New wars, old role models

7 Feb 2023

An interview with sociologist Barbara Kuchler about the relationship between men and women in military conflicts

Armed soldier in Kherson, Ukraine

© IMAGO / NurPhoto / Nina Liashonok

What role does gender play in war? This is the theme of a convention hosted by the Chair of Gender Studies, a subset of LMU’s Department of Sociology. In this interview, one of the speakers, Dr. Barbara Kuchler, explains how the relationship between the genders changes in war and how sexual violence serves as a weapon of war.

Dr. Kuchler, when the war started in Ukraine, men were forbidden to leave the country. How does that line up with our modern understanding of gender roles?
When a major war breaks out, we very quickly see a situation in which conventional gender roles are once again accepted more than in other areas of society. At the start of the war in Ukraine, scarcely a voice publicly contended that it was unfair that women were not conscripted! It is conspicuous that this very traditional role split was accepted with relative unanimity on all sides, even among feminists.

How do you explain that from a sociological perspective?

One reason is perhaps the heavy emphasis on physicality in war. You are no longer negotiating, no longer talking, writing documents, adding signatures: You are fighting with weapons. From a political perspective, recourse is made to the bodily mechanics of violence. The physical aspect is so pronounced that, as a rule, taller and heavier men appear to be better suited. On the other hand, physical strength alone often plays a less central role in modern, highly technological warfare than it used to, so this argument does not really hold water. Another explanatory factor that is often cited is the time-honored male culture in the military.

Is it normal for equality to take a back seat in times of crisis?

In times of existential crisis, people do indeed prioritize the importance of other things – making them so important that equality slips further down the list of social priorities. We saw this during the Covid-19 pandemic – for example in relation to splitting housework and childcare activities.

In crisis mode, society may revert to traditional role models that appear safer.

In many countries – such as Israel, the USA and Germany – women are a regular feature of the military landscape. What is the difference to the war in Ukraine?

There are women in combat units there. But the more these units go to the front, the more the proportion of women shrinks, bringing us back to the old pattern that war is a job for men.

In the German army and in the US military, women account for around 20 percent of all soldiers. However, a disproportionately large number of them are deployed in units behind the lines such as medical corps – which is again a classic activity of women, at least as far as nursing care is concerned.

In other words, the structural principle that ‘men belong at the front, women don’t’ is reproduced in the military. It is like that in many areas, not just in military contexts. An inordinate number of women who become judges serve as family judges, for example. And an excessive share of those women who become sociologists and sociology professors focus on women’s issues and family issues. The structure of differential fields of responsibility is reproduced like a hologram within those areas that are open to women. Seen from this angle, this is not peculiar to military settings: It is a general structural phenomenon.

How did, say, the World Wars affect gender relations in the longer term?

Interestingly, the World Wars gave a boost to women’s emancipation despite role splitting while the fighting was in progress. This was because women were needed on what was called the home front. The men were suddenly missing from the factories and workshops, so women had to step in as factory workers, welders and the like.

The argument that ‘women can’t do those things’ was no longer an issue for the time being. Alongside other factors, this was probably one reason why women’s suffrage was introduced in the German Reich and a number of other countries after the end of the First World War, around 1918.

Women in guerilla wars and civil wars

Your talk on “Highlights from the history of warfare and wartime sociology” at the forthcoming convention also explores civil wars. What happens to role splitting in these situations?

War research shows that irregular warfare – such as guerilla wars and civil wars, where non-state groups fight on at least one side – have predominated since the Second World War. In these contexts, war is waged not by governments, but by – and against – members of civil society. Most of the fighters are not in uniform. They strike quickly from hideouts and blend in with the civilian population.

In this kind of war, women sometimes participate openly and proudly in combat groups in the name of equal rights, emancipation and a progressive social order. This was true of the anti-Fascist troops in the Spanish Civil War, for example. The same goes for some Latin American guerilla movements with Socialist ideologies; and it also applies to some Kurdish organizations that have fought in Syria, for example, some of which have women’s units.

From a purely sociological perspective, such rebel movements correspond to some extent to social movements in peace time. Here, we find non-state, grass-roots actors asserting themselves in the context of war. These movements often have something emancipatory about them and are also willing to send women to the front.

Taking the perspective of the victims of war, you have researched how systematic sexual violence in wars is bound up in the architecture of modern society. Can you explain that?

In some recent wars, such as the Yugoslavian war and various African wars, we find the phenomenon of rape as a strategy. The aim of these systematic attacks is to damage the enemy’s entire population, even in the long term – for example where a woman who has been raped is no longer considered as a potential marital partner in certain cultures. This war crime thus harms not only the individual woman but the whole group.

The fact that the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize went to a doctor and human rights activist who fights the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war underscores the magnitude of this phenomenon.

Save the date

The two-day “War and Gender” convention will be held as a Zoom event on 10-11 February 2023 as part of the interdisciplinary “Gendergraphies” lecture series: Vortragsreihe „Gendergraphien“

What are you looking for?