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While the decision to lift the combat exclusion and allow women in combat roles in the U.S. military has provoked considerable debate, women are already present and active in armed rebel groups around the world. Using data collected on 72 rebel groups active in the post-Cold War era, I show that women are acting as combatants in approximately one-third of present-day armed insurgencies. Using examples from selected cases, I discuss what lessons the U.S. armed forces might draw from the experience of women combatants in rebel groups, including the organizational pressures that may result from combat exclusion, the impacts of female advancement on organizations, and the potential strategic benefits of female combatants.
The recent decision by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to open combat roles in the U.S. military to women has provoked considerable debate, even within the pages of this journal. While some believe that the incorporation of women as combatants will lead to reduced productivity and readiness as well as higher turnover rates, others have argued that the continuation of past exclusion policies will lead to understaffing and a lack of flexibility in a military environment that requires forces to be adaptable.
In this piece, I seek to highlight the ways in which women are already acting as combatants in small wars and civil conflicts—but on the side of rebel groups. I start off with a brief discussion of the complexities involved in defining who is “in combat,” using the U.S. and other militaries as an example, and I then outline the definitions and methods I employ in assessing women’s participation in the 72 different rebel groups I examine in my dissertation. I discuss the results of that data collection, employing examples from selected rebel groups. Overall, I find that while women act as combatants less frequently than men in armed rebel groups, women are still acting as combatants in about one-third of rebel groups active in the post-Cold War era. Furthermore, women’s combat participation is often gendered, by which I mean that women’s experience as combatants—how they earn those positions, what they do, and the recognition they receive—is distinct from the experience of their male counterparts. I conclude this essay by returning to the debate over women in the U.S. military and discussing what U.S. military leadership may learn from the experience of women in insurgencies.
Regular forces often make a clear distinction between the categories of combat and noncombat roles. The U.S. Army groups combat roles under four overarching headings:
- Armor Branch. This includes tank and cavalry operations, scouting, and operation of armed vehicles including tanks and amphibious vehicles.
- Field Artillery. Includes the operation of specialized missile systems, the operation of surface weapons equipment, and “target designation” or the set up and operation of computer and radar systems associated with weapons systems.
- Infantry. The “main land combat force,” with wide-ranging training and duties including: operation and mobilization of weaponry, hand-to-hand combat, scouting, communications from the front lines, weapons recovery, and processing captured persons and materials.
Special Forces. Specializing in areas where “conventional military operations” are inadequate. This includes: direct action/short strike, counterterrorism ops, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare/guerilla warfare. There are four specialties offered within the overall category of special forces.
- Weapons sergeants. Includes weapons specialists, foreign light and heavy infantry operations, and maintenance.
- Engineer sergeants. Individuals who carry out construction and demolition of fortifications in the field, as well as surveying.
- Medical sergeants. Includes first response and trauma medical technicians.
- Communications sergeants. Includes those operating satellite, video, and radio communications, as well as encryption technologies.
These descriptions by the U.S. military generally seem to align with the descriptions used by other national armed forces. However, they are not the last word in defining combat roles. Some of the duties outlined here are not roles we might expect a need for in insurgent groups. For example, many rebel groups will not have access to high-tech missile and guidance systems and will therefore not require specialized personnel to operate them. More importantly, though, any attempt to define combat roles according to these descriptions should also take into account how the definition of “combat roles” has changed over time, and specifically how the definition of combat roles has evolved in relation to women and conflict.
In the United States, the 1994 “Aspin policy” on women in combat represents an important moment in the definition of combat roles. The “risk rule” adopted by the Defense Department as part of this policy stated that positions could not be closed to women just because they are dangerous, but this did not end restrictions on combat roles. On the one hand, as a result of these changes, about a quarter of a million new military jobs were opened to women by re-classifying them as “noncombat.” On the other hand, though, the policy continued to exclude women from assignment to units “whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”
The result of these changes has been widespread confusion, as identified in a Rand Corporation report issued in 2007. The authors of this report found, based on discussions with military personnel, members of Congress, and DoD officials, that many did not understand the “point” of the policy, and that there was no “shared interpretation” of it. They also found that the policy resulted in a strange patchwork in which some jobs within the same Career Management Field (CMF) may be open to women, while others may be closed. For example, within the Mechanical Maintenance CMF, women may hold the position of light-wheel vehicle mechanics, track vehicle repairers, and maintenance supervisors, but they may not be mechanics on vehicles used in combat. Likewise, a woman can be a gunner on a Humvee, but not on larger armored fighting vehicles that are commonly used in combat.
