By Europe and Me‘s Beatričė Juškaitė
Beatričė Juškaitė has spoken to women who voluntarily pursue a 9-month military service, obligatory for men, in the Lithuanian Armed Forces. Misogyny and sexism are recurrent themes in their stories.
“Are you sure?”, a middle-aged clean-shaven man in a camouflage uniform asked Raimonda. It was an early morning in autumn 2015, and she had just expressed her willingness to voluntarily enlist for a 9-month conscript service in the Military Duty Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania. Raimonda was already 26, with a higher education diploma, a pleasing job, and a perfect flat in the capital. She had never been a scout or a sportswoman – yet, she did not doubt her decision. “The liberty of the Homeland is a soldier’s most sacred thought, and he sacrifices himself for it,” read a quote in a brochure handed out by the Lithuanian Armed Forces.
This was the year when Ukraine found itself in the midst of a bloody conflict. As Russian soldiers without insignias took control and annexed Crimea in 2014, other Eastern European countries envisaged similar aggression at home. Hence, amid the traumatic return of collective memories of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation, Lithuania reintroduced military conscription. All-too-familiar gendered military tropes re-emerged. While the Armed Forces were branded as the “school of masculinity” for male conscripts, at-that-time Chairwoman of the Parliament, Loreta Graužinienė, encouraged women to fulfil their “duty to the Homeland” by “giving birth to children that could become soldiers”. Instead, women became soldiers themselves. Even as the topic of war eventually left dinner tables, Lithuanian women, who make up around 12% of the Armed Forces, continue volunteering for the military service alongside 18-to-23-year-old male draftees.
The growing presence of women in the military
On one hand, women are no anomaly in the Armed Forces. Their role, from conflict prevention to post-conflict reconstruction, is now widely mainstreamed by the Women, Peace, and Security agenda of the UN. Women are one of the fastest-growing groups in the U.S. military and they are making it to the combat units everywhere. In 2015, Norway made history becoming the first NATO and European country to make national service compulsory for both women and men. In 2018, Major General Alenka Ermenc from Slovenia became the only woman to hold the top Armed Forces post among the NATO countries. On the other hand, the fact these boundaries have only been pushed so recently suggests that there still is some way to go before women in the Armed Forces become the norm. Lithuanian women who choose to voluntarily pursue the 9-month military service alongside men serve as an example.
“If a woman with initiative, goal, and ideas comes to the military… And if her goal is to stay at the office doing accounting or communication, or anywhere else where no actual fieldwork is needed, all right then”, remembered Meda. “But if you want to participate with a gun and – God forbid! – maybe want to command men, you will most likely be told no. Military is no place for women”. “You should have a child instead”. “Do you lack attention in civilian life?”. “Does your boyfriend not satisfy you?”. These were common reactions from fellow military men, mainly conscripts. Refusing to recognise their motivations as political, these comments reduced women to being naïve, overly romantic, or misguided. “Some bullying along the way and the 9 months fly past”, Monika ironised, referring to the reality that stretches from military exercises to classrooms, from canteens to dormitories. “Back to school experience” is how some called it.
Different tactics of coping
Contrary to what one might expect, forming coalitions of sisterhood is a path not many take to shield themselves from mistreatment. As women in the Army often tend to be reduced to, as feminist thinker Cynthia Enloe notes, “soldiers in lipstick and high heels”, proving otherwise becomes a full-time effort. In asserting their worth, women attempt to distinguish themselves from other women as well as pitting themselves against men: “modern guys are losers anyway” who can “cry in front of a big group of people.” Learning the subtleties of “military talk”, trivialising maltreatment as a “price to pay” because “boys will be boys”, and defining the “right” motivations to pursue military service are pieces of evidence to prove you are not one of those women who constitute a “gender problem”. “I feel despondent for those women and people in general who came to serve with no national feelings or sense of duty. For them, everything was like a summer camp with lots of guys whom you can do your catwalk for”, complained one conscript. “Some come because it is fashionable, some want to create an image of being strong and independent”, explained Sonata.
Indeed, although often approached uniformly, military women are far from a homogenous group. Some come looking for adventures, career opportunities or social guarantee. Others choose the Army as a remedy to a quarter-life crisis or for an atypical gap year. Many recall shivers running down their spines when seeing the Lithuanian tricolour flag and appeal to indebtedness to the Forest Brothers – partisans who waged guerrilla warfare against Soviet rule during and after WWII. Some encourage more women to “learn to defend the nation” and, typical of any textbook analysis of the military, promote the service as a “hallmark of citizenship”. According to others, “the fewer women, the better” because “these blondes with huge tits who come with wrong motivations undermine us all”. Some call the training useful, others a “reality show”. Some look down on administrative tasks, perceived as “feminine”, as antithetic to being a “fully fledged soldier”, while others intentionally shy away from military specialties which are deemed too masculine. What some regard as blatant sexism, others consider a courtesy of gentlemen.
“It is a school of staying quiet”, stated Aira providing the following advice: one should better “stay indifferent or ignore” unwanted behaviour and “not stand out”, even if, being a woman in the Armed Forces, “you already do”. One may also find courage in sticking to their ideals in efforts of becoming “a different soldier”. “The army starts with an individual,” Sonata articulated calmly. “When I come back home with a uniform, I want people to see me and think: ‘There is an alcoholic living in that stairway, a retired woman, somebody who has moved in recently, and there is this soldier.’ I want them to know there are people in life who take responsibility for others”, she said.
As the calendar hit 9-months, Raimonda headed home. It had been a bumpy ride. “In my regular job, you know that you’ll find a solution in any case. You’ll google – whatever – and here, if you cannot do something, that’s it. You’ll not find an alternative if you need to run from point A to point B. There’s no point C”. The controversial second-wave feminist Germaine Greer once argued that if what happens, when women join the army, is they discover: it is “no place for a sane human being, then they have learned something”.
However, most women, bruised, exhausted, having tested new physical and mental limits, close this chapter with pride: “We are also citizens of this nation, so we have to learn to protect it”. Although politicians are currently skeptical of conscripting all Lithuanian nationals, dramatic demographic trends might alter their reluctance. And if women are ever mobilized, having no unnecessary hurdles might as well help.
This article is adapted from the author’s master’s thesis which she wrote as a graduate student at Sciences Po Paris in 2019. She obtained excerpts from 21 testimonies for her research. All names that appear in the article have been changed.
This article was originally published in Europe & Me (E&M), with which A Tribe Of Women (ATOW) collaborates.
Beatričė: You can find me in the history and fiction sections in libraries. Share a passionate conversation with me on nationalisms, migrations, or international organisations. Overhear me listening to the Ezra Klein Show trying to understand politics and society. Find me looking for a tandem to sharpen my multilingual skills. Join me wandering in a semi-abandoned cemetery deciphering the epitaphs and carefully photographing them. Lithuania-raised Summa Cum Laude Master in Human Rights from Sciences Po Paris disguised as @bea.promeneuse online.