“I wouldn’t have thought that women would have been able to cope with the demands of war. I wouldn’t have thought that the men would have been able to regard them not as women but as fellow soldiers, or that the women would have been happy to live and work in those sort of conditions. Back when I left the Army in 1979, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. Now, it’s pretty obvious I was wrong.”
Former Warrant Officer Sergeant Major Daniel Lee pauses after making this statement. But today, despite over 70% of positions being open to them, women still make up less than 8% of British soldiers.
Although the past decade has witnessed dramatic advancements in the army’s facilitation of women, the issue of women at war remains a contentious one, and the challenges faced by these women are numerous.
Just 18 years ago, women were excluded from the regular army. Females could join the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) to provide administrative support, but were barred from all combat roles. Mandy* left the Army in 1992 just before the WRAC was disbanded and women were integrated into the regular army. When asked why, she simply said: “I just got sick and tired of being nominated to wash the cups, serve drinks at the Colonels’ tête-à-têtes and the expectation of being the evening entertainment (yes, that does mean what you think it does) and then suffering because I refused all the time. Until there are workable routes for reporting minor sexual harassment or prejudice while serving, the Army will never be the career choice for intelligent women.”
Yet since 1992 the Army has made increased efforts to include women. Lance-Corporal Laura Hosty, 21, a soldier in the Royal Corps of Signals, is based at the York Barracks. I ask her whether, 18 years later, Mandy’s comments still apply. “I do get ‘you’re a female, you can sweep that up’ from the lads I work with,” says Hosty, “but not from the higher ranks. And it’s more banter than anything with the guys.
“On the sexual harassment side, I’ve never seen anything like that. Even when I was out in Afghanistan; I felt absolutely fine. I didn’t feel outnumbered in any way or threatened by anybody while I was there.”
Corporal Holly Percival, 24, of the Army Medical Corps states that: “There’s a lot of testosterone around and although [the men] miss the female attention, I don’t think they come looking to us for it. They see the girls here as their girls.”
But in spite of Hosty and Percival’s comments, a recent report has shown that 67% of UK servicewomen say they have been subjected to offensive sexualised behaviour from male colleagues, while 12.7% have been sexually assaulted.
One female soldier in the US Army, Marti Ribeiro, who served in the 10th Mountain Division until 2006, has described being raped by a fellow soldier while on guard duty in Afghanistan. After reporting the attack, Ribeiro was told that if she filed a claim she would be charged with dereliction of duty for leaving her weapon unattended. After leaving the army she said: “I had dreams of becoming an officer one day, like my father and grandfather … Unfortunately, because I’m female, those dreams will not come true.”
By reporting her attack, Ribeiro puts herself in a tiny minority. Only 5% of female soldiers report sexual assaults. However, the reaction Ribeiro received after reporting her assault is not uncommon. 39% of women who did report said they had experienced negative consequences as a result. As one Gulf War journalist put it: for women “attaining equality may carry a terrible price”.
Although Hosty is hugely positive about her experience as a female soldier, she admits that the current channels to report such cases of assault and harassment are insufficient and the consequences of filing such a report would not be positive.
One of the key issues preventing women reporting such cases of sexual assault is that the senior officer will inevitably be male. “That’s a difficult thing to talk about at the best of times,” she says, “but because there aren’t that many females at a higher rank you could speak to, you’d have to be comfortable enough to go and speak to a guy about it.”
The certainty that you would be taken seriously is also essential. “A lot of people,” Hosty continues, “can take it as an ‘ah don’t be silly, you’ll be fine’ sort of thing.”
The risk of sexual assault does not only come from the enemy within, so to speak. A female soldier taken prisoner by the enemy faces an infinitely greater chance of being raped than her male counterpart. For this reason among others, women are currently barred from serving in ‘frontline’ positions where the main aim is to ‘close with and kill the enemy’, and the chance of becoming a POW remains constantly real. Logical as this may sound, the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have carved out a new type of warfare in which there is no ‘frontline’.
The capture and rape of Private First Class Jessica Lynch (a driver in the US Army’s Quartermasters Corps) in Iraq in 2003 provides a very real example of the dangers women face serving in modern warfare.
But if a woman is fully aware of these additional risks, she must surely be given the prerogative to decide whether or not to take them. The game of war is riddled with risks and dangers; while the risk of rape may be an added danger for women, denying women the choice to choose whether or not to take such a risk could be seen as denying her a very basic right.
As long as women are not equal to men in performing this symbol of duty, they have not yet obtained true equality
Since Hosty joined the Army at the age of 16, she has been on two tours of duty. She is due to leave for Afghanistan for a third tour next week. During wartime, a soldier can expect to be deployed roughly every two years. According to Hosty, this kind of volatile career does not bode well for those who wish to start a family.
The vast majority of the women she works with have left the Army after having children. She said: “I’ve known a couple of girls who were pregnant in York [barracks] and they had the same reasons [for leaving].” One of the women Hosty knew “wanted to stay in the army but felt like ‘I’m going to have to leave because they’re going to send me to Afghanistan and I don’t want to leave my child behind.’”
Before 1990, women were automatically discharged from the Army as soon as they became pregnant – whether they desired it or not.
Although the Army has now accepted a woman’s right to continue serving after having children, the public disdain displayed towards female soldiers with children proves that this acceptance that runs only skin deep.
