Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

War on Women

Women in wartime have to deal with stereotyped media portrayals, panelists warn. Talk about oppression.

“I spent my life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless, but not men.” —The Godfather

Ukrainian men are on the front lines. So are Ukrainian women. You haven’t heard as much about the latter, however, not because they are the exception to the rule, argued journalist Xanthe Sharff in a recent article and on a Monday Foreign Policy panel, but because of sexism.

Apparently, the impact of war is worse on women than men. How do we know? Because on top of all the other tragedies of war—death, starvation, estrangement—women also have to deal with underrepresentation of women and the media’s stereotyped portrayal of women’s issues during wartime.

Talk about oppression. Sharff and her fellow panelist Roya Rahmani, Afghan ambassador to the United States before the Taliban returned to power last summer, argued that the fog of war hurts women more than men because of the media’s stereotyped portrayals. Rather than be acknowledged for their feats of leadership and peacekeeping, the two complained, women and girls are often described as wives, sisters, and mothers, fleeing the violence while the men go to fight it. In addition to oppressing women, Scharff declared, this biased framing is a disservice to everyone who consumes media.

“Reporting about women is not for women, reporting about women is for everyone,” Scharff said. “These wars are on the backs of women and children, and it’s women and children who will be the frontline of recovery. We need to hear from them. It is good journalism, it is important, it is intersectional, it is inter-issue.”

Untangling the logic of Sharff and Rahmani’s position requires some effort. On the one hand, they say, women hold important leadership roles; they are on the front lines; they are essential to telling the story of Ukraine. If we take these to be true, we must assume that the legacy media are suppressing stories about influential women, women in power and women of influence, and choosing to interview men instead.

On the other hand, Sharff and Rahmani complain the mainstream reporting on the war in Ukraine, as the war in Afghanistan, was biased against women because it neglected local on-the-ground sources, and instead went directly to the heads of state and their advisors—in short, to the powerful (often males) rather than the weak (often females). Women are discriminated against because they aren’t portrayed as being in power, but also, they aren’t in power, and shame on you for reporting on the big picture rather than a niche perspective. You can see how this reasoning reinforces itself.

It is interesting to note that the niche female perspective Rahmani and Sharff would claim is being missed seems rampant in Western media. How many days after the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan were we hearing about the horrors that women would be subjected to, unable to go to school and forced back under the strict laws of a traditional patriarchy? One day later, perhaps, if that. How long was it after Russia invaded Ukraine before we were told of Ukrainian girl bosses volunteering to fight? A few weeks, maybe. Western audiences eat this stuff on toast with their morning coffee. And that’s the point.

If you’ve been following the coverage of Russia’s attacks in Eastern Ukraine at all, for example, you may have heard that there is widespread propaganda on both sides. Stories about Ukrainian war heroes, it seems, are not what they say on the tin, and many seem to have been manufactured to capture the hearts and minds of a Western audience to drum up support for a regional war on the other side of the world. The stories of maternity-ward bombs and mothers losing children have risen to the top of Western media’s coverage, emphasizing a certain kind of allegedly “stereotyped” female angle that tugs at the heartstrings.

But in the context of other war reporting, it is clear this has less to do with sexism than optics. We also hear more about stranded children than we do about young men displaced from home—probably because the former is more heartbreaking. By the same token, it is unlikely that any further stories of Donbas girl-bossery, however trivial, would escape the notice of the legacy outlets. Those stories sell, and as Sharff points out, they’re intersectional. There doesn’t seem to be any incentive not to write these stories, and indeed many compelling incentives to dig them up. So where are they?

“Are there consequences to portraying women only as an oppressed group?” moderator Amelia Lester asked Sharff and Rahmani in Monday’s panel. It’s a good question, especially for the woman whose job requires women to be an oppressed group for it to make any sense.

For both Sharff and Rahmani, the failure to keep women’s issues front and center perpetuates a cycle of violence. Without the female perspective, wars cannot come to a meaningful peace, defined as one that considers women’s interests.

“We need to know that women’s rights are connected to more potential for stability and long-term peace holding…this is something that supports economies, supports peace, and when it’s done well with solid investment, it leads front pages,” Sharff said.

But there are other consequences, too. For one, it promotes a willful blindness to the reality on the ground—the reality that women in war receive far more protection simply due to their sex, and that this preferential treatment is a grace, not a curse. It also misrepresents the nature of women, depicting them as the true peacekeepers who—once free from the oppressive patriarchy—could usher in an era of global peace. One needs only to look at the history of European queens to be reminded of the truth.

And there is one more consequence of portraying women only as an oppressed group. That is, to maintain the narrative that women are oppressed, we have to constantly find new difficulties for them—real or invented.