Equal Opportunity

Women in war: That women were among the abusers at the Abu Ghraib prison may seem shocking. But most experts agree that torture is not a gender issue -- but one of power and circumstance.

May 08, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

SPC Sabrina Harman, 372nd MP Company, stated in her sworn statement regarding incident where a detainee was placed on a box with wires attached to his fingers, toes, and penis, "that her job was to keep detainees awake."

- Article 15-6 Investigation, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba

In her 30-year Army career, retired Gen. Evelyn "Pat" Foote made a point of instructing the young women under her command to avoid the cardinal mistake of "trying to be one of the boys."

"Your job," she instructed them, "is not to go in there and to act like another one of the guys. Your job is to bring your talents as a woman to the table."

No one knows if the American women pictured in the ghastly photos from Abu Ghraib prison were attempting to ape the behaviors of their male counterparts. But, at the least, their leering faces among the perpetrators shatters any notion that women are incapable of exactly the same barbarities in wartime as men.

As horrifying as the images of degradation and brutality, for many, there was the additional and unexpected sting of seeing gleeful, American women involved. Even for those who don't subscribe to the notion that women are inherently more virtuous, the images of the women in the photographs broke with a deep-seated, if idealized sense of female decency.

"The first thing you notice, `Oh my God, that's a woman that's doing this,'" said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain with 30 years experience in the military. "I suppose it's because we think of torture as something that men do, when we see women there, it is emotionally more gripping, more appalling."

Even so, the events at Abu Ghraib only confirmed Manning's long-held conviction that when it comes to morality, for better or worse, women are no different from men. "I never thought that women were any better at resisting the abuse of power than men," said Manning, who studies issues involving women in the military at the Women's Research & Education Institute in Washington. "It's not a sex-linked characteristic."

While some, including conservative columnist Linda Chavez, have already pointed to Abu Ghraib as proof that women do not belong in areas of conflict, many others insist that the wrongdoing cannot be interpreted through gender.

The issues the scandal raises, said Mady Wechsler Segal, a sociologist at the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, may include leadership, troop strength, training, supervision and stress. But, she said emphatically, "I do not see this as a gender issue at all. ... The people who want to make it a gender issue are those who don't want women in the military."

But gender crops up in a variety of other ways in the scandal, whether incidental or otherwise. It hasn't gone unnoticed that the commander of the brigade implicated in the events at Abu Ghraib was a woman, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who has been severely rebuked and relieved of command. For reasons that are unclear, in his investigative report, Gen. Antonio Taguba described Karpinski as "extremely emotional during much of her testimony."

It has also been widely speculated that forcing men in a fundamentalist Muslim culture to parade naked (let alone feign masturbation) in the presence of women was conceived as an especially lethal brand of humiliation.

Logically, no one seriously doubts women are capable of acts of violence and abuse, whether domestic or political. Female murderers are far from unheard of, and the ranks of suicide bombers in Israel have recently included more women. The shock we feel over the women participants at Abu Ghraib, said Amy Kaplan of the University of Pennsylvania, has less to do with an awareness that women are capable of torture, but more with the break from a romanticized imagery of women.

"The idea of the civilizing influence of women is based on a stereotype, a positive one but a stereotype nonetheless," said Kaplan, a professor of English and American studies.

And it is a stereotype we have often incorporated in our imagery during times of war. During World War II, women were often depicted as dutifully maintaining the home front while their men were away fighting on their behalf. "The images were distinct between the civilizing influence of women at the home front and the brutality the men faced in the war," Kaplan said.

Even though women actually served in the military during that war or worked in factories, the warm representations of domesticity, Kaplan said, gave a comforting "narrative coherence" to the war.

Kaplan believes Americans were so compelled by the Jessica Lynch story because it conformed to a traditional view of women - attractive, good-hearted, but ultimately passive and in need of rescue.

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