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Women And War: Acclimatised To Violence

By Revathy Gopal

The Hindu
18 May, 2003

From the small things of my life, from the seemingly safe, steady routines of cooking, cleaning, keeping house for my family, teaching, yoga classes, meeting friends, waiting for buses and trains, I receive subliminal messages from the millions of women not so fortunate. Everyday routine is not granted to everyone. To be safe and to know that tomorrow too will be safe is no longer a given. I have never been caught in a war-zone; in a world torn apart by war in this and the last century, a woman growing to middle or old age without being subjected to the savage compulsions of war or revolution is fortunate. And statistically one would be in a minority. Women, for no fault of their own, are never involved in the high-level negotiations that may precede a war, or even considered pawns in the games men play; they become either the spoils of war, or part of the "collateral damage". They are trapped in villages, towns and mountainous regions that one would have trouble identifying on a map, but which make headlines every day, because of civil war, armies going berserk, atrocities committed by terrorists or the military, invasion by a greedy superpower or neighbour and, of course, revolutions. And in these terrible situations, women pay the price. Women and children. Women and children, usually strung together when spoken as if it were one word. Whole worlds crash as violence erupts; homes are destroyed, children go missing, women are raped, mutilated and killed, fathers disappear for unfathomable reasons. Perhaps the most telling leitmotif of the last century is of a lost child crying or a woman sitting traumatised, her face blank, as fires rage in the background. Or the long lines of the feeble and old, women carrying small children and whatever else they could salvage straggling up a hillside... . Eckhart Tolle, contemporary philosopher and teacher, says that a large part of our history has all the characteristics we would normally associate with a nightmare or an insane hallucination.

War! A single monosyllable like someone spitting, but it packs the impact of a jackboot descending. In German too, "der krieg" is like a harsh expletive, in French, "la guerre" is almost melodic, even romantic, but in whatever language, the word, the idea of being at war, does strange things to men; however much they may deplore the need to go to war, reasons are always found to justify, to excuse, to glorify war. There is the charge of adrenalin and hate, the demonisation of the enemy begins early in the game, war games start as part of training, great reserves of animal courage are called upon, young men flex their muscled bodies and mentally and physically prepare to kill the other, the enemy.

But the insanity does not end there. The human race has now become quite acclimatised to, almost blasé about, the sight of women in uniform whether they are guerrilla fighters or insurgents or as regular army personnel, whether in the U.S. army, or in some Central African republic, or in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or in West Asia; we do not consider it unnatural anymore that women have become warriors, that they too, in the name of equal rights/opportunities, have become accustomed to the act of killing, maiming, hurling grenades at the enemy, setting landmines... .

Helene Cixous the famous French radical feminist writer and teacher, asks the simple question, "What is woman for man?" And, she quotes from a Chinese manual of strategy, a handbook for the warrior, written by the general Sun Tse. Asked to train the king's 180 wives, Sun Tse formed the women into two lines each headed by the king's two favourite wives, then asked them to listen to the language of the drumbeat.But the more he repeated the order, the more the women fell about laughing, chattering and laughing. Sun Tse decided that since they were so disobedient, he would condemn them to death. But the king objected to losing all his 180 wives; so Sun Tse, as an example, beheaded the two favourites at the head of the line. He had no more trouble with the women; they performed perfectly in silence, no more subversive laughter.

During the prolonged Vietnam war that later spilled over into Cambodia, I recall reading a report of the effects of what was happening on Cambodian society. The jungles were filled with young men and women insurgents trying to outwit the enemy. The report spoke with great seriousness of the value of women as soldiers, warriors. Their bodies are supple, they can melt into the background with greater ease; they can pass as peasants by carrying water, or a baby, or firewood, and carry messages with greater ease. A woman is her body, in a way that a man can never be. From the time she is a young girl entering puberty, her body adapts itself to lunar cycles, to the natural processes of preparing to give birth, to nurture and to protect. This same body, as a consequence of the politics and ideologies of the day, is trained to the unnatural processes of existence in the harshest of terrains, to develop the ferocity of men who attack and who are attacked, to become immunised to pain, to begin to think and act like men. Women who would, in normal times, be the storehouses of family history, cultural lore, religious traditions, teachers of songs, tellers of stories, keepers of social custom, become instead the destroyers of all that is human and decent about the human race.

In a recent article on women's cadres within the LTTE, it was estimated that at least half the members of the LTTE are women, often recruited as children. The LTTE is one of the few rebel groups that uses women not just as human bombs but as frontline troops fighting against a conventional army. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, questions the militarisation of women, pointing out that it flies in the face of the humanism, non-violence, and the "celebration of life over death" that characterise the women's movement all over the world.

But, perhaps, this is the savage rejoinder of men to women seeking equality and empowerment, seeking a mutuality of understanding: "You want to be equal? Come become Us!"