The War I Know: Sidelined, A to Z

The War I Know: Sidelined, A to Z

by Carolyn Gage

2003: A journalist contacted several writers, including me, about the impending invasion of Iraq: How was the war was affecting my writing? My comments were rejected for publication, but here is what I said:

Taking a little scroll through my Rolodex here, in order to answer your question about how “the war” is affecting my work…. Now, I’m just starting with the A’s and moving through the alphabet.

These are the women… Okay, the first one is in a situation where my description of her and her child might cause her to be recognized and put her custody at risk. So forget that. Second one, raped as a child. Third one, raped as a child, multiple perpetrators. She’s a well-known author. Fourth one, raped as a child by family member, assaulted as a female member of a racial minority at her school.

Fifth one, sexually abused as a child and then arrested and abused in jail back in the 1960s for going to lesbian bars. She’s a fierce labor union organizer. Sixth one, raped as a child. Seventh, raped by her father. Ditto, Number Eight. Number Nine, victim of child sexual abuse and violence directed against her as a Native American woman and as a butch lesbian. Also an author. Number Ten, Cuban immigrant, subjected to violence as a child, severe dissociative disorders, divinity student.

Okay… So, maybe there’s something about the A’s. Let’s just jump around a little bit. Okay, in the B’s… victim of abduction and rape with knife mutilation in high school, was recently raped and sodomized in her late 40s, standing in the front yard of her own house. Brilliant woman, Pulitzer prize nominee…. C’s… Sexually abused by both mother and father, and prostituted as a child, courageous leader of a movement of incest survivors, college professor.

Let’s try the end of the alphabet… W: Woman whose lover was a survivor of sexual violence and hanged herself in the living room… talented musician and computer technician, has trouble with intimacy. More W’s: Date rape victim. Victim of stalking who had to change her name and move to another state. Victim of paternal and fraternal incest…

©2003 by Guerrilla Girls, Inc.; THE WOMEN’S TERROR ALERT

It would appear that there is some kind of war already going on in my world. Terrorism? Oh, yeah. Every single woman in my Rolodex has been subjected to some kind of terrorism. If we weren’t married to, the daughter of, or dating the terrorist, it was someone who followed us on the street at night, or exhibited themselves to us in some corner of the library stacks, or an anonymous phone caller, detailing what he was going to do to us. It was our babysitter, our neighbor, our college professor, our priest, our dentist.

I have to laugh at what you men call “terrorism.” We women should be so lucky if all we had to fear were some maniac in an airplane. I laugh when they go through my luggage looking for the nail file. Weapons? How about beer bottles, telephone receivers, pencils, stove burners, furniture, appliances, whole automobiles? How about the legal system? The medical institutions? The mental health system? And, duct tape as part of a survival kit? Shows how much men know about our war! That’s something that our terrorists use routinely on the wrists, ankles and mouths of their victims.

So how does this current men’s war affect me? I realize with sadness that the funding for it will, again, increase the likelihood of decreased funding for programs for women and children. I realize that our war — “women’s issues” — will appear trivial in light of this so-called national emergency.

I realize that there will be enormous media coverage for the official prisoners-of-war, who at least volunteered themselves as soldiers. The prisoners of our war didn’t even know we had an enemy. We will continue to be invisible, filing for ineffectual restraining orders, living our desperately constricted lives with frozen smiles on our faces, trying and failing over and over to protect our children.

I realize the veterans of the men’s war will have free medical treatment for their war wounds, will be honored in parades. Our veterans will have trouble even seeking medical treatment, afraid of worse violence if it is reported, afraid of losing our children, afraid of being blamed. We have no parades. Nobody grants us free tuition for our years of service. Many of us will struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder for decades, being pathologized for our war wounds. Nobody pins medals on our chests. There is no Purple Heart for surviving incest.

This Gulf War renews my commitment to the real war, the war that goes on all around us all over the world, every single day – the war that men wage against women and against our children.