The realities on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan further exposed weaknesses in the way combat roles are currently classified and in the exclusion of women from certain roles. With women comprising over 10% of the personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, creative classification techniques have been employed to get women into combat zones while skirting the restrictions on having women fill actual combat positions. For instance, regulations allow women to be “attached” to or “embedded” in units, rather than “assigned” to them. “Attachment” implies that these women’s service is limited to a specific assignment for a specific period of time, but officers can and do frequently extend or renew the attachment once the specified mission or time period has ended. Therefore, while “attachment” may seem like a different type of service on paper, practically there seems to be no difference in the duties being performed by these women and those performed by their male, combat-classified counterparts.
The case of Monica Brown is one example of the ongoing confusion in the U.S. military surrounding the role of women in combat. In 2007, as an Army medic with only four months of training, Brown was attached to a combat unit in Afghanistan when their convoy was ambushed by insurgents who set off a roadside bomb and opened fire on the group. Brown acted as a human shield in the ensuing fight, making her way through enemy fire to a vehicle full of injured men and throwing herself over the bodies of her badly injured and unconscious companions until they could be transported to safety. For her efforts, she was awarded the Silver Star, the country’s third-highest award for valor. The award also came with controversy, however. Following the attack, Brown was removed from her unit and reassigned to a nearby base. In later interviews with the media, her commanding officer, while praising her actions, admitted that officers bent the rules by having her travel with the combat unit in the first place. Her companions, including some of those whose lives she saved, also questioned whether her actions received special attention because she was a woman. One of the men she saved refused to be interviewed for a televised piece on Brown, reportedly stating that he believed Brown never should have been in a combat setting in the first place. Brown herself, who continues to serve as a medic in the U.S. army, has stated that she did not want to be removed from the combat unit with which she served. In an interview after receiving the Silver Star, when asked for her opinion about the Army’s restrictions on women in the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, “There is no front line… you never know what’s going to happen.”
The U.S. is not the only military that has struggled with issues regarding women in combat. While many U.S. allies have no legal restrictions in place to keep women from serving in combat, in practice officers in some militaries, such as the Netherlands, maintain a de facto system of separation where women who volunteer for combat roles often find themselves assigned instead to noncombat/support roles. In Israel, a quota system is in place that limits how many women get assigned to combat units. Even when those units are deployed, the women often do not go with them. In the UK, women are legally restricted from several areas of service, a policy that has come under scrutiny because of EU anti-discrimination laws. Canada, on the other hand, opened all of its combat roles to women in 1989. Initially, Canadian forces faced an uphill battle to recruit and train their first women for combat positions, facing little interest from women and a high failure rate on physical tests. By 2006, however, about 2% of Canada’s combat troops were women, with over 1100 women total serving in either the regular or reserve combat forces.
Regarding the role of women in paramilitary groups and insurgencies, similar questions exist regarding how to define who is “in combat.” Luciak performs a comparative study of women in Latin American insurgencies and notes that various agencies and authors utilize different definitions of “combatant.” While some sources limit the use of the term to arms-bearing combatants, other sources apply the label to those who play roles that are exclusively supportive. In their typology of women’s participation in terrorist organizations, Griset and Mahan use the term “Warriors” to apply to those women who engage in direct combat with the enemy. Their conceptualization is also exclusively limited to arms-bearing women.
Overall, I would argue that the discussion here proves that official classifications are not reliable indicators of whether a woman (or a man, for that matter) is serving in combat. Rather, it is an examination of actual duties performed that should be used for classification purposes. A common theme among combat positions, which I include in my working definition, is that they represent an individual working in support of one side in a conflict and being exposed with regularity to a front-line environment, meaning one where they engage in or are directly supporting those who engage in close combat. Close combat, as I define it here, involves hand-to-hand combat or the use of short-range weaponry. Support of those engaged in close combat, based on the foregoing discussion, can include maintenance of weapons and communication equipment in use on the front lines, scouting locations, building and dismantling fortifications, and front-line medical response.
