As the war crimes at Abu Ghraib continue to come to light (for those of you who don’t know, the short version is this: photos have been published of six American soliders, male and female, torturing Iraqi prisoners) I’ve seen more than a few comments along these lines, from Bitch Has Word:
Or this one from the comments at Billmon:
I have to admit that I’ve been surprised every time I’ve encountered this sentiment, and yet I’ve also been not surprised at all.
I think comments like these come about because of one of two ideas: the idea that women don’t do this sort of thing, and the idea that women should be less inclinded to do this kind of thing because it is so often done to them. Both of these views are pervasive in our society, particularly the first; torture and war are supposed to be the domain of men, while women are supposed to be too weak-willed for, too empathic for, or just better than that sort of thing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Women can be every bit as nasty and brutish as men; evil is hardly the sole domain of a single gender. Women turned Jews over to the Nazis; women owned and beat, or had beaten, slaves; women have been spies, traitors, murders, and thieves. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that, when put in a situation where there was, apparently, an implicit or explicit order to extract information from people through whatever means possible that women should become torturers just as men do. There’s no real reason to believe that they wouldn’t. As BHW pointed out in her post, “I guess the mob mentality kicked in for her, too.”
One thing that seems particularly surprising to some is the sexual nature of the torture and humilitation, particularly that a woman would engage in torture and humiliation of a sexual nature. Women may be more often threatened by and victims of sexual assault and violence, but this hardly means that they are immune to commiting such acts themselves when placed in a position where they have absolute authority. In much the same way that children who have been abused can grow up to be parents who abuse their children, the sons and daughters of alcoholics can become alcoholics themselves, and even the friends who stab their friends in the back despite having had this done to them — in much the same way as these things can happen, so too can women become the perpetrators of sexual assault when placed in the just right (really, just wrong) position of being able to commit them.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that it is a good thing that women are (slowly) being allowed to join the armed forces in (slowly) whatever way they see fit, but at the same time I think that we are all going to have to (unfortunately) become used to seeing situations like this one. We appropriately bristle at the suggestion that one should be surprised when a woman performs an act or heroism, bravery, or strength; why should we be so surprised then when a woman performs or participates in an atrocity?
(BHW link via Feministe.)
Update: Just to be clear on something: I’m not saying or meaning to suggest that torture, or even war, is an okay thing and that we should just get used to women participating in it. On the contrary, we should be shocked and appalled that any person of either sex thinks that this is ever an appropriate way to treat any other human being.
[Edited to include something I meant to include when I first wrote it.]