I’ve done eight embeds with the American Army in Afghanistan, and met women soldiers of every rank and capability. But it’s my experience as a journalist trailing Libyan freedom fighters in 2011 that makes me applaud Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision to allow American women to apply for combat military occupational specialties.
While the United States is a hundred years ahead of Libya in gender equality, the fading rhetoric of protectionism that was a good part of the combat ban in the US for decades is alive and well in Libya.
The Libyan fighters were exclusively men—even though the type of war they were fighting placed little premium on physical strength. Our troops in Afghanistan routinely hump 70 to 100 pounds of body armor, gear, weaponry, and ammo. In Libya, almost no one wore body armor, if they had it. Few men bothered with helmets, out of a mixture of vanity and fatalism. Most of the fighting consisted in the lobbing of shells and firing of heavy weapons like truck-mounted 23-mm machine guns across a kilometer or two. If you were unlucky, body armor wasn’t going to help. No one was carrying a weapon heavier than an assault rifle. And no one went into battle on foot. Men usually fought in units of four or five to a car.
The Libyan rebels had had few life experiences that prepared them for guerrilla warfare. Though there were a handful of former professional soldiers and airmen in the Zwara and Sabratha brigades, almost everyone else had been, in the revealing Arabic word for civilians, mednoun, literally city-dwellers. Time and again, men told me they’d never even held a gun before. A few men had hunted or done martial arts, but almost no one had camped or spent time in the outdoors for fun. Most middle-class, suburban American girls have more outdoors and athletic experience than the typical Libyan fighters had.
The utter absence of women from the field in Libya was particularly striking given the small number of rebels and the constant refrain that they didn’t have the numbers to do what they wanted. To be sure, women were passionately involved in the revolution in traditional female roles, mainly preparing food for the fighters and treating the wounded, but also in fund-raising and media, civil society organizations and politics. Still, the fight against Qaddafi would have been much shorter had the other half of the potential fighters been mobilized.
But the longer I spent in Libya—four months in 2011—the clearer it became that Libyan culture was characterized by emphatic social divisions between the sexes and sexual inequality. The explanation was inevitably that Libyan culture “protected” women. Libyan culture “protected” women by prohibiting them from commuting by car to a university an hour away. Libyan culture “protected” women by making it socially unacceptable for them to ride a bicycle, jog, swim, or do almost any other sport outside of an all-female gym. (Some men argued that women could not have fought in the revolution because they were unaccustomed to exercise.) As of this fall, Libyans have decided to “protect” their schoolgirls by making their public schools single-sex (they were coed under Qaddafi).
I began to understand that to maintain Libyan society as it was—a place where “men can do anything and women can do nothing,” in the words of a female university student in Sabratha—it was necessary to say that women couldn’t fight. After all, if women could fight, the whole fabric of Libyan society’s rules on women would be revealed as a nonsensical tissue of restrictions.
Secretary Panetta’s decision does not mean that women will be able to hold positions they are physically unqualified for—just that they will be able to apply for job descriptions previously barred to women applicants. The main practical impact of the new rules will be on the careers of ambitious female Army officers. Many of the newly opened types of jobs are essential for a fast-track rise in the Army, which depends on getting command as early as you can.
But the sociological impact of the new rules is bigger. We’re saying that restrictions on women make no sense, unless they have to do with abilities. We are saying—subliminally—that there may be women out there whose highest purpose is to become fierce warriors. These are implications that may make some of us uncomfortable, and there’s no doubt there will be some painful adjustments along the way. But Panetta’s move is the right move, and something Americans can be proud of. As in economics, freedom trumps protectionism every time.