Yesterday I posted an article on Gender and Literature and as promised, today, we have the opportunity to meet and discuss gender stereo-types with the author of All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq, Miyoko Hikiji. There is probably no better place to examine potential gender obstacles than through a discussion with a former servicewoman. As I stated in yesterday’s post Miyoko is a wife, mother and Christian. To further confuse the stereo-types she also studied journalism, communications, psychology, has about twelve medals and has worked as an actress and model. So in terms of representing her gender Miyoko is, in my opinion the full package, and well suited to show me where I went wrong in this article.
WIDW: So Miyoko, thank you for joining us today. I know you read my little rant on gender. Where did I go wrong?
MH: You know Raymond, I dare say (and don’t often get to say) the views you presented on the socialization of women into traditional roles was very accurate. It starts at birth as girl babies are surrounded by a lexicon and imagery system that consistently sends the messages that the feminine gender ideal is frail, emotional and in need of the male gender ideal (physically strong, fearless leader) in order to be whole and happy. Words and pictures, and not just the ones where we see blatant stereotypes, but the ones where the inequality is almost invisible, is where the danger resides for the equality of all people. That’s where the prototype takes over the thinking pattern. When we can’t see our “enemy,” we can’t fight it. For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary still defines “warrior” as a “man engaged or experienced in warfare.” I think the 283,000 women warriors that served in the Middle East over the past 12 years, among legions of others, would disagree with that. The time to redefine these roles is long overdue. And I agree, the arts, especially young adult novels, is key to that change and the reason being that the arts reach the depths of our hearts, often without our consent. Good writing does that. From the change in hearts comes the change in our minds comes the action of our hands.
WIDW: I could not agree more. And it is interesting where some of these issues reveal themselves. For example you created some military style medallions that are more feminine than the traditional medals. You also received criticism by those who claimed it was paramount to desecration of the medal. Does this suggest that people think women warriors must “act and look” like men?
MH: Absolutely. From the moment I put on my uniform at age 18 in the barracks of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I was expected to give up my womanhood in order to become assimilated into the military family because good soldiers are men. The qualities and traits that were more prevalent (though not exclusive) to my female gender were seen only as weaknesses. In fact, all failures were ascribed a female connotation whether that was truly accurate or not. Like the football coach in a locker room that starts his motivation speech to his players by saying “Look ladies!” That’s simply a sexist way to say “Listen wimps!” Lady is synonymous with weak. Military life is very much the same. When a drill sergeant screams “Don’t you fall out of this ruck march pussy!” he (or she!) is using the female anatomy as a way to define less than best. Conversely, manhood is exalted in the military. Joining the military turns a boy into a man when he puts on his uniform, becomes physically stronger and emotionally harder. The truth is that both women and men can become ideal soldiers. Soldierhood isn’t synonymous with manhood.
WIDW: Honestly, even as a very fair minded supporter of women, I’ve uttered some of those very phrases. Not because I equate female to weakness, but because they have become “funny” yet unacceptable forms of, I won’t say criticism, but “motivation,” as sad as that is. In that same vein, there has been criticism on US recruitment adds that make the women in them look too pretty. Why do you think society equates female beauty with weakness?
MH: We can become fast and simple thinkers. This is what I’m talking about when I say the prototype takes over the thinking pattern. But another inequality in this equation is that as an American society we idealize beauty as being super thin. Super thin is not usually super strong, so it makes sense. We don’t examine the forms of female body builders and say, “wow, she’s beautiful!” We say, “wow, she’s ripped!” Ripped and beautiful are not equal in our thinking. They can be. They just rarely are. Here’s an example of how women, even in military leadership, have internalized this stereotype. Colonel Lynette Arnhart wrote in an email about selecting women for promotional posters (that was later leaked to the press), “In general ugly women are perceived as competent while pretty women are perceived as having used their looks to get ahead.” To Col. Arnhart, not only are pretty women less physically strong, but they operate with less brainpower too. Part of defining a woman’s capabilities beyond appearance is empowering women in leadership to accept no lesser opinion of themselves or others. In order to fight for change, we have to believe in it first.
WIDW: Speaking of fighting — People have a hard time with accepting women in combat. The arguments range from “we need to protect the baby makers,” to “they aren’t strong enough” and my favorite “it will distract our male soldiers.” What are your thoughts on the benefits of women in combat situations?
