THE unwomanly face of war — to borrow the title of Svetlana Alexievich’s groundbreaking oral history of Russian women who fought in the Second World War — is looking out at us again from the besieged cities and towns of Ukraine.
We’ve been here before, a point made several times in recent days as commentators count back through the long list of hawkish, self-aggrandising men whose big egos unleashed disaster: Napoleon, Hitler, Franco, Stalin, Mussolini, Putin.
Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School in New York, has an interesting insight as the granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the former Soviet Union who caused the Cuban missile crisis when he secretly installed nuclear missiles off the American coast in 1962.
Then US president John F Kennedy resolved that crisis in a matter of days because both leaders were “freaked out” by the prospect of mutual annihilation, she says.
Vladimir Putin does not appear to have any such fears and now, yet again, the world is being upturned by a megalomaniac bent on destruction.
Given that the sun has barely set on International Women’s Day, it’s impossible not to look at the unfolding situation through a gender lens.
In the most general terms, we’ve seen that the men stay to fight while women and children try to evacuate. Having said that, women often do “break the bias” — the theme of yesterday’s celebration — in wartime. Indeed, in times of conflict, women are more likely to take up stereotype-defying roles.
During the Second World War, for instance, 1m women fought in the Russian army — with the Allies — where they took up roles as snipers, anti-aircraft gunners on the frontline, pilots, doctors, nurses, cooks, telephone operators, and drivers.
Svetlana Alexievich, Belarusian journalist and Nobel Prize winner (2015), spoke to hundreds of those women in the late 1970s and 1980s. In her aforementioned book, The Unwomanly Face of War, she describes how many of them, inflamed by the prevailing patriotic zeal, left young children behind or lied about their age to get to the frontline.
When they got there, though, they discovered the brutality rather than the glory of war.
As givers of life, they found killing harder than men, they said, and listed the harrowing details of war; the bloated corpses, the deeply unsettling sound of a dead soldier’s skull crunching under the wheel of a lorry, the deprivation, dirt, and exhaustion. And, of course, the lasting scars.
If there is one sliver of light in the current crisis, it is that we have kept an unblinking gaze on the horror and destruction of war. There is no stupid talk of glory.
It is also heartening to see the Irish population, and authorities, openly embrace those fleeing Putin’s bombs. It contrasts starkly with our shameful record of helping Jews during the Second World War. And indeed, much more recently, with the official response to those fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the open-hearted rush to help the people of Ukraine is genuine and uplifting.
We are left, however, with the Putin problem.
Again, fresh from the buoyant discussions of yesterday’s International Women’s Day, I’m wondering if women ruled the world, would it look any different?
It’s hard to say.
While an overwhelming majority of the world’s dictators are male, there is no shortage of women who ruled with an iron fist. I can’t imagine life would have been easy as a subject of Cleopatra, for instance. Or Catherine de Medici, the powerful 16th-century French queen, come to think of it.
Or indeed Imelda Marcos in the Philippines or Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar or, closer to home, Margaret Thatcher. The latter might have broken the bias by becoming the first female leader of the British Tory Party, but she was a woman who rose to power because she could out-men the men.
But then, it would be ludicrous to suggest that all women are the same, or that they share particular traits. To offer one anecdotal insight: the most ruthless, bullying boss I worked for was a woman while the most caring, diplomatic, sensitive one was a man. Even so, it is seductive to imagine what the world might look like if it was ruled by women — or even more women.
Finland offers a promising peephole into a different world order.
The country made international headlines in 2019 because all the leaders of its five centre-left coalition parties were women. Early studies, post-Covid, suggested that countries led by women had fewer Covid deaths; an indication that female leaders might be more inclined to put public health above public finances. Though that finding is not yet conclusive.
What is conclusive, however, is the profoundly depressing evidence that shows female Finnish leaders are much more likely to be targeted by online trolls than their male counterparts. In January, Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin said she and her fellow young female ministers had been targeted with extensive hate speech commenting on their appearance and their gender.
Rwanda offers a more encouraging picture. Women hold 64% of seats in the lower house of parliament, the highest percentage in the world, though one borne of tragedy.
After the genocide of 1994 — 100 days of slaughter which claimed up to 1m Tutsi and moderate Hutu lives — women made up 70%, or more, of the surviving population. They stepped into the void and introduced policies and laws that brought sweeping reform.
For the first time, women were allowed to open their own bank accounts without permission from their husbands. They were allowed to inherit property and obtain bank loans, to grow coffee and to be financially independent.
Education for girls was prioritised and they were encouraged to ‘break the bias’ by studying subjects usually studied by boys.
In 2018, the Global Gender Gap Report ranked Rwanda among the top five countries for gender equality in the world. It is fitting, then, that the next Women Deliver Conference on global gender equality will take place in the capital, Kigali.
Yet there are still obstacles. If Rwanda is the number one country for women in politics, women still face many challenges in daily life. A former minister of gender and family promotion, Solina Nyirahabimana, said real change would come only by preventing discrimination from being seeded, and instilling gender equality principles in children. She is right. And how instructive to see that the country even has such a ministry.
It took a massacre to change the gender rules in Rwanda. It was a devastating price to pay but, at the very least, something positive emerged from the smouldering ruins of genocide. Who can say what will be left when Putin has done his worst? It’s too early to say, but we can — and should — start talking about a different world order. Just look where the present one has led us.