Now that the legal battle has been won for female soldiers in the army of one of the biggest and most powerful countries in the world to be able to serve their country, even on the front line, does that mean that women have won and gained a new horizon on the equality front of equal opportunities and the freedom of choice?
There is a reason that certain idiomatic expressions exist, expressing universal situations in which at least a part, if not all, of humankind can recognize itself and immediately grasp the meaning. One of these is “barracks humor,” another is “herd mentality.”
It wasn’t very long ago that the images which came to mind when these two expressions were utilized only included female bodies in the role of rape victim, or as the butt of casual jokes — a metalanguage among tough men. A “revolution” was then spoken of, when first individual women and then, bit by bit, entire groups with their physical presence broke through the sexist limits of our society’s founding institutions, including now even the armed forces.
The moment a taboo that has created a symbolism and given power to laws and segregationist views is broken by means of bodily encumbrance, it is clear that an important step has been taken. An important, and therefore dangerous, step: Where once exclusion protected someone from the assumption of responsibility, now inclusion reveals all the possible pitfalls of equality.
In the case of the democratization of the armed forces, for example, when their doors were opened to women, I predicted the danger that then came to pass in the images of the disturbing (though not new to history) dominatrices of Abu Ghraib. Since men had been in charge of even institutionalized violence up to this point, should women now be welcomed into this horrific system, and should this process be known as equal opportunities?
The American writer Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy” talked as follows about the tortures perpetrated by American female soldiers at Abu Ghraib:
“A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib. It was a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice. Rape has repeatedly been an instrument of war and, to some feminists, it was beginning to look as if war was an extension of rape … That strategy and vision [for change within this kind of feminism] rested on the assumption, implicit or stated outright, that women were morally superior to men.”
The images of these women (who were a minority in the torture prisons, but we know much more about them than we do about their colleagues) triggered an enormous emotional response. This emotional response, and the horror at the banal evil the photos invoked, have also revealed how stupidly informal cruelty has become. It is symbolized in shallow young women, children of a lesser god that produces these empty people, in the United States as in the rest of the world, especially in the lowest economic classes, nourished physically with fast food and emotionally with cheap cable TV, who can no longer distinguish between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, life and death, and for that reason go to war as if going to a bar.
The photos struck the imagination of those of us men and women who are sensitive to the increasing loss of compassion and empathy, which is occurring not only in war zones but also in places of apparent peace such as our barracks, where the most vulnerable women (and men) are mobilized.
I don’t believe that any kind of feminism died in Abu Ghraib. The feminism that is chosen to take the floor — not as an oppressed minority which organizes itself around valid but secondary issues, but as a human majority which acknowledges that every problem affects it — is one that motivates millions of women every day to change their lives and those around them, building a peaceful coexistence.
It will be remembered that the women’s movement is quite young, and yet it is giving hope with its nonviolent direct action to a new generation of men and women in the world. This is a world in which it is violent (or mediocre) images that sell — images that remove us from reality’s complexity — rather than those of the patient, hard work that millions of men and women carry out, far from the TV cameras. Brutality exists; it will be documented so that it is never forgotten or minimized, without becoming the be all and end all. The work of justice, peace, compassion and liberation exists as well, it’s the greater part; it will be documented to become history, a common meaning, a collective force, future beauty.
“Between killing and dying there is a third alternative: living,” wrote Christa Wolf in “Cassandra.”
Certainly, given the financial crisis and the paucity of work, many women in the U.S. will apply to join the Army, now that it is an equal career for both sexes. I continue to believe that if it is bad for men to shoot and kill for a living, it is bad and not opportune that women can now do the same.