When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride, He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside. But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail. For the female of the species is more deadly than the male. --from Rudyard Kipling's "The Female of the Species," 1911.
Greek mythology includes the tale of how Achilles' mother attempted to save him from the call to arms for the Trojan War by dressing him in women's clothes. His true gender was revealed when Odysseus, disguised as a peddler, brought out feminine attire, jewelry, and a shield and spear for sell, and Achilles went directly to the armaments.
The 1996 Emmy award winning PBS series "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century" documented the origins of psychology by recalling the introduction of "the talking cure" to World War I combat veterans to heal their mangled psyches. As part of their rehabilitation, they engaged in such feminine past times as basket weaving and knitting, before progressing on to the more "manly" pursuits of handling fire arms and martial pursuits. Throughout history, the enterprise of settling intra-national disputes has been considered the bastion of masculinity.
Perhaps this reservation of warfare to the dominion of men came about out of necessity. Men after all, cannot give birth, and to counterbalance their exclusion from this specialized function, they assumed the role of defender and took up the science of arms. Since facility with ancient armaments necessitated upper body strength, it might also be argued that this was a natural progression in the division of labor (although the advent of modern technology has made physical strength less of an advantage in contemporary warfare).
And yet, women still played a part in the conduct of warfare, if only through the provision of food, medical assistance, and supplies (an old, unwritten military adage states that if you kill an army's support, you defeat the enemy). Traditional thinking allows that this is the natural order of things, because of the natural aggression (in men) and passivity (in women); modern feminists however might argue that these traits have been reinforced via cultural conditioning over generations.
At any rate, women's involvement in this most violent of civilization's activities was traditionally regarded as an adjunct to warfare.
Twentieth century military doctrine changed dramatically as the phenomenon of asymmetrical warfare took hold, displacing the idea of a traditional "front" of the battlefield where most of the hostilities could be expected to take place. Virtually all of America's opponents since World War II have been inferior in terms of resources and numbers of personnel they brought to the conflict, which dictated different tactics.
This, along with the trend toward guerrilla warfare and a desire to even the odds has meant that traditional noncombatants (i.e. women) would not be safe simply because they were stuck "in the rear."
Although warfare has traditionally been men's domain and the foremost stage on which to assert one's masculinity, women regularly stepped outside of their assigned roles. Norse mythology nurtured sagas of the Valkyries, female warriors appointed to determine which Vikings would die in battle, and be allowed passage to Valhalla (heaven), where they would feast at an eternal banquet drinking mass quantities of beer provided by their female hosts.
The Greeks spun tales of the Amazons, a nation of all-female warriors, who cut off their breasts to facilitate better use of their long bows, spears, and swords and participated in the Trojan War.
These legendary figures had their real life counterparts across the globe, most notably in Africa, where the Dahomean Kingdom in what is now the modern Republic of Benin was distinguished by its legendary warrior class of women soldiers, whose bravery and skill at battle rivaled their male counterparts. European colonialists who, encountered them starting in the 1600s, were so impressed with their martial proficiency that they dubbed the women Amazons as an homage to the mythological tribe of Grecian lore.
In sharp contrast to conventional gender specialization, training (in coordination with the tenants of the Polytheistic Vodun religion now known in the Western Hemisphere as Voodoo) was geared to enhance the aggressive traits desired for combat. As slavery proliferated, the fighters acquired western firearms and achieved a legendary reputation for their militaristic prowess. This status continued until the dawn of the 20th Century, when they faced off against France's Third Republic in the Franco-Dahomean War. They were eventually overcome by the deployment of the French Foreign Legion and the introduction of a new weapon-- the machine gun. Afterwards, Legionnaires gave testimonials about the fierceness of their female opponents.
Another notable tradition involves the lineage of Nubian warrior queens in the ancient empire of Kush in what is now northern Sudan. These monarchs held the title of Kandake, or "Candace" (from which is derived the present day feminine name), and successfully faced down the Roman Empire during the latter's attempt to expand its dominion onto the African continent, after it appropriated Egypt during the time of Cleopatra (30 BC).
Wall relief sculptures and frescos from this period depict massive, bejeweled women brandishing weapons to dispatch unwanted intruders. Archaeologists and scholars have only recently begun to unravel the history behind these sovereigns of antiquity, but evidence suggests that the famous Queen of Sheba may have been a Candace. Another ruler, Candace the Queen of Ethiopia and a renowned military tactician and field commander, is referenced in the book of Acts (8:27).
In the New World, Jamaica includes among its national heroes the "Obeah woman" (specializing in folk magic and sorcery) of Ashanti descent, one Nanny of the Maroons, renowned for her expertise in guerrilla warfare against Britain in the 1700s. Nanny used her organizational skills to lead the resistance in the Blue Mountains and to free slaves. In doing so, she transitioned from historical figure to character of folklore and legend, revered as "Granny Nanny," a mythic Voodoo Priestess. Today, her portrait adorns that country's $500 bill.
African women also exercised their military prowess throughout the 1800s and into the early 20th Century in opposition to European slave traders. The Herero tribes' women of present-day Namibia were documented fighting German soldiers as late as 1919 in the 20th Century's first genocide. The Herero lost some 65,000 people to the German Empire in a prelude to the World War II Holocaust.
Revolutionary war, as the Algerian people is waging it, is a total war in which the woman does not merely knit for or mourn the soldier. The Algerian woman is at the heart of combat. Arrested, tortured, raped and shot down she testifies to the violence of the occupier and to his inhumanity. -Frantz Fanon
While the integration of female troops into the military services of the industrialized West has stirred up no end of controversy within the media and civilian populace, it certainly has not inhibited recruitment among America's opposing forces. The Russians enforced no gender restrictions within its sniper corps (sharpshooters trained to eliminate targets from long distances with high-precision rifles) during World War II. Lyudmila Pavlichenko and Nina Lobkovskaya were among them, ending the war with 309 and 308 German kills respectively.
Algerian women played a pivotal role in that country's struggle for independence from the French during the 1950s. Law student Zohra Drif distinguished herself by planting bombs in the Casbah, the Arab section of Algiers for the National Liberation Front while attending that city's university. Later a prominent lawyer and member of the nation's Senate, she recently has been sought out as a news commentator by agencies seeking to draw parallels between the conflict of her youth and the contemporary American experience in Iraq.
Ethnically, a North African of Arab descent, Drif used her blond tresses and European features to evade French forces during the execution of her duties; a fact which brings up the stereotype of female coercion as a weapon. Media images have enhanced the real life manifestation of the femme fatale like Marta Hari of World War I fame, popularized in cinema and popular culture.
These individuals from recent history negate arguments against inclusion of women in the military for their own protection. One argument in favor of conscription of female soldiers is the fact that their "otherness" allows them to perform tasks that would be difficult (if not impossible) for their male counterparts to perform. This includes espionage work and conducting weapons searches on their opposing female counterparts.
Given it's stance on coed educational opportunities, stanchions on immodest dress, and other gender-specific restrictions, Islam to most westerners would not be considered a platform for feminist empowerment, which makes the growing trend utilizing female suicide bombers all the more curious. This may be attributed once again to expediency and the tactical advantages their femininity affords. The burqa, the loose covering donned to hide a woman's body, is quite useful in concealing bombs and other contraband while out in public doing the will of Allah.