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Iraq and Afghanistan: Women in Combat and the U.S. Defense Policy


The current defense U.S. defense policy still restricts the role of women in the military. Although women can participate in several non-combat facets of the military, their role in especially hand-to-hand combat is almost non-existent. Apparently, the widely-held position is that women aren’t suited for such military action. The situation raises differing issues, especially in the face of growing evidence that women can cope with most of the rigors of the combat field. And since the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been an increased effort to integrate more women into Iraqi’s reconstruction plans. All this is happening against the backdrop of Iraqi’s conservative society and increasing activism from religious bodies (Pina, 2006).

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Modifications in the defense policy

Admittedly, the U.S. defense policy has undergone several major modifications that relate to the role of women. In 1992, the Defense Authorization Act underwent a revision that allowed the inclusion of women pilots in the Navy and Air force. The following year, a bill was signed that further extended the participation of women in the combatant ships. In 1994, women were further allowed to serve in ground combat positions alongside their male colleagues. All coast guard positions also became open to women (Paul, 2005). Clearly, the scope for women’s participation in the military is increasing steadily. Areas still to be opened up to their participation include submarine warfare, infantry, nuclear weapon security, and field artillery. Projections show that even for such remaining fields, it’s only a matter of time (Barbara).

Women in the military

Women’s role in the military is gradually increasing. By July 2007, a total of 167,000 hours had been clocked by women in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This figure is about four times what was registered in the first Gulf war. All this is happening despite the fact that the U.S. policies bar them from taking part in “open-combatant” positions. A feasible reason for this is that frontlines are vague concepts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hence it is that much harder to discriminate against women on such grounds. Women now drive the trucks and Humvees in the battlegrounds; serve as escorts for convoys, and even pilot helicopters. A huge fraction of the military medics are now comprised of women. And in all these roles, the threat of attack remains very real. Overall, above 80% of all military positions are open to women.

In this age of open-mindedness and knowledge, a question arises: why are there still areas where women can not fully participate? The issue is not as straightforward as first appearances may show. In fact, groups still in support of this discrimination field logical reasons. The discrimination, ideally, is not gender-based. It is the result of tests and research done for many years in the military fields. On average, women are generally lighter, smaller, and slower than their male counterparts (Jenna, 2008). Moreover, the average aerobic capabilities of a woman between 20 and 30 years compared with that of a 50-year-old man. In a hand to hand combat, these very attributes would put the women at a distinct disadvantage. In the war zone, bullets and artillery would not discriminate between a man and a woman. Being slower or weaker hence can be disastrous. The policymakers have to take this into account when creating benchmarks for entrance into the military by both males and females. Lowering the bench for anybody ultimately would have everybody losing (Jenna, 2008).

In light of the observed gray areas when it comes to the role of women on the battlefield, policymakers are faced with the task of making a policy that is gender-neutral while simultaneously fostering only the highest standards of performance. In particular, the policies should lack generalities. Every case that applies to the military should be handled on an individual-merit base, not gender or any other kind of background. This is because some women have shown stamina higher than even their male counterparts in the field. Barring such obviously capable women from participating in their chosen fields wouldn’t be fair. But at the same time, the policies can not bend over backward to accommodate a vast majority of women into a field that clearly has them at a disadvantage. It is a tight rope walk hence, and the social-cultural backdrops only make the rope thinner (Jenna, 2008).

Discrimination against women

In Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the restricting policies imposed on them, women are increasingly becoming prominent in the national roles. For example, in 2005, women leaders captured 31% of the National Assembly seats (Pina, 2006). In the conservative Iraqi culture, this success may be short-lived, unless national policies are changed to incorporate and appreciate more women participation. A case in point here occurred in Afghanistan in April 2007. A military medic called Monica Brown fearlessly braved gunfire in Eastern Afghanistan as she runs to aid her fellow wounded soldiers. For this remarkable feat, she was awarded a silver star by the vice president, Cheney. However, a few days later, Monica Brown was pulled from the military on grounds of being a woman and thus in direct conflict with Afghan policies regarding that issue (Ann, 2008). President George Bush further settled the matter with his January 2008 declaration that there could be no women combatants.

Monica’s was a typical case scenario of the diminutive roles that women combatants face in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the conservative culture, women soldiers are sometimes required to accomplish the sensitive roles of searching female natives and treating them. Yet at the same time, this vital role is more or less blanked out from the national scope, as the active policies clearly advise against it. This distinct conflict has made the policies, made in 1992, to be considered vague and ill-fitting to the current situation on the battlefield. They were linearly crafted, and can not accommodate the modern complexities in the field. A revision of the rules is evidently required.

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Other factors come into play within Iraq and Afghanistan. Their primary religion, Islam, has several clauses that clearly relegate the role of women to domestic affairs. The Sharia from the Taliban groupings, in particular, has laws that suppress women. And while these laws have persisted down the ages to the present, they clearly have to be revised if the role of women in society is to increase. In this respect, the U.S. government is making attempts at corroborating with the religious leaders within Iraq and Afghanistan and see whether a compromise can be reached. It is a long-term affair, and unpredictable in the outcome since the issues at hand are deeply entrenched into the conservative cultures of both countries. The conservative nature of these cultures makes such wide-impact changes hard to implement. Islam has had a uniquely violent history, and the present calm situation has been born out of deliberately avoiding volatile issues. If Iraq and Afghanistan open up to policy makeover by the U.S., these issues could come back to the frontline, with any manner of undesirable consequences. It is this possibility that makes negotiations between the parties to be such a sensitive, pain-staking affair (Isobel, 2006).

