One could be forgiven for thinking, based on media portrayals of ongoing conflicts around the globe, that warfare is a man’s game. Women’s involvement in violent political movements, militant groups and even state militaries, is rarely the center of attention.
Historically, there is reason for this. The minority of combatants in most militaries are female. Although women make up 14.5 percent of the U.S. military’s active-duty forces, slightly over two percent of military deaths in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were women. Most non-state military actors likewise field only token female battalions, if that. There is even some evidence that, female fighters aside, feminist ideologies on their own are more likely to correlate with the choice to limit political mobilization to nonviolent tactics rather than to bring women into battle.
And yet there may be reason to believe that this is changing. Major ongoing armed conflicts today – in Ukraine and in the conflict against ISIS/Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – have seen increasing participation by women, in ways both substantive and symbolic.
To systematically analyze how women’s participation affects conflict dynamics, one of us (Jessica Trisko Darden) is leading a team compiling the Women in Combat Roles (WICR) dataset, which measures women’s combat participation in both national militaries and armed nonstate actors. Data on the extent of women’s combat participation, and its expansion and diffusion over time, will enable us to better understand how the integration of female combatants affects the morale, readiness and capabilities of armed forces and by extension the conduct of international and civil wars.
The scope of women’s participation in conflict certainly varies from place to place. In Ukraine, women’s participation has thus far carried mostly symbolic weight. Women were the public face of the EuroMaidan movement, featured in popular magazines and YouTube videos with over 8 million views. Although between 41 percent and 47 percent of participants in Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Maidan protests were female, anthropologist Sarah D. Phillips argues that women’s contributions were marginalized and their actions limited to those associated with the domestic sphere: cooking, cleaning and administering services. Women were also excluded from the more dangerous and violent protest activities, ostensibly “for their own protection.”
As events in Ukraine progressed from political protests to outright military conflict, women increasingly took on active roles. Just last week, the Ukrainian military announced that women between the ages of 20 and 50 would be mobilized to join the fight against rebels in the country’s east. Though there are significant exemptions, including those with dependent children and full-time university students, conscription reflects an expansion of women’s involvement in the conflict. The women being called up to serve as medics and in the areas of communications and logistics are part of a wave of mobilization in early 2015 seeking to integrate 60,000 Ukrainians in support of their national military, whose size had fallen considerably in the years before the current conflict.
Rather than simply indicating a manpower shortage, the current utilization of women on both sides of the Ukraine conflict in logistical support, as medics, as spokespersons and as combatants, echoes women’s specialized roles in earlier conflicts over the future of Ukraine. In the 1920s, when parts of what is now Ukraine were under Polish rule, Ukrainian women participated in terrorist activities against Polish targets. During World War II, women took on essential support roles in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya, UPA), which fought the Soviet Union from 1943 until the early 1950s. According to research conducted by Olena Petrenko, women in the UPA were on average more educated than their male peers, and although women primarily provided medical support, they also acted as ancillary fighters, messengers and intelligence operatives. The involvement of women has traditionally had symbolic value as a sign of the whole nation’s commitment to supporting the idea of a Ukrainian state.
The wars in Syria and Iraq have also increasingly involved female combatants in ways both symbolic and concrete. The most significant participation by female fighters is within the Kurdish forces. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist militant group that has battled the Turkish state on and off since the late 1970s, has recruited women since its inception. Women make up about 40 percent of its armed force and serve alongside men in mixed units as commanders, as well as foot soldiers. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has close links to the PKK, likewise includes female fighters, including the all-female Women’s Protection Units. Together, PYD and PKK fighters have participated in fighting against ISIS in northern Syria, most significantly in the rescue of Yazidi Kurds stranded on Mount Sinjar. The defense of the Kurdish town of Kobani near the Turkish border in northern Syria was led by PYD forces; one of its commanders was PYD co-chair Asya Abdullah. Among the Iraqi Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, female fighters have an established presence. The 2nd Battalion, 6th Brigade is composed entirely of women, 600 in total. While this is a smaller proportion than among the Turkish Kurdish forces, there is some evidence that their numbers are growing as anger at ISIS’s assaults on women inspires some to enlist.
The women fighting with the PKK and PYD are not window-dressing or mascots; they are soldiers. But, as in Ukraine, the role of women in the conflict in Syria does have symbolic overtones, as well. Media coverage of female fighters attacking ISIS’s positions highlighted the significant differences regarding the perceived role of women between ISIS and its adversaries. Nor has this dynamic been limited to the Kurdish forces. The United Arab Emirates made much of the fact that one of its pilots who flew raids against ISIS targets in Syria was Air Force Maj. Mariam al Mansouri. A recent video released by the Jordanian military celebrating Jordanian air strikes in retaliation for the murder of Lt. Muath Kasasbeh features female mechanics in military uniform working alongside their male colleagues and writing messages condemning ISIS on the sides of planes.
One implication of our comparison of the ongoing civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine is that variation in women’s participation in military operations may not follow the stereotypes we hold about gender roles across different societies. Research by Jessica Trisko Darden and Izabela Steflja has demonstrated that the support roles women take up in combat zones challenge our traditional categorization of them as civilians. The increasingly blurred line between combat and support roles in national militaries also poses a challenge for understanding the impact of female combatants on conflict dynamics.
More broadly, our analysis suggests that scholars and policymakers should be attentive to the participation of women in both conventional and asymmetric armed conflicts. The collection of data is still ongoing, but analyses of past involvement of female combatants may equip us with the information needed to understand what the mobilization of women as fighters signals about a conflict, and how it influences the outcome, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.