Column: What war does to women

By Therese Rogers

During the State of the Union address last Wednesday, President Bush introduced Safia Taleb al-Suhail, an Iraqi human-rights activist whose father was killed by Saddam’s secret police, and Janet and Bill Norwood, parents of the late Sgt. Byron Norwood, killed in Iraq.

At this point in Bush’s speech, I forgot about Social Security changes and ridiculous constitutional amendments. I even forgot to continue tallying the number of times Bush used the word “terror” in his speech, a wonder of repetition surpassed only when he used the word “freedom” three times in a single sentence.

When I saw Safia Taleb al-Suhail reach out and embrace Mrs. Norwood, I forgot about the man and I saw the woman.

Throughout history, men have declared war on one another for various reasons. Usually, these reasons result from arguments over who controls or governs a certain area of land (read: our ousting of Saddam’s regime from Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the discord in Northern Ireland between nationalists and the British government). This is how it works: following a dispute over territory, or over who should control a certain area, one male leader declares war against another male leader. Then the two countries or groups gather up their young men, and today, in smaller numbers, their young women, and the two groups fight to the death, which makes an infinite amount of sense.

Meanwhile, the women at home worry ceaselessly about the children they lovingly nourished within their own bodies for nine months and then devoted their lives to raising. They worry too for the lives of family members they fiercely love.

In Bush’s speech, he quoted Mrs. Norwood as saying, “When Byron was home the last time, I said that I wanted to protect him like I had since he was born. He just hugged me and said, ‘You’ve done your job, Mom. Now it’s my turn to protect you.'”

Immediately after hearing Bush’s quote, feelings of empathy for Mrs. Norwood welled up within me. After all, this is all any mother wants – to hold, keep safe and love her children. My sympathy, however, soon turned to anger. How is it that this gets turned around, that our sons begin to think that they must protect us, fight for us the way they fight for their possessions and land?

This sort of psychology produces further hardships for women in times of war. In many cases, men determined to usurp or pillage other men’s terrain see women as male property. So in an attempt to display control over one another’s “territory,” armies kidnap and rape women identifying with the opposing side. In Darfur, for example, a large part of the Sudanese militia and government police campaigns against Africans take the form of attacking, raping and capturing women to use as sex slaves.

I am not trying to diminish the hardships male soldiers experience or the anxiety military fathers feel. It’s just that so often, we laud men for their bravery in times of war and forget that violence represents a primitive and unnecessary solution to conflict. So often, the world can’t see past men, past their methods for resolving problems or past their ideas about protection of their own. We get caught up in the realm of male thought and we fail to see how adversely war affects the half of the population that had little to do with its declaration.

Yet we can no longer ignore the Safia Taleb al-Suhails and the Mrs. Norwoods. We can no longer accept as natural a culture that permits the dominance of male thought and solutions, not when this culture is often violent and painful for women. It’s time to question the way men run the world and then enter the political arena if we realize that we can run it better.

It’s time to vote for women who promise to watch out for other women and for their children. It’s time to give political power to women who will lead with compassion.