The mainstay of the argument against female combatants is actually off-field. Though the physical demands of the combat field are deemed taxing, it is the likelihood of other risks that make policymakers so wary of women combatants. For example, during the gulf war with Iraq, two female American soldiers were taken captive by the Iraqis. One of them was sexually abused. The incident only served to increase skepticism about how suited women are to the battlefield horrors. Other prominent off-field issues include the esprit de corps argument. This refers to the binding of the combatants- the feeling of oneness so vital for success on the battlefield. The argument is that presence of women amongst the soldiers may hamper this binding, and ultimately prove disastrous. Of course, there is no physical way of proving such a theory. But it’s obvious that in order for the binding to happen, everybody needs to be treated equally. Gender differences only make this equal treatment harder to implement (Jake, 1996).

Shortcomings in the U.S. defense policy

The U.S. defense policy also may contribute a bit to retrogression of the progress made by women in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the largely secular government is now showing clear signs of returning back to a fundamentally Islamic-run state. In Southern Iraq, the Shi’ites are profoundly driving the general society towards this Islamic state. The danger in this is that the prevailing Islamic notions still discriminate against women in most affairs. For example, public leadership positions are generally the preserve of men within Islam. But still, even in the face of all this, Islamic women are showing various initiatives to get over this suppressive background. Since April 2003, various civic and human rights organizations have been set up. Some of these organizations have been set up and run by women. It’s a clear indication of the rising spirit of activism by women in Iraq. If the trend continues, women may come to have their various grievances suitably addressed (Hodgkin, 2003).

Even with the evolving awareness about gender-based issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, some people are not yet convinced that the US initiatives will bear the desired fruits. There is a rising clamor about the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan women don’t have the right to vote, drive, have an official job, or run for public office. These rights exist in Iraq. Yet America treats both countries almost alike. It’s a clear indication of America’s indifference to the significance of these variations. In fact, some people are arguing that Iraqi women’s liberties may lessen under U.S’s influence. The U.S.’s impact on the Iraqi and Afghanistan leadership seems biased towards America’s own interests. Presently, the only significant civic function receiving appreciable American support is the emphasis on girl rights. This support, though noble, is only a small fraction of the wider issues needing urgent attention in Iraq and Afghanistan, however (Gretchen, 2003).

Perceptions from various parties are terming some moves by the U.S. as unfortunate goofs. In December 2003, for example, the Iraqi Family Law was overruled by Resolution 137 – the U.S. appointed Iraq Governing Council. This Resolution gave Islamic rule the power to preside over domestic matters like marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The implications of such a power takeover caused a public uproar from Iraqi’s women-led civic groups. Ultimately, the Islamic Governing Council had to cancel this resolution. It was just as well since even then, women were severely under-represented in the judicial structure of the country. The upheavals of the transition phase after Saddam’s capture would have set back progress made by women by several decades. Since then, the Islamic Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority have strived to work together to avoid such missteps (Pina, 2006).

Iraq versus Afghanistan

As matters stand, Iraqi women are now enjoying more liberties than their Afghanistan counterparts. Comments by the likes of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari seem to support this. The prime minister at one point said that the idea of a female Prime Minister or even President was now feasible (Pina, 2006). And the advances being made in this respect seem to be in support of even more liberties for women. Afghanistan clearly has a lot to catch up on. It may be that the sovereign influence that Islam holds over there may have to be lessened. But even with the obvious attempts at leveling the gender playfield in Iraq, there are no guarantees that every gender-based discrimination will be eradicated. This is especially so because the country’s Assembly is still Shi’i dominated, and Shi’ites’ connection with Islam is a reality. As already stated, a huge fraction of Islam’s legal codes are viewed as suppressing women. With so many members of the Assembly still from the Islamic background, Iraqi women may have to do with “cosmetic” rights as extended from the Assembly. Such cosmetic rights used to exist during Saddam’s rule. They basically were theories without a practical backup.


Overall, women in Iraq have made major strides towards liberating themselves. This has happened despite the restrictive environs they have to contend with. In the military, this liberation has been especially conspicuous. Female combatants have had to deal with all the social-cultural odds heaped against them. They also have had to deal with an indirectly suppressing set of rules from the U.S. Department of defense. Through all these barriers, some Iraqi women have managed to excel in their various military areas, sometimes even surpassing their male counterparts. Though such extraordinary feats are rare in Afghanistan, the women there have also started to agitate for a level playfield. Clearly, it is but a matter of time before somebody starts paying heed to their needs. The achievements of Iraqi women challenge the prevailing policy from the U.S. defense department. At the very least, it’s now obvious that the policy needs serious reworking to stay relevant.

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  1. Ann Scott Tyson (2008): Woman gains silver star- And removal from combat. Washington Post, 2008.
  2. Barbara, Captain A. Wilson (2005): Women in combat. Web.
  3. Elizabeth Hodgkin (2003): Women in Iraq: women rights are in danger.
  4. Gretchen Cook (2003): Role of Women in New Iraq of Concern.
  5. Isabel Coleman (2006): Women, Islam and the new Iraq.
  6. Jake Wilkens (1996): Women in the military: combat roles considered.
  7. Paul J. Bolt, Damon V. Coletta, Collins G. Shackelford (2005): America defense policy. JHU Press. Pg 54-57

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 27). Iraq and Afghanistan: Women in Combat and the U.S. Defense Policy.

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"Iraq and Afghanistan: Women in Combat and the U.S. Defense Policy." StudyCorgi, 27 Oct. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Iraq and Afghanistan: Women in Combat and the U.S. Defense Policy." October 27, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Iraq and Afghanistan: Women in Combat and the U.S. Defense Policy." October 27, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Iraq and Afghanistan: Women in Combat and the U.S. Defense Policy." October 27, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Iraq and Afghanistan: Women in Combat and the U.S. Defense Policy'. 27 October.

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