also been involved in protest, with some women joining groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War or Veterans for Peace. Despite that, researchers say these experiences of female protest have not been widely studied. And women in the U.S. military have turned to the courts and Congress in their attempts to change the hierarchical structure of the institution. In Israel, the scholars point out, mandatory conscription elicits the voices of women as citizens, rather than as employees.

Israel is also unique in comparison to other countries since it is the only Western country that has had a policy of compulsory conscription for both men and women since the establishment of the state in 1948. While men serve three years in the army, women serve for two years and comprise 34 percent of the regular army.

Historical Perspective

Since the mid- twentieth century women have gained access to combat roles, but not without struggle. Following the shift to professional militaries, and the European Court ruling in 2000 that EU member states must recruit women on an equal basis, there has been a growing rate of women’s participation in western militaries. Outside the EU, women constitute nearly 14 percent of the various branches of the U.S. military, 21 percent of the South African National Defense Forces, and more than 17 percent of the Canadian military.

Historically, motherhood is the most often used reason to legitimize women’s social struggles. Some of the major examples are the Women’s Peace Party established during World War I (known today as the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom) and Women Strike for Peace, which acted first against nuclear armament and later against the Vietnam War. Both groups used maternal politics as an antidote to a male-dominated, militarist culture that privileges the experience of war.

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