MH: You know my first intuition is this, that a team of any kind, including the US Armed Forces, is best able to perform its mission when its draws out the diverse strengths of every individual member. In other words, a male servicemember of average strength but superb weaponry skills alongside a female servicemember with average combat medic ability but extraordinary speed coupled to another female servicemember with average radio operating skills but excellent driving talent next to a male servicemember with top-notch endurance but less than best leadership … makes sense right? It’s not about men this balanced by women that. It’s about great this made even better by great that. And those “bests” don’t fall neatly into gender categories. In addition, we think of modern day warfare too narrowly, too Hollywood, therefore overemphasize physicality. It’s an important aspect, without doubt. And men (on average) have more brute strength than women (on average). There are gender differences. But a platoon sergeant or platoon leader isn’t organizing “average” men and women, but individuals with unique capabilities. Good leaders see this and capitalize on it remaining gender blind.
WIDW: Excellent points and I agree that most people often forget that military operations are comprised of many tasks not related to combat. Still many people tend to use as a measurement the fact that the “strongest” man is stronger than the “strongest woman.” While that may be true, there are probably thousands of women stronger than thousands of men. Why do you think we adhere to this idea that women can’t be strong warriors?
MH: Only about 1% of the American population serves in a military uniform today; Fifteen percent of that one percent are women servicemembers. So the rest of the 99% have to reach their conclusions about whether or not women warriors exist based on limited experience, and usually not a personal one. Relying on other sources of information, mainly visual communications via television, movies and Internet, there simply isn’t adequate representation of women in hero roles. It fascinates me that an audience can view a TV commercial, for example, and if a man is in a hero role no one says “hey, that corporation has an agenda to enforce the status quo.” But if the main character is a woman in a non-traditional role, everyone shouts “hey, that corporation has a feminist agenda.” As if feminism were a bad word. Isn’t equality among all people a fundamental human right as well as an American ideal? Change is painful. Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet described pain as the “breaking of a shell that encloses understanding.” Attempting to thwart a more expansive definition of gender in American society from emerging is, in effect, practicing hedonistic depravity.
WIDW: Darn it MH, now I have to go and look up “hedonistic depravity.” Just by broad category review, you are a wife, a mother and a Christian, and spend time as a model. These are all traditional labels that suggest a traditional female viewpoint and not things that we would equate with a female who spent a year in Iraq with an assault rifle. It’s also proof that one doesn’t beget nor eliminate the other. How do we get the message to our daughters that they can have both?
MH: We must teach our daughters that our talents, skills and abilities reside on the inside, not on the outside. People are whole, complex, unique and ever changing beings—in the physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual realms. There is no one size fits all, or even one size fits most for that matter. How do they accept that? We must interrupt our days and theirs, in order to spend time deconstructing the thousands of messages that are flashed in front of them. Though electronic media are not the root of all evil, limiting screen time will not leave girls socially awkward or deprived. Art galleries, libraries and theatres are valuable sources for entertainment that occur at human, not computer, speeds and, in my opinion that is even more incredible. They are often participatory and usually created for intrinsic, not consumer-based, reasons. Paintings, books and plays are created for the viewer or reader to ponder its deeper meanings. We must teach our daughters how to ask critical questions and listen for their reactions to them.
Modeling and soldiering have overlapping qualities, including boldness and physical fitness. Being a woman of faith and a woman in the military both require fellowship or comradeship, trust in the mission and a willingness to give up your life in pursuit of it. Our most potent messages are not the ones we talk about, but the one we live, everyday, in front of our daughters.
WIDW: This is a bad question if you haven’t seen the movie GI Jane. In the movie, the character proves that she can make the cut. Interestingly her greatest adversary turns out to be a female politicians. Do you think that women are more resistant to female leadership than men?
MH: I did see GI Jane and I felt it missed the mark. While the main character proved she was tough enough for the job, part of achieving the respect of her military brothers came when she 1) shaved her head, therefore taking on a more manly appearance 2) saying “suck my dick!” While delivering that line was designed to be shocking, it was also blatantly emasculating to the idea in the plot that a woman was good enough. Many military women do abandon a part of their womanhood and femininity in order to be accepted by the men they serve with. Unfortunately, that perpetuates the stereotype in the long term. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.
WIDW: The benefit to military style groups – armed services, police, fire fighters – is that the group identity is often stronger than gender bias. However the military may still be pretty much a good ole boy network. What do you believe is the biggest obstacle faced by a potential female warrior?
