How important is gender in explaining why people fight?

How important is gender in explaining why people fight?
By Libin Farah

Gender can be understood as a social construction are packages of expectations around biological sex, but not tied necessarily to biological sex. Knowledge production about Masculinity and Femininity becomes embedded into society and as a result gendered norms are created.

This essay will focus on three articles: Nivedita Manchanda’s Queering the Pashtun: Afghan sexuality in the homo-nationalist imaginary, Miranda Alison In the warfront we never think that we are women and Hew Strachan’s Training, Morale and Modern War.

Through each section, this essay aims to argue that gender as a tool for analysis is a secondary factor in explaining why people fight.


Manchanda’s article Queering the Pashtun: Afghan sexuality in the homo-nationalist imaginary provides an insight into the gender construction of the Taliban from a Western perspective that is rooted in an Orientalist framework.
Manchanda argues that the primary motivation for the Pashtun men to become combatants in war is because they were sexually frustrated due to the inaccessibility of women in society.

Despite the article presenting interesting ideas about war and gender, this argument is extremely limited. To hold this view would negate the years on Imperialism and Western influence in Afghanistan that was the context within which the Taliban was formed.

The objectives of the Taliban were to re-create a social, political and economic world that mirrored what they considered to be the golden age of Islam which was the early seventh century. They aimed to create a barrier between themselves and Western contamination and govern in accordance to Islamic legislation.

These explanations for fighting are less to do with gender are more to with the political history of Afghanistan that has propelled ordinary Afghan men to become combatants. Therefore, gender as a tool for analysis has limited importance in understanding the reality of why Pashtun men were taking up arms.

Alternatively, the use of gender as a tool for analysis in Manchanda’s argument is extremely useful in providing an insight into the ways in which interactions between Western militaries and Afghan men were shaped by perceptions of masculinity. These interactions helps us understand how Western militaries and the Afghan soldiers defined the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’.

Masculinity between Western militaries and the Taliban differs because knowledge production, ideas and social expectations about Masculinity were produced in different societies. Therefore, from the outset it is important to understand that masculinity and gender are concepts that are relative to the environments in which they are produced.

Due to the Western disposition of Masculinity and Femininity, Western militaries were unable to comprehend the motivations of the Afghan soldiers because they were more concerned with placing Afghan soldiers into sexual categories e.g. homosexual, bisexual.

This is due to an assumption that the Western frame for understanding gender and sexuality is the only viable and legitimate framework. Therefore, when Western militaries encounter men, especially soldiers, that do not have the same approach to masculinity, their status as a soldier and a man are questioned.

Manchanda describes this mentality as homo-nationalist which describes “a conceptual frame that enables the acceptance of certain types of white, lesbian and gay bodies and explicitly disavows other (raced, sexed and classed) bodies as unworthy of protection by nation-states.”

This mind set is part of an overarching Orientalist structure that Said discusses throughout his works. Orientalism refers to a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” In this case, the West attempt to dominate ideas and social understandings of masculinity, sexuality and militarism, and as the Afghan soldiers are not in alignment with Western thinking, their ideas of masculinity are seen as ‘wrong.’ “Afghan men are constructed as fundamentally different and repressed and ‘queer’”.

This labelling of the Afghan soldier as the sexual ‘Other’ created the perception that there is a ‘deviation’ away from sexual ‘norms’. However, certain cultural practices which Afghan men consider to be normal i.e. holding hands, wearing colourful heeled sandals and kohl are seen as feminine and weak for a soldier.

The issue here is that the West understood Masculinity as being tied to fighting ability. Therefore, they perceived the Taliban as weaker because they displayed ‘feminine’ traits. This way of thinking is part of an overarching Orientalist perspective that Western militaries continue to uphold through interactions with different types of soldiers.

Unless Western militaries consider different types of Masculinity and remove Masculinity as measurement of how effective a soldier is, they will be limited in their understanding of Afghan soldiers and other soldiers that do not conform to Western ideals of masculinity.


Miranda Alison discusses female soldiers in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE is a nationalist separatist group in Sri Lanka and from its inception women, both combatants and non-combatants, were integral to achieving their goals. This is a shift away from ideas that are typically associated with militaries.

This is because the LTTE wanted to achieve something greater than just independence; they hoped to create social change within the Tamil community. One way they aimed to achieve this was by using military tactics that were seen as ‘radical’ such as making women central to the army. However the inclusion of women in the movement does not account for women’s participation.

Alison interviewed a number of women that were part of the LTTE and they gave a wide range of reasons for why they chose to fight. Some reasons included poverty, educational disruptions and communal Tamil suffering, however the overarching theme that encompassed all these reasons was nationalism.

Nationalism was the main factor that was able to mobilise these women. “Nationalist ideology was a meta-reason for enlistment, beneath which there were other factors, many of which intersected with or fed into nationalism.”