Patterns of Female Combat Engagement in Post-Cold War Rebellions
Applying these criteria to 72 rebel groups identified by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Norway (PRIO) as active in civil wars for two or more years since 1990, I explored the extent to which women have been involved in combat roles within these groups as part of my dissertation. I again reviewed several sources related to each movement that was sampled, looking specifically at those sources which documented women’s engagement with the rebel group. Although women’s participation in some rebel groups has been widespread enough to warrant significant scholarly attention, most of the movements included here have received little or no attention from scholars--especially as it concerns women’s roles in the conflict. The sources I used to code women’s participation were therefore a combination of scholarly works, NGO reports, and journalistic sources. A minimum of five sources was consulted for each movement, and at least three sources indicating women’s participation in a combat role were needed to determine that women were present and acting in such a capacity.
What the data reveal is that women’s participation in armed rebel groups is far from being a rarity or a novelty, as it is so often portrayed. In combat roles, those associated with direct armed attacks, women clearly participate at a lower level than their male counterparts but they are active and participating in this capacity in nearly a third of all rebel groups in this time period (23 of the total 72). Looking at the contemporary organizations that feature women in combat roles, a gendering of these roles is clearly present. While women frequently perform support tasks like cooking, cleaning, teaching, and other domestic work similar to the historical role of “camp followers,” they often do not receive the full recognition or status of membership in groups they support. Women have, in some places, been excluded from formal membership despite their role in providing crucial noncombat services like cooking, propaganda, espionage, and even riskier activities like recruitment and running safe houses. I found this to be the case in movements within Latin America, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Women have sometimes used their support roles to lobby for status or expanded responsibilities within a group. In all but one of the organizations where I found women acting as combatants, women were also taking part in support or noncombat tasks, suggesting that there is a “stacked” nature to participation where women start as supporters, but push for greater advancement. This was certainly the case in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, where women were denied any formalized status in the early years of the organization, but later pushed for inclusion in combat and leadership roles. By the later years of the revolution women had “broken the chains,” leading units and making up more than half of the constitutional committee. Likewise, in El Salvador women of the FMLN state that it was their own advocacy that won them prized positions in the organization, such as combat and leadership roles. The discrimination faced by women is demonstrated by statements like the following, from a female FMLN member interviewed by Kampwirth:
“It was not like they would say, since you are a woman you can’t do that… But perhaps women did not rise up to the same leadership positions… If a man was punished they would not send him to the kitchen and in a woman’s case they would.”
By the end of the conflict, however, it is estimated that women comprised 40% of the revolutionary council of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the political arm of the FMLN; 40% of the commanders in the People’s Revolutionary Army; and between one-third and one-half of the comandantes in the Popular Forces for Liberation and the Popular Revolutionary Bloc. While it is certainly true that women in many of the organizations I examined never rise beyond support roles, these examples show that women often advocate for their own place within insurgencies, including positions where they are directly involved in armed combat.
Sexuality is also linked to the roles of women in armed rebellion worldwide. In India, female fighters in the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) were told that part of their job would be to act as “honey traps” for those targeted by the organization. In other instances, the strategic use of women as embodied women is implied, if not stated outright. The use of women in intelligence gathering, communication, and in smuggling people, arms, and goods is a recurrent theme and suggests a perception that women are more likely than men to evade suspicion and capture. This perception has also been widely discussed and speculated upon in relation to the phenomenon of female suicide bombers.
The pattern of female service in combat roles also shows significant regional variation. While women are most frequently active in combat in Latin American and European rebel movements, women are combatants in less than half of all movements in the Middle East/North Africa, as well as in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Table 1 shows these regional patterns.
These cross-regional differences have partially been masked in the past by studies on women in armed conflict that are case-study or regionally focused. Among the existing cross-national literature, though, the findings on regional trends are mixed. One possible explanation for the regional differences among these post-Cold War movements is the overlap between regional and ideological difference. For example, insurgencies active in Latin America during this time period overwhelmingly adhere to Marxist ideology, and some of these groups appear to have cooperated or at least influenced one another. Groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, are more likely to be “cult of personality”-type movements, led by warlords and lacking a clear ideological focus. While the effect of ideology is examined further elsewhere, at present these data suggest that regional interactions and ideology may impact the extent to which women act as combatants.
What Can the U.S. Military Learn from Women in Insurgencies?
