Sunday, October 4, 2009

Women in the Military: Changing Standards in Australia and Elsewhere

by Ayse Gursoy

On Thursday, TIME reported that the Defense Science and Technology Organization at Australia’s Wollongong University began examining physical standards for the military. This ongoing process will eventually require all branches of the Australian Defense Force (ADF) — not just the ninety-two percent currently open to women — to accept recruits purely on these physical standards and not on age or gender restrictions. The ADF has, up to now, claimed exemption to Australia’s 1984 Sex Discrimination Act and thus barred women from the remaining eight percent of military roles. Australia’s discussion of the role of women in the military complements similar discussions happening in the United States, especially in the context of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently, only a few nations allow women to serve in active combat roles. Israel, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Denmark, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland all permit women on the front. Some countries prohibit women in active infantry positions, such as the UK and the U.S., while allowing them to serve in support, artillery, or other key roles.

The involvement of women in the military is increasing. 220,000 of the two million soldiers (about eleven percent) who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. Admissions statistics for West Point reveal that seventeen percent of the Class of 2012 is female. According to The New York Times, women comprise only about six percent of the top military ranks. Ann E. Dunwoody became the first female four-star general, the highest rank in the U.S. military, in 2008. On September 22, 2009, Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa L. King was made commandant of the U.S. Army’s drill sergeant school in Fort Jackson. She is the first woman to run one of these schools, and will influence the training of every enlisted soldier. Sergeant Major King has affirmed her commitment to recruiting more qualified women as drill sergeants, and dismissed any suggestions that her success is due to her gender. When she looks in the mirror, she “see[s] a soldier”.

The changing nature of war makes defining “combat roles” extremely difficult. Urban warfare and counterinsurgency, namely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, make every role a combat role. Whether a soldier is on a base, out on patrol, or in a checkpoint, s/he is at constant risk of being targeted by suicide bombers, IEDs, or other insurgents. In such dangerous situations, women have proved to be capable soldiers, and have become an essential part of the military. While the U.S. military currently bars women from entering combat branches and serving in support roles for these units, officers circumvent these restrictions due to necessity. Women can lead some male troops as officers, and these limitations do not apply when women are “attached”, rather than “assigned”, to a combat unit. In Iraq and Afghanistan, cultural norms prevent male soldiers from searching civilian women for weapons. Ironically, this segregation on gender lines made women indispensable to the U.S. military, and the Marine Corps founded units of “lionesses” assigned to this task. The Marines also recently opened two more sets of intelligence jobs to women.

The expansion of women’s roles in the military obviously comes with opposition. An Australian politician and former officer, Stuart Robert, has dismissed the current discussion as “outrageous”. The most common objections cite physical and emotional differences between the sexes, health risks associated with pregnancy and menstruation, male reactions to witnessing female soldiers wounded, and enemy combatants’ fear (or lack thereof) of female soldiers. Many of these objections are themselves products of a male-dominated military; if women had historically served in combat, then these stereotypes preventing women from combat roles would not exist. The question of how to increase women’s involvement in the military is a classic catch-22. The U.S. military’s strict physical standards are gender-blind (but they are dependent on age). Women endure the same basic training as men, meet the same requirements, and are told that they are physically inferior? If a soldier, not a man or a woman, proves physically fit, they deserve the same consideration as any other. Eva Cox, a member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (in Australia), points out that “Being told that you can't do something, that you're not allowed to do something, that you're inadequate in some way to do it, or that you're going to be just so distracting that nobody else is going to be able to do their job properly, I think it undermines the whole way that the culture or organisations work”. Given a chance, women have shown themselves to be capable soldiers. Hopefully the military will recognize this fact.

Image from BL1961's flickr.

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