Over on alternet, there’s an article detailing some reader responses to rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexualized threats towards female soldiers and civilians in Iraq, including the case of a woman who’s been jailed because she refuses to subject herself to that treatment:
Rose Aguilar’s July 14 article tells the story of U.S. Army Specialist Suzanne Swift, who alleged that she was propositioned for sex by three sergeants “shortly after arriving for her first tour of duty in [Iraq in] February 2004.”
As Aguilar writes:
When Swift’s unit redeployed to Iraq in January 2006, she refused to go and instead stayed with her mother in Eugene, Ore. She was eventually listed as AWOL, arrested at her mother’s home on June 11, sent to county jail and transferred to Fort Lewis.
A colonel outside of Swift’s chain of command is investigating the case, but Rich says she has been given little information with no time frame. “I believe they’re trying to break her down using fear and intimidation.”
Of course, Swift is not the first — nor the last — alleged victim of military assault. As Aguilar notes, rape and harassment are not infrequent in the armed forces: “Since the fall of 2003, the Miles Foundation has documented 518 cases of sexual assault on women who have served or are serving in Middle Eastern countries.”
Some of the reader responses seemed really familiar, like this one from Bobsays:
As usual, AlterNet readers had lots to say about the matter. Reader Bobsays weighed in: “War itself makes men very aggressive physically and sexually. I think it is this that is putting female soldiers at risk. Unfortunately, much of this was argued by experienced soldiers prior to the mixing of the sexes in units, but it was dismissed as sexism. I don’t think it was sexism: it was an honest account of how the behavior of young men in a war environment, despite the best checks and balances of the military hierarchy, are still difficult to control. Think about it: horny guys with guns, horny guys, who after having a few friends killed and maimed, don’t care a toss about the military hierarchy or what feminists think. It is that brutal on the frontlines…”
The strawfeminist is perched between the lines here. Feminists do not argue that men and women do not respond to each other sexually, or that policy cannot take sexual desires and relationships into account. It is therefore a strawfeminist to argue that it’s “sexist” to point out the fact of male sexual desire and potential sexualized threats towards women. I’m pretty sure the feminists were nodding right along with that one, since it’s a problem in most other coed environments.
The sexist part comes in a little later, where the logical response to “Women in the armed forces will be sexually harassed and assaulted by male soldiers,” is, “Women should not be serving in the armed forces.” It is sexist to expect these women to either put up with harassment and assault by fellow soldiers or stay home. That reasoning places a very low value on the lives, safety, and morale of women, and cements sexism in practice. A male soldier who posed a physical threat to other male soldiers, who was beating the shit out of them when they tried to use the bathroom or the shower, or who repeatedly threatened another soldier’s life, would probably face consequences of some kind, right? At the very least, the soldiers on the receiving end of those threats would have some recourse.
On that note, this idea that brutality cannot be restrained tends to come out only when the brutalized population is expendable, or when protecting them is not an objective but an excuse for dispensing with them. This is what’s happening here. There’s no reason these soldiers cannot be effectively prevented from hurting women.
Bobsays continued: “The military tries to bring some creature comforts from back home to the war zone. So you have people getting into their bathing suits (and women into skimpy bikinis) and dipping in inflatable pools. In fact, the chicks are usually out on the grass sunbathing when they aren’t working. So the guys have a very clear idea of what they look like — and keep in mind these are women who are in top physical condition.”
Either sexual harassment, assault, and rape are violence bleeding through into everyday relationships, or they’re normal male sexual desire plus half-naked chicks. Either they can be controlled by fewer bikinis, or soldiers are brutalizers. Not both.
A second alternet story discussed sexualized threats towards Iraqi civilian women:
In another AlterNet story — published the same day as Rose Aguilar’s piece — Ruth Rosen from Tomdispatch chronicled the “wave of sexual terrorism” currently perpetuated by US soldiers against Iraqi women.
Her starting point was the alleged rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl, perpetrated in March by a group of five American soldiers. The child’s body was set on fire to cover up the crimes, and her father, mother, and sister were also killed.
It’s part of a much larger problem, as author Rosen reminds us:
Still, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has had the effect of humiliating, endangering, and repressing Iraqi women in ways that have not been widely publicized in the mainstream media: As detainees in prisons run by Americans, they have been sexually abused and raped; as civilians, they have been kidnapped, raped, and then sometimes sold for prostitution; and as women — and, in particular, as among the more liberated women in the Arab world — they have increasingly disappeared from public life, many becoming shut-ins in their own homes.
AlterNet readers had varied reactions to the story. Gazooks commented: “In not acknowledging the history of terror and rape that was systemic in Saddam’s Iraq, this piece diminishes the issue because it simply reads like propaganda. How necessary is it to characterize the American military as an organization of rapists dishonoring the Iraqi people and thereby distort and inflame the issue?”
Most of the other readers responded to the idea that we must always mention other people’s crimes to put our own in context. I’m interested in the way he describes institutional support for sex crimes. As I understand it, Rosen is not arguing that all soldiers are rapists, or that the military are rapists. She’s arguing that American soldiers are not being prevented from raping or brutalizing women. This means that brutalization does occur. This means that the soldiers who don’t rape support the soldiers who do by their presence. It also means that these women must look at soldiers as rapists and potential rapists–not merely because they are threatening, but because these women are absolutely vulnerable. She’s also arguing that the American military has failed to protect Iraqi women from other threats, and that its presence legitimizes a social system that endangers and oppresses them. Responding to that with, “…Is it really necessary to call American soldiers rapists?” obscures and trivializes a real problem by misrepresentting Rosen’s argument as propaganda.
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