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Combat: The Zone of Women’s Liberation?

28 January 2013

Cynthia Enloe, Research Professor at Clark University has written the blog: Combat: The Zone of Women’s Liberation? We are happy to share this blog with you. Comments are as always more than welcome.

Combat: The Zone of Women’s Liberation?

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement that the Pentagon is lifting its ban on American military women in serving in combat is notable in so far as it represents another step in rolling back masculine privilege in a major U.S. public institution.

Picture of PeaceWomen staff and Cynthia Enloe
PeaceWomen recently hosted Cynthia Enloe to speak on the topic, ‘Women and Militarisation: Before During and After Wars‘.

But does allowing women equal opportunity to kill in the name of “national security” amount to genuine liberation?

I don’t think so.

In a country whose popular culture is as profoundly militarized as ours (think Junior ROTC in high schools, think B-22 fly-overs at the opening of the NFL season), it is all too easy to militarize even women’s liberation.

Militarization happens any time that the protection of women’s rights is either justified by appealing to military necessity or measured in terms of women’s participation in war-waging.

Neither those women nor those men deployed in wartime combat should be imagined by the rest of us as “the real heroes” or the “real patriots.” Infantry bunkers and fighter plane cockpits should not be where genuine “first class citizens” are cultivated.

This feminist caveat, though, does not mean that lifting the Pentagon’s artificial ban is insignificant. The military remains one of the most powerful political and cultural institutions in contemporary America. Its influence can be seen in our lopsided federal budget, in our entertainment and sports industries, in our science and technology, in our schools and in our Congress.

An institution this powerful cannot be permitted to sustain its entrenched masculinized culture. This, after all, is the same institutional culture that has rewarded mid-level and senior officers for ignoring American male soldiers’ sexual assaults on their female comrades (as documented in the Oscar-nominated film “The Invisible War”).

Furthermore, the U.S. is not a world leader in ending the male-only combat rule. Canada ended its ban in 1989; the militaries of the Netherlands and Australia have lifted their bans. The U.S. is just playing international catch-up.

Finally, the news coverage given to Panetta’s announcement is misleading. The Defense Secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have not suddenly awoken to the evils of sexism of their own accord. They have been pushed relentlessly. The lifting of the ban is the result of 30 years of women activists’ strategizing and campaigning.

Activists such as Lory Manning and Carolyn Becraft of the Women’s Research and Education Institute, and Nancy Duff Campbell and Holly Hemphill of the National Women’s Law Center, along with energetic members of the Servicewomen’s Action Network deserve the credit for forcing the Pentagon’s hand.

One should never imagine that any major change in any powerful institution happens without the work of determined, smart social movement activists.

Cynthia Enloe is Research Professor at Clark University and the author of Maneuvers: The Militarization of Women’s Lives (2000) and Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War (2010).


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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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