Where are women in war?

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 5 Easter 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

Where are the women in the war?

Jo Read

The global news media has come under significant criticism during the past month of war for
their coverage of the war on Iraq [or, as ITV would put it, ‘War on Saddam’]. We were all
astounded at how close the world of infotainment brought us to the war, particularly when
Channel 5 showed us the dead bodies of POWs in the first week, and to be fair, we expected
them to report with relish the evil of Saddam and the virtue of ‘Our boys’. To a large
extent, people choose what kind of news you want to watch. ‘Newsnight’, ‘Breakfast with
Frost’ and ‘Radio 4’ were always the likely choices for the high-brow war viewer. Those of us
who watch the constant recycled coverage can only expect to find fault with what is preached
to us. But we could count on at least a dignified amount of political correctness – couldn’t

For the first week of war-watching, we saw nothing but angry Iraqi’s, fearless anglo-American
soldiers, and crisply ironed-oxford shirts on crisply bleached war correspondents. We heard
about the tragedy, the evil, the horror of the Iraqi’s abuse of their own people and the
deaths of women and children, the injury of women and children, and the poverty inflicted on
women and children. This portrayal of women as voice-less, face-less victims of war was
predictable, and, as always, infuriating. Nevertheless, in the early days, we heard the news
from female correspondents on at least three of the news networks, and much of the focus was
on the infrastructure of Saddam’s regime, rather than the liberating quest of troops to free
women from their suffering. Which, sadly, is all we hear of today.

Once past the two week mark, it appears that war gets serious, and with this
seriousness, all attempts at some margin of political correctness go out of the
window. Ground-breaking footage of Saddam’s palace comes from men. Interviews with armed
teenage militants, comes from men. Raids with American troops under siege from Iraqi
militants show one of the hundreds of thirty-something white men, ducking for cover under army
trucks, shouting out their reports in earnest as we hear the crackles of shells exploding
around them. Women have no place in war so far as the news media are concerned. Whether it
isn’t getting a good public response, whether all the women are at home looking after the
children they dared to give birth to [apparently showing that they never really cared about
their careers anyway], or because women are just too damned fragile. Once the going gets
tough, the women get going.

Furthermore, the sisters suffering from war are not faceless. They will be the ones to care
and to nurse. Without compensation and without acknowledgement, women have a huge role to
play in war, and always have, whether they support the state’s cause or not. Why are these
women any different? Because they wear hejab? If all the news reports can say about half the
population that live in Iraq is that they are ‘oppressed’ by their men, their leader, by
Islam, then they are not worth giving out attention to. We cannot ignore oppression in the
world, in the same way that we must not ignore discrimination wherever it exists. As citizens
of the global community, we cannot practice cultural relativism. But what cannot and must not
be done, is the abuse of legitimate arguments concerning the position of women by a mass media
that does not care to report either correctly or sensitively. We saw the exact same situation
as Bush attacked Afghanistan, hijacking a decades work of womens’ groups and the international
feminist movement. Let there be positive engagement in legitimate discussions that do not
pretend to map out the next stage in the history of Iraq, or lets call it a day and stay tuned
to Channel 5.



Email us at gender-agenda@cusu.cam.ac.uk