Friday, October 23, 2015

The Girls of War: 1914 and 2014

The work of Dr. Laura Sjoberg focuses on gender and just war theory. She is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida, where she uses gender-based and feminist approaches to the study of international security. In this week's WAPPP Seminar, she discussed the ways that war narratives can help perpetuate and fuel war, highlighting the crucial role of the depiction of women and girls in the process.

War narratives are stories of wars told to citizens. They are important because “stories we tell of wars is a part of what makes them possible”, Dr. Sjoberg argues. According to her, narratives about war form the foundation for people to be motivated to fight, both at individual level, but also at the national level. How does this happen?
Dr. Sjoberg argues that narratives about war are part of what makes them happen
There is a model of the ideal soldier. It is conveyed through a narrative. This soldier fights in the war bravely, but his motivation for being there is not the enjoyment of violence or the thrill of war, rather, this soldier is fighting 'the good fight'. He is a 'Just Warrior'. This is often translated into fighting that is necessary to 'save' the women and children back home from a foreign evil that encroaches upon them. She illustrated this idea by referring to a Nazi slogan that exclaimed: "Don't Let the Red Beast Rape Our Women!".
The 'Just Warrior' must enlist to protect the
'Beautiful Soul' from the 'Mad Brute'

While clarifying that she is not making a claim that women do not engage in combat or that men are not civilians, she said that her research is arguing that war narratives are gendered. They frame women very seldom not as women but as girls, but more importantly, as a 'Beautiful Soul'. This soul is pure and innocent. This soul must be protected by the 'Just Warrior'.

Dr. Sjoberg uses the images of war to convey how these narratives circulate among us and reach our consciousness. During the First World War, the U.S. military alone produced more than 300 images for recruitment posters, as did other countries. The images portray the different ways in which the 'Beautiful Soul' participated in the war effort. In some instances, the woman is shown helpless; in others, she is shaming the man into participating in a war in which he would have been otherwise reticent to participate. Finally, there was the image of the woman as threat: “Pure innocent women are the things you should fight for, women who don’t meet that mold are the things you should fight against.” The posters depicting the latter showed women who could be carriers of venereal disease. 'Loose' women were the foreign women present in the country where the fighting was happening. They were unlike the women back home, they were not to be protected, quite the opposite, the soldier had to protect himself from them.

Women encouraging men into the fight
How are the women of the 1914 war similar or different from the women of war in 2014? Dr. Sjoberrg chose to concentrate on the abduction of 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram and the imagery created around that horrifying event to make the comparison.

Posters made by Nigerians call for a stop in this kind of incidents, pointing out that this was not the first instance of abduction, and in fact, it had happened multiple times. This case caught the eye of the public because it fit this narrative of helpless and innocent girls being taken to be enslaved and violated. The 'Just Warrior' should bring them back.

The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, according to Sjoberg, can depict the beautiful sentiment of kinship among human kind by calling the girls 'ours', but at the same time, she argues, it carries the possessive claims with colonialist undertones. "The intent is beautiful, the effect is violent", she said.

Carefully clarifying that she did not have enough evidence to claim this with confidence, she shared that she sensed that the shift in the narrative revolving around the girls, from being innocent school girls to potential threats in the news pieces that claimed that Boko Haram could use them as suicide bombers, developed as a result of the painful realization that they would not be saved. The policy claim to protection does not equal actual protection for women in wars, she explained, "women are by definition being protected, in reality, it isn't being offered." She reminded the audience that domestic violence tends to rise in countries that are engaged in war. In this way, the State has a "claim to fame" as a protector of the innocent, but within its borders, the protection is amiss. In the end, the girls are still missing, no matter how viral the hashtag became. "Armchair activism is a really big problem in something like this".

The session ended with Dr. Sjoberg's prediction about the changing nature of the U.S. armed forces with increasing presence of women in combat. “Putting women in structures... does not change the institution”, she notes. Equality is much more than that.

Dr. Sjoberg is the author of several books and academic publications on international relations, gender, and law. Follow her research to learn more.

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