The Meaning of War Narratives & The Roles Men & Women Play in War

Source: Farhana Qazi
Every week, in my Gender Conflict & Security class at The George Washington University, I introduce new concepts and themes on war narratives and the different roles men and women play in war. It’s a seemingly complex subject because war–and prolonged conflict–is always changing, which means that the women inside them are forced to adapt to new realities. 
The reality of losing a missing person (read loved one); the reality of having to be the primary caretaker when the male guardian is dead or captured; the reality of wartime crimes that afflict women, such as rape; and the reality of being a victim, a victimizer or both in a conflict that forces women to confront their traumas.
In wartime, there are expectations of men to be brave and stoic. But there are also expectations of women to support their men, even if they disagree with their methods and soldier masculinity. I remember the years I spent conducting field research in the valley of Kashmir, where I discovered the brutal truth of conflict–the ways women were traumatized, terrified, and/or trapped between militants, madmen or men within their own families.
Often, women have no choice except to sacrifice, struggle, and hope to survive the tragedies of a forever-conflict such as Kashmir.
Where Are The Women?
In her book, Gender, War, & Conflict, Laura Sjoberg explores the inaccurate and incomplete roles of women in war. She writes: “women have a wide variety of experiences of wars, and that many of those experiences cannot be fully understood without seeing them as gendered.”
By “gendered,” scholars are referring to the social and cultural differences that exist in the two sexes (male or female). For example, members of a particular gender considered as a group have different social interactions, and in wartime, men and women also have different expectations, outcomes, roles, responsibilities, and of course, experiences.
“Scholars looking for gender in wars suggest that war is a continuum – where violence increases and decreases – rather than an event.” (Sjoberg)
In today’s wars and conflicts, women are both victims and victimizers.
For nearly 20 years, I have focused my work on the victimizers: terrorist supporters, sympathizers, and active participants. Why do some Muslim women join violent groups and kill in the name of a cause, country, and creed?
My new book, Invisible Martyrs, is a true story that explores this messy topic and offers hope for the near future. In reality, women are perhaps the most visible actor in any war and conflict. Few take up arms; many turn to peaceful activism and protest. Thus, the answer to the question where are the women is simple: they are everywhere.
Finding women in war and conflicts is easy. It’s understanding women’s unique experiences, which will be different from men’s, that needs to be explored if we are to create a complete picture of women’s multiple roles.