In 2007 the female Naval Officer, Leading Seaman Faye Turney was captured along with 15 colleagues in Iranian waters. The Daily Mirror commentator Paul Routledge was not alone in voicing the opinion that: “Britain cannot be so short of military personnel that such women [young mothers] should be permitted – nay encouraged – to go gadding around the world’s most dangerous and volatile waters.”
Extensive arguments surround the question of whether or not women, specifically young mothers, should be “permitted” to serve in the armed forces. But questions of social equality and moral responsibility are not the forte of a functioning modern Army. As Gerald Frost, Director of the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies, says: “War is not an equal opportunities activity.”
Former Sergeant Major Lee states: “When you join the army you know that if you become incapacitated in any way and unable to carry on the role you’ve signed on for, you get invalided out. If a woman has a child and it reduces her ability to be an operational servicewoman, she should be discharged. She can’t fulfil her obligations.”
The armed forces require highly trained, operationally competent soldiers. Some argue that whether it be a man or a woman, their position as a mother, a father, a son or a daughter is irrelevant until this personal circumstance affects their military competence. It is possible that the focus on gender is counter-productive.
As society evolves and the issue of child-rearing is spread more equally between the sexes, perhaps it will not automatically be the military career of the woman which suffers after a couple have children. This may allow women to rise up through the army and increase in number.
“A woman,” Lee states, “is either a soldier or she’s not, and her soldiering comes first before her family. It has to, doesn’t it? You must be a soldier first and foremost, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.”
Recent research conducted by the Israeli Army into the effectiveness of women as frontline troops has found that while childless women were “just as good or better than men”, women who had children were “significantly less effective because they were much more reluctant to kill people”.
Indeed, Lee claims that “most women haven’t got the aggressive temperament that men have – particularly those in the armed services. They just don’t have the aggressive tendency.”
This fits in with the 2002 MOD report which claimed women had a ‘reduced capacity for aggression’.
When I suggest to Hosty that this may be the case, she laughs aloud. “Some perhaps,” she says, “but some females can be more manly than other men! There are girls I know are much tougher than some of the guys.”
Lee’s next comment can be easily juxtaposed to research conducted by Kehoe into how societal conceptions of masculinity affect women in the British Army. Lee states that women are “far more suited to looking and nurturing after children rather than doing the aggressive war-like operations that men instinctively do because of their masculinity.”
Kehoe’s research shows that since birth women have been taught to be timid, conservative and conscientious. They have been given dolls to play with while the boys have been given trucks and guns and taught to be aggressive, ruthless and violent. Even if a boy and a girl do not behave in this way, watching how the other members of their sex play and behave will define the perimetres of their conduct.
Indeed, further research has shown that while women may initially be hesitant with their aggression, the longer they are exposed to the aggressive behaviour of their male colleagues, the more their own levels of aggression increase. This cements Kehoe’s idea that the behaviour of those around you directly influences your own behaviour.
Another problem is the comparative physical weakness of female soldiers compared to male soldiers. A recent MOD report found that only 1% of female soldiers can match the average male soldier for strength and fitness. Women must exert themselves 25-30% more than men to achieve the same output; this along with their smaller size and lower bone density, predisposes them to a higher incidence of stress fractures and general injury.
As Hosty says: “We’re not built the same as the guys and they’re still chucking exactly the same weights on our backs as the guys on their backs. I got a knee injury when I was in basic training from using all the weights and stuff.”
Although women have more time to complete their runs and have to do less sit ups and press ups than men in their physical tests, they must still carry the same weight kit as men.
In 2002, the European Court of Justice ruled that member states could “derogate from the principle of equal treatment [between men and women] in the interests of combat effectiveness”. This ruling has allowed the army to continue its policy of banning women from all ‘frontline’ units.
However, if a woman can attain the level of physical fitness required to serve on the frontline and is completely aware of the risk of sexual assault faced by female POWs, there seems to be little reason why she shouldn’t. As one male Infantry soldier puts it: “If they [the female soldiers] are carrying the same weight as us, in the same heat, they get in the same contacts … I don’t see any problems with it at all. I think it’s good they can get out here, do the job and not be stereotyped.”
Speaking of a female Artillery soldier out on foot patrol with an Infantry unit, a male Officer said: “As long as everyone I give the kit to can carry the kit; she’s trained on the weapons system she’s got and she’s expected to fight alongside everyone else.”
Even if a woman overcomes these challenges, one concern remains that is entirely out of her hands. According to the MOD, when women are in their Unit, men will prioritise the well being of the woman over their mission.
Hosty says, “my dad’s in the infantry … and [he said that] if a female is injured on the front line, the male is more likely to stay back and help that female, which wouldn’t be the case if a male got injured on the front line. It wouldn’t affect them as badly to see a male injured as it would a female injured.”
There are numerous facets to the challenges faced by female soldiers today. Physical strength, social responsibilities and sexual assault are not to be taken lightly, but if a woman wishes to serve in the armed forces, it is arguable that she should not be prevented by the cruel chance of gender. The armed forces presents one of the last frontiers for gender equality.
As former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion infamously said: “The Army is the supreme symbol of duty, and as long as women are not equal to men in performing this duty, they have not yet obtained true equality.” During the invasion of Iraq in 2001, Cynthia Mosley, a commander in the US Army, stated: “When the action starts, every soldier does what they’ve been trained to do – nobody cares whether you’re male or female. It’s just: can you do the job?”
*Names have been changed.
Photos: Ministry of Defence. All Crown Copyright, Chris Barker, Graeme Main, Cpl Chris Hargreaves