By Lori Saldaña
In March 2010, Katherine Bigelow made history at the Academy Awards, by winning in the Best Director category. This was the first time a woman had done so in the Academy’s history. She won for her film “Hurt Locker,” about men who disarm IED’s (improvised explosive devices) in Iraq.
“Hurt Locker” was also was named Picture of the Year, and won for Best Sound Editing- so congratulations for all that, too, Ms. Bigelow. Well done.
If you haven’t seen it, “Hurt Locker” is an amazing and suspenseful film — with hardly a woman character in it. Ms. Bigelow managed to capture the drama, setting, heat and dust of Iraq very well. Yet you would never know the reality of women in Iraq from this movie.
Still, as I watched her acceptance speech, I thought of how, for the first time in US history, women were fighting and dying in combat alongside men in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was happening not by law, but by necessity.
Our commanders told us we simply could not wage these wars without women warriors fighting, driving trucks, and doing everything else required in wartime, right alongside the men- including killing the enemy, and being injured and killed themselves.
Yet women were not technically allowed to be “assigned” to combat, so instead, they were “attached” to combat units. It is a distinction without a difference.
And perhaps because this is not “official policy,” we still don’t have the PTSD treatment centers or other resources available for women veterans that are needed when they return home from their combat tours.
This is one reason why the California Women’s Legislative Caucus made women in the military and military families’ top priority areas when I served as Caucus chairwoman. We recognized that women were facing a new level of stress during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, unlike any they’ve experienced in this nation’s history. And we worried they wouldn’t have the support they need when they come home and begin returning to their lives as students, girlfriends, co-workers, wives, mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters.
We also worried that women increasingly face the threat of sexual assault at the hands of their military colleagues.
How serious a problem is this? As a member of the Veteran’s Affair committee, I talked with military officers and heard testimony in committees that makes me believe this is a very serious and widespread problem.
One young service woman told us she made the mistake of drinking alcohol with fellow underage servicemen after training one day. But when she was raped in her room later that night, her attacker went unpunished, while she was accused of breaking the rules for drinking alcohol and being under 21. Frustrated, angry and scared of other attacks, she eventually resigned from her military assignment.
And I will never forget hearing from a woman who operates a residential counseling center for women veterans in Los Angeles. She estimated that every woman she was assisting had been sexually assaulted either prior to, or during, her military service.
Clearly, we need to provide more support for women before, during and after their military service.
But something else happened because of this war: women in Iraq were impacted in a positive way when it comes to their political opportunities. For the first time in modern history, they are being allowed to participate in their own government.
The Iraqi Constitution calls for at least 25 percent of Parliament’s seats to go to women. (Initially, women had requested 40%, but this was reduced by the US advisors on constitutional reforms.)
And according to a New York Times report, “12 women from outside the political system have formed their own party, with a platform built on women’s rights and a jobs program for Iraq’s more than 700,000 widows.”
One woman Minister claimed “Iraqi women in the Parliament are more serious, more devoted, more present and more interactive than men with the public issues.”
(Hmmmm… sounds a bit like what I’ve experienced here in the US at the state and federal level.)
Iraqi women are making gains in the area of political representation and power, but dealing with the fallout of warfare in their nation. And American women are struggling to recover from serving in combat for the first time in the nation’s history, often without adequate services available for them.
So, one war, two nations, and daunting challenges for women who serve in the military and in elected office, on both sides of the planet.