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Why South Africa’s GI Janes have to tough it out and conform to masculine norms

The South African military, like many others around the world, has opened up all positions to women, including combat roles. This remains a contentious issue. Women generally lack the physical strength and endurance to serve in these roles.

Though these debates continue, there is a wider development here: the recognition that a more “people-centric” approach to security is needed, given the effect of war on noncombatants — mostly women and children.

As military organisations become less oriented towards violence, the traditional warrior culture of the military has to be balanced against a more conciliatory approach towards security, especially when it comes to protecting people.

On this basis there have been calls to increase the number of women in peacekeeping operations because they are better at interacting with local populations, helping local women to build capacity and access services, improving community relations, reducing the incidence of sexual and gender-based violence and breaking down traditional views that marginalise women.

South Africa is seemingly an exemplary case for integrating women into the military. Just under a quarter of its full-time forces (24%) are women. An estimated 15% are deployed on peacekeeping missions. But even though there is acceptance that women may serve in the military, they still meet hurdles based on gender differences.

Although women are afforded equal rights, they are still obliged to conform to existing physical training standards, which are based on seemingly rational gender-neutral arguments. Women are under huge pressure to meet these standards.

They are typically not judged as “equals”, and even when they do meet these standards they are generally perceived as less able than men.

This perception seems not to have changed despite the increased number of women in the military. When women are sent to combat branches such as the infantry, it is to fill gender quotas rather than being selected for their physical abilities.

Masculinity is embodied in every layer of the military. Tensions in managing gender integration arise in recognising the differences between men and women and having to accommodate alternative values. Research shows that women need not only to meet the physical standards to be accepted as equals, but also to assimilate the masculine values embedded in military culture.

Women typically need to suppress feminine traits such as being compassionate, sensitive and conciliatory. Such attributes are not valued or promoted in the military. They run counter to masculine traits in military culture such as dominance and toughness. Such militarised masculinities are deeply embedded in an organisation whose raison d’être is combat.

Hence, many women shape their gender identities according to the masculine image of the combat soldier. They mimic the bodily and discursive practices of men. This runs counter to the ideals of initiatives to “mainstream” gender issues and the calls for more women in the military based on the contribution they can make.

Even if their contribution is recognised, it is typically not valued equally by men and women. Yet research on the South African National Defence Force shows that women regard their role in peacekeeping operations far more highly than men do.

Beyond issues of physical capability and cultural aspects, there are perceptions of sexuality and patriarchy embodied in the structures, cultures and practices of the military. These often result in women’s authority being undermined and their leadership capabilities being questioned.

Women face different degrees of sexual harassment. Such incidents are usually underreported for fear of the antagonism they may evoke, as well as the effect they may have on women’s careers.

What research in South Africa and elsewhere has shown is that militarised masculinities remain embodied in military culture. Few military women are prepared to adopt an assertive feminist stance to bring about a military culture that is more appreciative of gender differences.

This is unfortunate, because military missions that entail protecting people require all the soldiers involved to possess a combination of both positive femininities (compassion) and masculinities (aggression). This cannot be achieved in a space in which femininity is undervalued and suppressed. Military women need to trouble gender relations and adopt a more militant feminist stance to bring about this change.

Lindy Heinecken is a lecturer in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Stellenbosch University. Read the full version of this article at

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