The media have been fascinated with the thousands of U.S. military women on active duty in the Persian Gulf. “Women Warriors,” a Newsweek cover called them (9/10/90), while People‘s cover story was “Mom Goes to War.”
Women have long been used to whip up public enthusiasm for battle. What makes the Gulf crisis different is that not only are there women victims to be rescued, there are also women soldiers who can be used t demonstrate the superiority of the American way through contrast with their oppressed Arab sisters, and who show that women in fatigues are still mothers underneath.
“If there is an image that defines television’s Gulf Crisis,” wrote Cynthia Enloe in the Village Voice (9/25/90), “it’s a disheveled white woman coming off a 747, an exhausted baby on her soldier.” The focus on female victims had its limits, however: While Filipina refugees piled into crumbling hostels in Jordan, and Bangladeshi women clung to straps for a long ride home in unprotected cargo planes, the most visible “victim” remained the North American or British wife, crying in a relative’s arms, safe thanks to the world’s pressure on Saddam Hussein.
Another role U.S. women played was a civilizing influence amid backward Arab cultures. The cheerful but earnest (usually white) North American, chugging down Evian water under the weight of her heavy pack, was contrasted with the sad object of the Arab female, scurrying across the sand or looking curious in a supermarket, encased in her own little dark room of cloth, no face, no name, no politics.
Little effort was made to get beyond this stereotype. The one attempt by the Washington Post to address the thinking of Arab women in the first month of the crisis (8/24/90) featured a “corps of frenzied fundamentalist women” chanting, “We are among those who drink blood.”
“The presentation of the Arab woman is that she probably doesn’t need to have a name for you to know anything about her,” the Voice‘s Enloe told FAIR Undercurrents (WBAI-New York, 9/21/90). “It makes us incurious about the real thoughts and ideas of Arab women while it’s used to make Western women feel more emancipated than they really are.”
Ironically, many of the gains of military women were immediately sacrificed by U.S. commanders eager to protect the sensitivities of their Saudi Arabian hosts. Dress codes for women make the 120-degree weather even more punishing. Women soldiers are not allowed to drive vehicles outside of military bases, and they need male escorts to make purchases for them at local stores. Rep. Patricia Schroeder asked, “Can you imagine if we black soldiers to South Africa and told them to go along with the apartheid rules?”
Figures released by the Pentagon the same week that Newsweek was crowing about women warriors contradicted the picture of women’s liberation in the U.S. armed forces. Its study reported that two out of every three women in the military experienced sexual harassment, ranging from teasing and jokes to “actual or attempted rape.” That came hot on the heels of the revelation (NOW Times, 9/12/90) of a Navy memo urging commanders to root out lesbian servicewomen regardless of their abilities.
The frequent media presentations of soldiers as moms reinforced a view of women as mothers first and foremost. “The U.S. Armed Forces are 89 percent men, but have you ever seen a war presented as a fathers’ war?” Enloe told FAIR.
Lesbians were not a featured topic for the wife-obsessed media. African-American women, who make up 33 percent of enlisted women, were also underrepresented in press coverage. In the Newsweek cover story, for example, all six “women warriors” photographed were white.
Such exclusions are nothing new, but simply underscore the underlying theme of most stories: Women count–but only certain women, sometimes.