What is the relevance of this data for the U.S. military? I believe that there are several lessons here that should be taken into consideration in the ongoing policy debate over lifting the combat exclusion. First, even if women are not fighting for us, they may be fighting for the other side. While I do find lower levels of female engagement in theaters where the U.S. military is most active, such as the Middle East/North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central Asia, the participation of women as combatants in this region is still noteworthy. Furthermore, the dynamic of “advancement by pressure” that is present in some of these groups I examine suggests that, over time, the many groups where women are currently present in support roles may eventually incorporate women into the ranks of combatants. A related point is the strategic element involved in utilizing women. In particular, the increasingly frequent deployment of women as suicide bombers and the widespread use of women as couriers and smugglers suggest that women are deployed by rebel groups to fill the roles where men can’t or won’t go. These challenges mirror elements of the strain and fatigue expressed by the U.S. military in recent years. If rebel groups are able to successfully rejuvenate their ranks through the strategic deployment of women, should our military consider doing the same?
A final connection between militaries and insurgencies that may be worth considering is the “gendering” of combat roles, as referenced above. Those who express opposition or hesitancy regarding the elimination of combat exclusion policies often reference the physical abilities or limitations of women. While some national militaries like Canada’s have been successful at incorporating women while requiring them to meet the same standards as men, the present study illustrates how some rebel groups have responded to gender by recognizing distinctions between the sexes and using them to the organization’s advantage. While a male kidnapper may take his mark at gunpoint, a female kidnapper can act as a “honey trap” or lure. Likewise, the appeal of women as suicide bombers stems partly from their ability to penetrate spheres that have become more or less off-limits to men. A similar adaptability may be required in opening combat roles to women. The military has already shown its willingness to gender noncombat roles with the use of Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan. In what ways might female difference be leveraged to our forces’ advantage, particularly in areas such as front-line communications, scouting, or reconnaissance? Ultimately, creating a fully integrated force may require creative solutions to the anticipated and unanticipated issues that come with this change.
 Martin van Crevald, “To Wreck a Military | Small Wars Journal,” Small Wars Journal (January 28, 2013), http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/to-wreck-a-military.
 Traci Swanson and Sheila Medieros, “DoD’s Combat Exclusion Policies Limit Commanders and Strain Our Current Forces | Small Wars Journal,” Small Wars Journal (November 20, 2011), http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/dod%E2%80%99s-combat-exclusion-policies-limit-commanders-and-strain-our-current-forces.
 Alexis Leanna Henshaw, “Why Women Rebel: A Cross-National Analysis of Female Participation in Intrastate Conflict” (University of Arizona, 2013).
 U.S. Army, “Career & Job Categories,” Www.goarmy.com, 2010, http://www.goarmy.com/content/goarmy/careers-and-jobs/browse-career-and-job-categories.html.
 Jake Willens, “Women in the Military: Combat Roles Considered,” Center for Defense Information, 1996, http://www.cdi.org/issues/women/combat.html. Positions that were opened with the policy change included military intelligence (MI) collection, engineer companies, certain reconnaissance positions, and various headquarters positions. Margaret C. Harrell et al., Assessing the Assignment Policy for Army Women (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007).
 Michele Norris, “Roles for Women in U.S. Army Expand,” NPR.org, October 1, 2007, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14869648.
 Harrell et al., Assessing the Assignment Policy for Army Women.
 Lizette Alvarez, “G.I. Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier,” The New York Times, August 16, 2009, sec. US, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/us/16women.html?pagewanted=3.
 Ibid.; Norris, “Roles for Women in U.S. Army Expand”; Tom Anderson and Jeff Newton, “The Silver Star,” 60 Minutes (CBS, 2008), http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4639029n&tag=related;photovideo. To further heighten the confusion about women in combat, in 2010 the U.S. Army announced that it was testing its first-ever female combat uniform. This new uniform is designed to have a more comfortable fit for female soldiers and eliminates some “excess material” on the unisex uniform, which female soldiers had complained made the uniform bulky and uncomfortable. While the introduction of this uniform did not represent any official change in Army policy regarding women in combat, it was seen as a tacit recognition that women more often find themselves in combat situations “when having well-fitting clothing… can suddenly prove critical.” Virginie Montet, “Finally, U.S. Army Makes Progress for Women in Uniform,” Yahoo! News, October 16, 2010, http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20101016/ts_afp/usmilitarywomenuniform.
 Ann Scott Tyson, “Woman Gains Silver Star -- And Removal From Combat - Washingtonpost.com,” May 1, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/30/AR2008043003415.html.
 Anderson and Newton, “The Silver Star.”
 Norris, “Roles for Women in U.S. Army Expand.”
 UK Ministry of Defence, “UK to Review Women in Ground Close Combat Roles,” Defence Talk, May 26, 2009, http://www.defencetalk.com/uk-to-review-women-in-ground-close-combat-roles-19194/.
