nthposition online magazine

Womenandchildren and war

by Revathy Gopal

[ opinion - december 04 ]

From the small everydayness of my life in this city which I know and love so well, from the seemingly safe, steady routines of cooking, cleaning, keeping house for my family, teaching, yoga classes, meeting friends for coffee, lunch, a movie, 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. Danger and horror and terror are really the norm. I have never been caught in a war-zone; in a world torn apart by war in this and the last century, that a woman can grow to middle or old age without being subjected to the savage compulsions of war or revolution is to be fortunate. And statistically one would be in a minority. As a student of history, and 20th century history especially, one has read enough, heard too many stories, and seen enough films to know that everything else pales in significance. One's imagination does the rest.

Women, through no fault of their own, are never involved in the high-level negotiations that may precede a war, or considered even as pawns in the games men play; they become either the spoils of war, or part of the 'collateral damage'. They become trapped in villages, towns, mountainous regions of the world one would have trouble identifying on a map, but that 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 every one of these terrible situations, women pay the price. Women and children. Because where the one is, the other is naturally found. Those particular words have a deep resonance in any language. Womenandchildren, usually strung together when spoken as if it were one word. Whole worlds crash as violence erupts; homes are destroyed, children go missing, women get raped and mutilated and killed, fathers disappear for unfathomable reasons. When reports get written about 'incidents' in a small village in Kashmir or in Bosnia, the facts may include eyeballs being gouged out, tongues torn out, children burnt alive, bayonets thrust into pregnant women's stomachs, grenades stuffed into women's vaginas, rape, rape, rape...

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... Ekhart Tolle, contemporary philosopher and teacher, says, a large part of the history of our species has all the characteristics we would normally associate with a nightmare or an insane hallucination.

War! A single monosyllable like someone spitting, but that packs an impact like 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 adrenaline 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 US army, or in some Central African republic, or in the LTTE (Lankan Tamil Tigers of Eelam, of Sri Lanka), or in the Middle East; we do not consider it unnatural any more 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?" A propos, 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: two beats - right, three beats - left, four beats about turn or backward march. 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 who were at the head of the line. He had no more trouble with the women, they performed perfectly in silence, no more subversive laughter.

In the prolonged Viet Nam war that later spilled over into Cambodia, the Superpowers were in the throes of playing their war games in the region. Henry Kissinger ( then US Secretary of State, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize,) was enraged that America had lost Viet Nam, and began bombing Cambodia. I recall reading a report at the time 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. They have even learned, the report said, to adapt their menstrual flow to their movements. "When they feel the uterus cramp, they just squat so that the blood falls into the earth, which they then cover over with loose mud."

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, 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, in the 'Hindu,' the writer estimates that at least half the members of the LTTE are women, who are often recruited as children. The writer clarifies that 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, a 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!"