It’s far too early to say how Operation Odyssey Dawn will go down in history. But whether humanitarian triumph or interventionist debacle, the conflict in Libya has provided two prominent and conflicting images of women’s role in contemporary warfare. On the one side is the instrumental parts played by Secretary of State Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Samantha Power, a National Security Council senior aide, in urging President Obama to take military action. In doing so, they brushed aside the concerns of Defense Secretary Gates and a cadre of male advisors, garnered international support and overrode the President’s earlier skepticism. This was a radically modern way to flex female political muscle — Thatcherian vigor underscored by a vocal commitment to humanitarianism.
But the other female face of the Libyan struggle represents a much more ancient and brutal current. The story of Iman al-Obeidi, who burst into the journalist-filled Rixos Hotel last Saturday to recount her rape by Qaddafi’s forces, illustrates not only the savagery of the dictator’s legions but also the shocking persistence of misogynist atrocities in the modern world. For those who haven’t seen the footage of her heroic testimony and swift recapture by government goons, it’s well worth watching — the tug-of-war between the journalists trying to help her and the agents trying to silence her may become the seminal image of the civilian tragedy in Libya.
History provides us with numerous examples of female military leaders. Historians celebrate the inspiring valor of Boudicca and Jeanne d’Arc; Muslim tradition records, with a sort of disgusted respect, that Hind bint ‘Utbah ate the liver of her foe after the Battle of ‘Uhud. But besides exceptions like these, the relationship between women and war has overwhelmingly been one of unrelenting, and often unrecorded, victimization. The rape and pillage that accompanied nearly any contact between a hostile army and a civilian population is a cruelly unequal dyad — all were pillaged, but one half of the population was overwhelmingly more likely to suffer rape, often prolonged into the nightmare of sexual slavery. Lest the heinous record of 20th century war rape — perpetrated by Axis and Allies, colonizers and colonized, governments and rebels alike — be forgot, Iman al-Obeidi’s story deserves all the publicity it has received, and more.
Of course, the 20th century has provided yet another paradigm for women in war: as soldiers under universal conscription or voluntary service in nearly every modern army, though all but a handful of nations still exclude women from active infantry duty. But despite the numerous successes of female soldiers, even in those countries with unusually high rates of female military employment — including the U.S. and Australia — women make up no more than 15 percent of the armed forces. War remains an overwhelmingly male occupation.
Does any amount of agency that powerful women take in war mitigate the disproportionate toll that war takes on civilian women? I use “powerful” here only in the raw and political sense, the ability to mobilize money and manpower (excuse the expression) against injustice. Iman al-Obeidi, a post-graduate law student, may well have been on her way to wielding such influence. But caught up in the reprisals of Qaddafi’s forces, she has become a modern Lucretia, her rape galvanizing the moral outrage of the Libyan rebels and their supporters. “My honor was violated by them,” she said, referring to her attackers. The implication was clear — the moral burden now lay upon the rest of the world, who had seen her scars and heard her screams, to avenge her honor upon the tyrant. Since the Trojan War, men have gone to war to seek retribution for wrongs visited upon their women; since the Trojan War, many more women have suffered in the wake of this vengeance.
War spares no one, regardless of gender. And yet, as we ponder re-admitting ROTC to our campus, and as we analyze the decisive role taken by the women of the Obama administration in involving our nation in yet another Middle Eastern struggle, we would do well to remember the grim link between conflict and rape. Does female wartime leadership represent an important reclamation of martial activity from male domination? Or collusion in a millennia-long crime spree against other women? Given the humanitarian objectives of our Libyan intervention, we must not celebrate Secretary of State Clinton’s war if that means forgetting Iman al-Obeidi’s, and the age-old atrocity to which she gives a face. In the lobby of the Rixos Hotel, a challenge was issued. It is up to us, our leaders, and our armed forces to answer it.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Fridays.