 CBC News, “Women in the Canadian Military,” CBC News, May 30, 2006, http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/cdnmilitary/women-cdnmilitary.html; Molly Moore, “Canada Puts Women on Front Line,” The Washington Post (Washington D.C., 1989), http://articles.latimes.com/1989-11-23/news/vw-402_1_women-recruits.
 Ilja A. Luciak, After the Revolution: Gender and Democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
 Pamala Griset and Sue Mahan, Terrorism in Perspective (Sage Publications, Inc, 2002).
 As Monica Brown points out, there may be some conflicts in which there is no literal “front line.” In drafting this definition, I am open to the possibility that there will be some conflicts where all participants could rightly be considered combatants.
 As a starting point, I consulted the PRIO data set on intrastate armed conflicts from 1990-2008 and, using this data, I identified 140 organizations involved in armed conflict for at least two consecutive years during this time period. I then chose a random sample of 85 of these groups. Availability of data and organizational changes affecting the coding left me with a final sample of 72 groups. “Organizational changes” generally refers to the merger or splitting of groups, which occurs rather frequently. Where my research indicated that a group merged or split during the time period under investigation, I established the date of the merger or split. If a group remained unified for the majority of the period under investigation by PRIO (1990-2008), I coded it as a single group. If the group was operating as multiple organizations or factions, they were coded separately. Overall, this served to reduce rather than increase my number of cases. A complete list of cases is available as an online appendix at http://www.u.arizona.edu/~henshaw/Arizona/Research_files/Ch%205%20Appendix.pdf.
 Henshaw, “Why Women Rebel: A Cross-National Analysis of Female Participation in Intrastate Conflict.”
 “Engagement” should not be read to indicate that I looked only at sources where women were identified as working with the rebel groups. Sources documenting women’s engagement with the group also includes those sources where women were victims of attacks by a group, where women were working within civil society groups engaged with the rebels, etc. Thus these sources offer an opportunity for “positive” as well as “negative” observations.
 The requirement of at least three sources ensures not only a higher level of accuracy in scoring, but it also introduces an element of unimportant variation. Under these coding rules, for example, a single woman acting as a combatant in a movement is not sufficient to recognize that women are serving in a combat role within an organization.
 See, e.g., Vivienne SM. Angeles, “Women and Revolution: Philippine Muslim Women’s Participation in the Moro National Liberation Front,” The Muslim World 86, no. 2 (1996): 130–147; Amrit Wilson, The Challenge Road : Women and the Eritrean Revolution (London: Earthscan, 1991); Nana Rosine Ngangoue, “Angola-Women: Living with War in the Forests of Cabinda,” Inter Press Service Newswire, May 27, 1996, http://www.ipsnews.net/1996/05/angola-women-living-with-war-in-the-forests-of-cabinda/.
 Worku Zerai, “Organising Women Within a National Liberation Struggle: Case of Eritrea,” Economic and Political Weekly 29, no. 44 (October 29, 1994): WS63–WS68; Wilson, The Challenge Road.
 Karen Kampwirth, Women & Guerrilla Movements Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba (Prnnsylvn Sttr U P, 2003).
 T. David Mason, “Women’s Participation in Central American Revolutions,” Comparative Political Studies 25, no. 1 (April 1, 1992): 63 –89, doi:10.1177/0010414092025001003.
 SATP, “All Tripura Tiger Force, Tripura, India,” South Asia Terrorism Portal, 2001, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/states/tripura/terrorist_outfits/ATTF_tl.htm.
 Among the many who have written on the topic, Bloom (2007) and Eager (2008) each devote an entire chapter to discussing women and suicide attacks. In a discussion of Palestinian suicide bombers, Bloom points out that “[s]ince the mid 1990s, it has been almost impossible for unmarried men under the age of 40 to get legitimate permits to cross the border into Israel—for any reason.” Women have therefore become a valuable asset not only because they can “pass,” but because they can blend in by wearing “modern hairstyles and short skirts” to suggest that they belong. Mia Bloom, Dying Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror (Columbia University Press, 2007), 143–144.
 Consider, for example, the influence of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua (not included in this sample) on groups like the FMLN in El Salvador and the UNRG in Guatemala, which are analyzed here.
 Ideological differences and their effects are discussed further in my dissertation, cited above.
 Swanson and Medieros, “DoD’s Combat Exclusion Policies Limit Commanders and Strain Our Current Forces | Small Wars Journal.”