As the minority group, these women accounted for the abuse they suffered firstly as Tamils and secondly as women. They were first and foremost fighting for an independent nation, however their experiences made apparent the social issues that women faced which made them fight for women’s rights alongside independence.

The drive to tackle social issues such as sexual violence, rape, women’s emancipation and the desire to expand their life opportunities was a by-product of their nationalist agenda.

The social construction of gender and femininity in Sri Lanka reduced women to the domestic sphere. The LTTE believed that women would achieve liberation from oppressive gender roles through active combat. Indeed, LTTE female soldiers were challenging gender role of women in society.

By entering the armed forces they were demonstrating that their agency and capability as a soldier was in no way comprised by being a woman. While this was the slogan of the group, the LTTE as a movement were not attempting to remove gender roles altogether.

Rather they utilised and were dependent on social expectations of the role of men and women. For example, they draw on “gendered cultural expectations of women’s appearance (traditional saris or loose clothes) and behaviour (nonviolent, nonthreatening) to gain access to targets for suicide bombers.”

Therefore, gendered norms facilitated the war effort as it provided avenues for women to participate. That being said, there is a slight contradiction with the LTTE from an ideological standpoint. They claim that they are liberating women by using methods that reinforce gendered norms.

In this way, the gender construction of masculinity and femininity is a multifaceted tool that is utilised by the different sides to achieve their aims. This reinforces the idea that the feminism that the female soldiers of the LTTE were fighting for was secondary to the Nationalist cause.


Hew Strachan takes a different stance altogether in which gender is not considered as a factor in understanding why people fight. Strachan argues that there is a multitude of reasons in which people fight. However each reason is limited in a different way.

Two compelling reason he listed first of which being the primacy of the small group. The small group provides morale and creates a fraternity amongst the soldiers. This solidarity makes soldiers causes them to focus on fighting for each other’s survival rather than for politics.

However, there are a number of problems with this theory. Within a few months an infantry regiment could lose its entire strength because there is no guarantee of survival. Additionally, the small group it identifies itself by its difference to others.

This sense of difference can led to the group refusing to fight, disobey orders and even to mutiny. As modern warfare can eliminate an entire small group in one attack this theory is limited in understanding why people fight.

The second reason that Strachan mentioned was the impact that the training system and how it manufactures and produces soldiers. The training system and the use of drills creates cohesion and unity amongst the solider. It also instils in them a sense of pride as the training system distinguishes them from the civilian. He argues that value of training is psychological as it is a source of empowerment and provides self-confidence.

However, there are flaws to this argument as well. The training system as an institution does not explain why people fight. Yes, it produces soldier that are able and willing to fight however it does not address the root cause of what incentivises and individual to become part of the military training institution.

Moreover, if you were to follow Strachan’s theory about training as reason for why people fight, further criticisms can be made. Training is not the same as war. Training can only anticipate the immediate effects of war but is incapable of preparing soldiers for the realities of war.

As Strachan shifts the focus away from gender and attempts to account for why people fight by understanding military institutions such as small groups and training. Both these explanations are highly limited as they try to provide explanations for why people fight when said individuals are already within the military system.

In conclusion, gender must be understood in relative terms. The construction of masculinity and femininity is different in each society and these differences are made apparent when applied in the context of war. In the case studies of the Taliban and the LTTE gender on its own is not a mobilising force. Gender roles in isolation is not powerful enough to understand why people fight.

When gender is understood as a secondary factor to forces such as nationalism and political sovereignty then a case could be made that gender is important. However, the importance of gender should not be looked at as a mobilising force but rather as a tool to understand interactions between different combatants. Such as the Taliban and Western militaries, and the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.

The Strachan shifts away from gender and presents the case that by understanding the military system, there within lies the answer to why people fight. However, he does not consider the social construction of masculinity and how it is central to the training and operation of Western militaries.

Therefore, the construction of gender roles is not powerful enough to understand why people fight when studied in isolation. The wider context must be understood and considered thus reducing the importance of gender to a secondary position.


Alison, Miranda. 2011. ‘”In the warfront we never think that we are women”: women, gender, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,’ in Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry (eds.) Women, Gender and Terrorism (University of Georgia Press), pp. 131-155. [e-book available at: ]

Manchanda, Nivedita. 2015. ‘Queering the Pashtun: Afghan Sexuality in the Homo-nationalist Imaginary,’ Third World Quarterly 36(1): 130-146. E

Said, Edward Orientalism, (New York: Random House, 1979) 3-4

Silinsky, Mark The Taliban: Afghanistan’s Most Lethal Insurgents (London: Praeger, 2014) 31

Strachan, Hew. 2006. ‘Training, Morale and Modern War,’ Journal of Contemporary History 41(2): 211-227

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