The website of peacewomen.org states “when women are at the negotiating table, peace is more likely.” Women face the loss of home, rearing children in war-torn surroundings and, far too often, rape, as a byproduct of war, so they have a great stake in ensuring peace. Yet, ironically, in Urdu, the words for war and army are feminine, and the word for peace is masculine.
While war has been predominantly the domain of men, throughout history, there are examples of women who took to the battlefield — some disguised as men, some as groups of women fighters, and a few led forces into battle.
Many are familiar with Boudicca, who led a rebellion in 60 AD against the Romans in Britain, and the 17-year-old Joan of Arc who fought with French troops to defeat the English in 1429. Lady Fu Hao was considered the most powerful military leader of China in 1200 BC. Alexander the Great’s half-sister, Cynane fought alongside her brother. The Vietnamese venerate, Lady Triu, who fought against Chinese invaders in the third century.
Then there was Tarenorerer, who led indigenous people against British colonists in Tasmania in the 19th century. Tomoe Gozen (12th century) and Nakano Takeko (19th century) were well-known Japanese female Samurai. The Greek legend of the Amazons grew out of the fierce nomadic Scythian women warriors renowned for their horseback archery.
In the 7th century, Khawlah bint al-Azwar fought alongside Khalid Bin Walid, and Ghazala the Kharijite, was a commander in battle. Nusaybah Bint Ka’ab fought in many of the early Muslim battles and became known as the protector of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) at the Battle of Uhud. Even the Wahabis were led by a woman, Ghaliyya al-Wahhabiyya, at the Battle of Turaba in 1814.
Lalla Fatma N’Soumer was one of many women who fought the French for the independence of Algeria. Laila Khalid was a key member of the Palestinian liberation movement. The fearless women warriors of Eritrea are renowned. Kurdish women fighters, led by commanders such as Azeema, turned the tide against ISIS in the recent Syrian war.
In the 19th century, many women led attacks against the British colonisers in South Asia, including Hazrat Mahal and the Rani of Jhansi and Queen Kittur Chennamma. Malalai of Maiwand, namesake of Malala Yusufzai, became a national hero of Afghanistan for her role in the Battle of Maiwand in 1860.
In the 14th century, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq employed 500 Turkish female archers and 500 Habiwash Abyssinian swordswomen as bodyguards. In the 1980s, Moammar Gaddafi of Libya also appointed female bodyguards, including his favourite, Ayesha, who died protecting him during an ambush.
Soviet women fought in WWII, Chinese women were an integral part of the Long March and women were active members of the French Resistance. However, the majority of women in modern-day armed forces have non-combat roles.
The first female combat pilot in the world was the Turkish Sabiha Gökçen in the 1930s. In 2006, the first women fighter pilots joined the Pakistan Air Force. British women first became eligible to pilot combat aircraft in 1989. It wasn’t till 2016 that Canada and the USA allowed women in close combat and Britain in 2018.
So, what happened to that tradition of women warriors? How did the image of a woman wielding a rolling pin supplant the archer or swordswoman? War as a necessity was replaced by war as a strategy or as a career option. Women mostly went to war to defend their people from aggressors or in retaliation for the martyrdom of loved ones. It is not that different from a mother in the animal kingdom protecting her offspring from, sometimes very large, predators. After the emergence of the nation state, with formal armies to protect its borders, there was no need to train women in martial arts for self-protection. Hence, very rapidly, women became “the weaker sex.”
Some would argue this positioning is part of the gender wars. One example cited is the designing of restrictive clothing for women. The tight corsets and awkward hooped dresses of 19th century Europe and later, the pencil-cut dresses and stiletto heels, made free movement impossible. Many states in USA legislated against women wearing trousers well into the 1950s.
Upper class women suffer the most. They must appear to be women of leisure, with skin unblemished by the sun, demure, sit side-saddle, and not venture too far from home. In both World Wars, women who managed factories, transport and built military equipment, with the exception of a few, quietly put on their aprons and went back to the kitchen when their men came back.
Probably the most insidious method of reducing the worth of women is the endless sharing of marriage jokes. Humour is an effective way of creating inequality or rank-reduction, whether of race, gender or disability. “It’s just a joke” is the usual response to offended women who face 364 days of demeaning jokes and one day of eulogy on Women’s Day.
The writer is an artist based in Karachi.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 25th, 2021