On the Front Lines: Women and the Military

Images of the first two female rangers to graduate from the Army Ranger school last Friday made front page news over the weekend. The grueling physical challenges conquered by both have been chronicled, as have the reaction of their classmates and senior military officers. By and large, the official and media responses have been positive, lauding the efforts of these two extraordinary women and celebrating the opening up of previously closed off operational military spaces to women.

The take-away from much of the media coverage is that women operating on the military front lines is a new endeavor. However, many of us know that this is, in fact not the case. As Just Security reported here US servicewomen have already served in combat roles for over a decade. Moreover, the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dissolved the clean lines of combat duty versus safe space in the theater of conflict, and placed male and female officers at constant risk of being combat engaged, abducted, or subject to intense military attack. There are few “safe” spaces for men or women in the new wars of recent decades. Many women, whether specifically trained or not to operate in intense frontline combat are de facto operative in active hostilities as war space has become more malleable and less predictable.

Despite the apparent newness of women combatants in traditional militaries, women have been deeply engaged in non-state militias for decades. Studies of women combatants in a variety of conflicts, including the Tamil Tiger combatants in Sri Lanka, the IRA in Northern Ireland, and soldiers in Sierra Leone highlight the empirical reality that women can and do engage in violent acts, and/or may actively support other women and men who carry out such acts in the context of ethno-national conflicts. Women play a range of roles in facilitating violence not only as direct perpetrators — but as bombmakers, lookouts, weapon carriers, and protectors of those who carry out direct physical violence. Women have chosen to be on the front lines of these conflicts despite cultural and social pressure to stay home. For example, it is estimated that female combatants may have composed as much as one-third of the LTTE (the previously most powerful Tamil militant) separatist group in Sri Lanka. Other ethno-nationalist conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Algeria, and Palestine demonstrate similar patterns of women’s active military participation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women have used and exploited local cultural expectations as a means to advance their military roles in these conflicts.

All of this is to say that while we stand back and applaud Shaye Haver and Kristen Griest for making inclusion in the Army Ranger military space a reality, it should be understood that in many parts of the globe and in many other militaries women’s inclusion in all aspects of the military enterprise is now normalized practice. Female combatants on the front lines of armed conflict is the new normal, and the more interesting questions about how militaries change as a result await answer. 

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About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).