If you think of the word warrior, do you imagine a samouraï, the last of the Mohicans, a Viking? Or do you think of Xena, the warrior princess, Katniss Everdeen, or the Amazons?
In popular culture, warriors fight for honour, glory, and bounty. They showcase their power and strength on the battlefield by wreaking havoc, protecting their own, killing their enemies, looting, and well, sometimes mutilating the bodies of the defeated. Warriors are understood as strong, powerful, brave, bloodthirsty, and fearless, which are commonly seen as masculine characteristics. Yes, many imagine a man twirling his axe when thinking about a warrior rather than a woman.
And yet, there are countless examples of women warriors fighting for their rights, protections, and against women’s exploitation. Take the Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang) in India for instance, a group of powerful women empowering themselves, fighting gender-based and sexual violence, and protecting the powerless in some of India’s poorest and most patriarchal regions. First, they seek remedies through dialogues, rallies, or hunger strikes before wielding their sticks. However, it seems almost ironic that in one of India’s most sexist regions, women are obliged to show masculine traits and aggressiveness to fight against the patriarchy. On the flip side, the characteristics of masculinity, strength, and aggressiveness typically ascribed to warriors also trivialise or invisibilise women warriors in certain instances. Let’s zoom in on three examples to demonstrate what some might call a bold statement.
Our first story takes us back to Antiquity and the infamous myth of the Amazons (women warriors in Ancient Greece). They drank, smoked pot, marked their bodies with tattoos, rode horses whilst firing their bow, fought, and died alongside men. Pretty cool right? Well, legends also claimed that they cut off their breasts to fire their bow better, practiced sex-selective killings (killing boy children), hated men, were delinquent mothers, or lesbians. In reality, Amazons are believed to be part of the nomadic tribes, the Scythians, roaming the steppes of Eurasia alongside men, contributing to defence, war efforts, and hunting. It appears they lived in a relatively (gender) equal society for the times so how did we go from there to believing that they are nothing but matriarchal societies of man-hating/killing women?
Well, the assumption was that Amazon communities had to be women only. Since it had to be women only, stories stating that they would kill, maim, or abandon young boys started to emerge. Another explanation was that they would send their boys back to their fathers, thus failing their duties as mothers in the eyes of many. Here again, there is a perfectly logical explanation behind the demeaning myth. Back then, nomadic people used to practice fosterage, which meant sending their boys to another tribe where they would be raised to strengthen political relationships between the two tribes. Through these misunderstandings and erroneous myths, the true fiery Amazon spirit and the equality they enjoyed oftentimes remains hidden or is suppressed.
Fast forward to the Viking era, the second story begs the question of whether shieldmaidens fought alongside men. Until recently, women Viking warriors were depicted as mere folk tales and other legends. However, in 2017, the analysis of Birka, a skeleton, which had been excavated in the 1870s and interpreted to be male since buried with weapons, proved to be female and well, the archaeological world lost it. The now disproved interpretation uncovered a double-standard and gendered assumptions in the way vestiges from the past are to be interpreted, especially ones relating to warfare. Here, the Birka burial offers a compelling counterpoint to the common assumption of Vikings counting only men in their armies, potentially suggesting a far more complex picture.
We are now in present times, in Kurdistan more precisely with the third story, the one of the Peshmerga warriors who fought against ISIS. Their story is one of war as a catalyst for social change where participating in the war efforts increased their agency, improved their equality in society, and allowed them to both escape and challenge patriarchal expectations on women’s roles within Kurdish societies. So far, so good right? Yet, many women soldiers still face prejudices, biases, and pressure to prove their worth as fearless warriors on the battlefield even more so than men. Even more damaging, Western depictions of these Kurdish women in news and media outlets actually infantilised them (“girls with guns”) or stereotypically focussed on their beauty (“the Kurdish Angelina Jolie”), thus devaluing their emancipatory struggles and their actual experiences of combat. Do you see the paradox here, the entire point of these warriors is to fight against sexism and emancipate themselves, and the only thing Western journalists thought interesting to do is to objectify them and reduce their agency.
So now, what do you say? Does the gender identity of a warrior matter? Or simply the fact that warriors fight and die for causes, he/she/they believe are just?