The Invisibility of Gender in War

By Vojdik, Valorie K. | Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Invisibility of Gender in War


Vojdik, Valorie K., Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy


Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, the United States launched a "war on terrorism" against the Taliban and al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. (1) To help justify its military offensive, the White House initiated a campaign to condemn the oppression of Afghan women at the hands of the Taliban, a repressive regime that enforced a brutal form of gender apartheid against women that human rights organizations and feminists had decried for years. (2) As images of Afghan women covered in blue burqas flooded the national media, however, the Pentagon continued to enforce its own form of gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia, requiring female military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia to comply with traditional Muslim gender norms. (3) The regulations prohibited female military personnel from leaving their base off-duty unless they wore an abaya, the traditional head-to-toe black robe required of Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, (4) and unless they were accompanied by a male. (5) The military also prohibited female personnel from driving vehicles off-base, requiring that they ride in the backseats of cars driven by men. (6)

The abaya regulations raise critical questions about the nature and meaning of gender in the United States military--a masculine institution historically hostile to the presence of women. The regulations on their face treat female military personnel differently than male personnel. But the regulations are not merely "double standards" that violate the principle of formal equality. As this essay argues, the regulations are better understood as an institutional practice that construct and regulate the boundaries of gender in the military. A symbolic form of gender apartheid, the regulations construct female military personnel as women rather than warriors, separate from and different than their male comrades. Stripped of their uniforms and hidden under the abaya, female officers are not "real" warriors, but merely women, subordinate and inferior. Ironically, the abaya simultaneously erases the female body while highlighting its gender. The regulations thus construct and reinforce the identity of the institution as masculine and male, illustrating the powerful, yet often invisible, ways in which the military continues to police the boundaries of gender to exclude women.

The abaya regulations became widely publicized in December 2001, when Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally filed suit against the Secretary of Defense challenging the regulations, which apply to eight hundred American women, as violating her rights to religious freedom and equal protection. (7) One of the first female fighter pilots in the Air Force, McSally was the first woman to fly combat sorties over Iraq in the mid-1990s. (8) She has served as a flight commander and has trained combat pilots deployed in Kosovo and South Korea. (9) When she reported for duty in Saudi Arabia, however, she was told to put on an abaya over her flak jacket. (10) Riding to the air force base in the back seat of a car, McSally felt invisible. "I cannot explain to you how humiliating it is to wear that thing," she said later. (11)

The military argued that its regulations help protect American women from harassment in this fundamentalist state, where religious officials are empowered to physically punish women who appear in public in violation of Muslim dress codes. (12) Saudi Arabia, however, does not require non-Muslim women to wear the abaya. (13) The State Department does not require its employees in Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya, either on or off duty. (14) McSally responds, "If we were called into South Africa during apartheid, would we put our African-American soldiers in separate quarters?" (15) The abaya regulations undermine the authority of females like McSally, encouraging male service members to disrespect female officers and peers. (16) Her lawyer explains:

   Two 18-year-old privates leave the base. … 

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