“Little Ladies Shouldn’t Play With Swords”

 “Women’s lives and their bodies have been the unacknowledged casualties of war for too long.”

Amnesty International, Lives Blown Apart


 

First, I must write a disclaimer for this article. I, in no way, can be described as a “fan” of the hit HBO Series, Game of Thrones (GoT). Due to the emotional scars I have following the “Red Wedding” episode – I threw up my hands in disbelief after the murder of almost every beloved major character. I also stopped watching GoT because personally, I did not like the way rape and violence were commonplace in almost every scene. Great plot, just not something I want to watch for “entertainment.”

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However, I must applaud GoT for showing the realities of war and conflict for women. Although exaggerated to some extent with a dose of overwhelming fantasy, there is truth to the portrayal of women in this series. I think we all can agree that every female in GoT is utilized as a pawn, in one way or another, for the use of men in their “war games.” Unfortunately, this does not stray from real life.

Even the strongest female characters including Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, at some point experience being “used” by men for their own gain. Cersei Lannister, for example, is often portrayed as the scheming mother attempting to hold together her powerful family, but the viewers see how she is used not only by her father, who forced her to marry King Robert Baratheon, but also by her son, Joffrey. Daenerys also suffers initially at the hands of her abusive brother, Viserys, who only seeks power. Despite the portrayal of these characters as strong women, they are undoubtedly treated as pawns in men’s schemes at some point in the series. Dozens of other female characters also suffer through sexual exploitation, emotional abuse, as well as physical mistreatment.

Reality, Not Fantasy

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In 2013, the United Nations Security Council held a day-long debate looking at the effects of war and conflict on women. In a press release it stated, “Women and girls suffered disproportionately during and after war, as existing inequalities were magnified, and social networks broke down, making them more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation.”

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has also reiterated the massive impact war and conflict have on women. In particular, it noted the impact of rape, especially when it is used “as a weapon.” Unfortunately, the use of rape is portrayed countless times in the GoT series and has turned many viewers, including myself, away from watching it. The reality is, however, that rape has been and is used as a weapon to “demoralize individuals, break apart families and terrorize communities.”

Some of the most prominent modern examples of conflict in which rape was used as a weapon are Bosnia in the 1990s, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971 and the occupation of Nanking, Japan in 1937. Gita Sahgal, speaking to BBC, described the systematic raping of women in these conflicts as resembling a “spoil of war,” and particularly in ethnic conflicts, it is a means to exert control over a group because “women are seen as the reproducers and carers of the community.”

A Modern Nightmare

One doesn’t need to look any further than the situation in the Middle East to see the use of women as pawns in a male-dominated conflict. The security of women is delicate and uncertain, particularly in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State (IS) is notorious for committing heinous crimes against women. Human Rights Watch conducted an investigation in the northern Iraqi Kurdistan town of Dohuk earlier this year in order to understand the treatment of women under IS. Several Yezidi women and girls, who had escaped slavery in the group, described being raped, forced into marriage or “gifted” to other men. These girls, and many others like them, are treated as “spoils of war” by IS, they are enslaved in large numbers and treated like objects to be passed amongst its military ranks.

Even more disheartening, is the participation of other women in these actions by IS. Al Arabiya reported in September 2014, that an all female “police force” called the al-Khanssaa Brigade was created to help force captured women into sexual slavery, as well as uphold the strict rules on women’s behavior created by the group. IS, strategically, utilizes other women to push their agenda and ideology. Women are seen as “rewards” and unfortunately, their disproportionate suffering under the hands of IS has been overshadowed by the security threat the group poses in the region.

“Little ladies shouldn’t play with swords.” – Ned Stark

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As in GoT and in real life, women are utilized as pawns in the games of men; often their bodies represent the objects of desire, greed, hatred and war. Many viewers were upset at the most recent GoT rape scene which involved Sansa Stark suffering at the hands of her husband on their wedding night. Moving past the controversy surrounding the scene however, it is important to realize that scenes like this are not fantasy, but reality for many women in almost every conflict. Although not at war, Sansa, a strong female character, falls prey to a man who symbolically represents the disintegration of her family and home to conflict. Unfortunately, there are thousands of women who today are reminded of the wars they have endured because of the scars left by sexual exploitation. Like Sansa, they are strong, but diminished to nothing more than an object when used and abused by war.

The reality is this: women will continue to be abused and used as pawns in conflict unless they are readily involved and represented in peacemaking, peace-building and peacekeeping efforts. Today, they are not represented to the extent that they are affected by war and conflict.

You may dislike GoT, or love it, but you cannot escape the stark reality it portrays regarding the experiences of women in conflict for thousands of years. Unfortunately, it is fantasy inspired by reality.

About Victoria Heath

Victoria is a former Program Editor for Women in Security at the NATO Association of Canada. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2013 with a BA, honours degree in History and Political Science with a focus on the Middle East and women's rights. She was a member of AmeriCorps from 2013-2014 working at Great Oaks Charter School in Newark, NJ as a tutor and advisor for high-risk students. Her interests in security, women's rights and defense issues originate from her family's background in the U.S. military and growing up abroad in the Middle East. She has done previous research in U.S. Foreign Policy and Congressional affairs at Project Vote Smart, as well as research in women's health and refugee issues for the Lutheran World Federation in Kakuma, Kenya. She is also the creator of the Migration and Policy Coalition at the University of Toronto and the Co-Chair of the MGA Crisis Simulation 2016. She is currently pursuing her MGA at the Munk School of Global Affairs and is expected to graduate in 2016. You can connect with her @victoria_heath7 on Twitter or send her an email at victoria.heath@mail.utoronto.ca