This “new” war is really just an extension and escalation of the old war. According to MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq have already resulted in the deaths of more than one million people. Nearly sixty percent of these were Iraqi children under the age of seven, most of whom died from starvation and preventable disease, such as dehydration caused by diarrhea. The depleted uranium dropped in the area in 1991 has resulted in a six to twelve-fold increase in incidences of childhood leukemia. As MADRE Executive Director Vivian Stromberg notes, “Because of their universally assigned role as caretakers, women are primarily responsible for those made most vulnerable by war – children, the sick and elderly.”

How does this new war affect my work as a playwright? It adds a special urgency to the need to write and produce plays that tell the stories of women who have survived and are surviving the real war, the one we’re not allowed to talk about.

Still Thinking About War

2008: Since I wrote my unpublished work, the U.S. has invaded and been occupying Iraq for five years. How has this affected the “other war”?

In terms of the U.S., one out of two women in the military will be sexually assaulted. A whole new syndrome has been named: “Military Sexual Trauma.” MST is defined as “the result of military personnel harassing, assaulting or raping of other military personnel.” According to the Department of Defense’s own statistics, 74-85 percent of soldiers convicted of rape or sexual assault leave the military with honorable discharges, which means the assault conviction never appears on their record. Only two to three percent of soldiers accused of rape are ever go to court martial. I wonder if the new recruits understand that they are not only going to be fighting against their enemies, but also alongside them?

And what about the women of Iraq? According to the 2007 MADRE report, Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy, the war against them has escalated. Since the occupation, there has been a concerted legal attack on the rights of women. The Iraqi Governing Council replaced the progressive1959 code of family law with arbitrary interpretations of Sharia, or religious law, which have resulted in legalizing violence against women. Under the 1959 laws, divorce cases were to be heard only in civil courts, polygamy was outlawed unless the first wife consented, women divorcees had an equal right to custody over their children and women’s income was recognized as independent from their husbands’s. The old law also restricted child marriage and granted women and men equal shares of inheritance.

As the report notes, the war for theocracy is often begun by a systematic targeting of women and minorities, who represent or demand an alternative or competing political vision. This has been the case in Iraq, and in the opening months of the war, leaflets and graffiti warned women against going unveiled in public, driving, wearing make-up, or shaking hands and socializing with men. The punishment for being unveiled or wearing pants can be death or acid attacks. All Iraqi women are subjected to this reign of terror, but there has been a special focus on women who are political leaders, professionals, academics and students, and those who publicly defend women’s human rights.

In 2004, MADRE reported on the impact of the first year of the occupation: A sharp rise in abductions, rapes, and sexual slavery made women afraid to leave their homes. It is estimated that more than 400 Iraqi women were abducted and raped within the first four months of US occupation. Girls were being kept out of school and many women were by then forbidden by their families to be in public without a male escort.

And then there are the Iraqi women who have been detained by the U.S. government. According to the head of the International Occupation Watch Center, “Since December 2003, there are around 625 women prisoners in Al–Rusafah Prison in Uma Qasr and 750 in Al–Kadhmiya alone. They range from girls of twelve to women in their sixties.” The majority of women detainees are held without charges or any semblance of due process. In 2004, Newsweek described them as “bargaining chips to put pressure on their wanted relatives to surrender.”

MADRE reports that, in addition to sexual violence, there is evidence of torture of women by U.S. forces including routine maltreatment, degradation, physical and psychological abuse, and unhealthy and unhygienic conditions. The report states: “Women detainees have been forced to remove their headscarves, dragged by their hair, made to eat from dirty toilets, and urinated on.”

So, how does “the war” impact my writing now? Sadly, despair has begun to erode the outrage. In these conservative times, I sorely miss the radical voices… my own included.

Carolyn Gage is a lesbian-feminist playwright, performer, director and activist. She is the author of fifty-five plays and seven books. Her play Ugly Ducklings was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for the ATCA/Steinberg Award for best new play of the year produced outside New York. The play is the subject of a national documentary on harassment and suicide of GBLT youth. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post and on National Public Radio, and has been widely published and performed. Information about her touring work and her plays are at her website,