MH: Women considering military service need a stronger sense of self as young adults than I think men do entering military service. Men have the opportunity to develop themselves alongside other men and with strong male leadership. Women, however, are more like islands, living with few other women and often with no female leadership. In an environment that is sexually charged and often abusive, it takes a special woman to navigate all those landmines successfully. A man can join the military to serve; a woman that serves in the military has to be a trailblazer too.
WIDW: As I said in my gender segment, I believe literature, specifically young adult literature can assist in the re-socialization of our daughters. Do you agree or are there better steps to helping our next generation of females to change their thoughts about their role in society?
MH: Absolutely! And I don’t want to pick on the Twilight series either, but I agree with your assessment that Bella traded leadership for love and that her greatest challenge became risking her life to have a baby. She left her family, and not just immediate relatives, the entire human species, to be with a man. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with that story, it’s been told many times before. That, in fact, is exactly why I hoped it had had a twist. One aspect of the story that caught my attention was the vampire power ascribed to her: protection. Really?!? In battle, she projects a protective force field around her man. Boring. I personally wanted her to shoot arrows of fire from her breasts. Something intimidating, destructive and … heroic. If I ever write a vampire tale, that’s what I’m gonna be able to do in it. So yes, more powerful female characters in non-traditional roles in young adult literature can be important examples of confidence and empowerment for young girls.
WIDW: I cannot think of a better thought to leave this interview on than of Bella shooting fire arrows from her breasts LOL. Miyoko, I want to thank you for sharing your insights with us and a big thank you for serving our country. Readers, if you’d like to hear more about Miyoko’s experiences pick up a copy of her book…and get one for your daughters.
About the Author
Miyoko Hikiji served as an enlisted soldier in the Army and Iowa Army National Guard for nearly a decade, spending 400 days deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 2004.
During the deployment she spent over 70 days running supply convoy, security and raid missions throughout the northwest quadrant of Iraq.
Upon her return from Iraq, Miyoko wrote her company’s deployment history for the archives at the Gold Star Museum on Camp Dodge the Iowa Army and Air National Guard State Headquarters.
Miyoko’s military awards include the Army Commendation Medal (2), Army Achievement Medal (2), Army Good Conduct Medal, Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal (2), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal with M Device, Army Service Ribbon and Iowa Humanitarian Service Medal. Her transportation company received the second highest unit decoration the Valorous Unit Award for extraordinary heroism.
Miyoko earned her degree in journalism from Iowa State University in 2004. She with her husband Tom, and two daughters reside in Iowa.
About – All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq
Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: Chronology Books; First edition (May 25, 2013)
Before Washington officials said that women could go into combat, they were out there in the battle, but just not getting credit for it. Armed with M16 s and more robust firepower, women support troops backed up infantry units and got into the thick of it when called up to lend support.
Transportation troops, in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving the IED laden roads with critically needed ammunition and supplies were always in the combat zone, explosive devices frequently causing the loss of limb and life attested to that.
Miyoko Hikiji, a young woman from Iowa knows well of it well enough to write a book about it. All I Could Be My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq tells it just the way it was when, as a young woman in the Iowa National Guard, she was deployed to Iraq after the invasion ten years ago and discovered that the peaceful world she knew amid the Midwestern farm land had been replaced by the wind driven sand dunes of Iraq. Peace she discovered had become a pleasant and distant memory. Armed with an M16 and the equipment of the modern warrior, Miyoko was told to take her weapon into the cab of a truck, sit behind the wheel, and join a series of convoys. Each day she drove deeper into harm s way.
And each night was a nightmare in the making. Miyoko writes of one such night, “The infantry’s mortar platoon, just down the street, zeroed in and returned fire. The opposite bank exploded. Then, two patrol boats fixed with automatic weapons screamed by opening fire along the bank. The radio on the patio lit up with chatter but we couldn’t make out details. Moments later it was silent again. Voices on the radio became clear–all clear. Reluctantly we climbed out of the hole and returned to our tents. No one could sleep but no one wanted to talk. We lay silently in our bunks until the sun beckoned us to start another day.”
And, another day always brought stress, fear and all that war brings. “It is my war story,” writes Miyoko, “it is part military history, part personal revelation, part therapy, the stuff of so many war stories that have become a vital part of the great American tradition.”
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