As combatants, civilian supports, widows or victims of war crimes, women face war as hardly as men. The Imperial War Museum presents two photograph exhibitions paying homage to those women who experienced the war and emphasizing their role.
One exhibition shows the pictures of women that the female photographer Lee Miller took in Europe during the Second World War. The second exhibition presents eleven portraits by the photographer Nick Danziger of women facing contemporary military conflicts around the world.
Those two exhibitions show different aspects of the impacts of conflicts of women’s lives. As Lee Miller mainly shot for British Vogue, fashion takes an important place in her photographs. They show for example how British women tried to stay elegant despite the economic restrictions (hats were for example taxed as luxury items) or how French women made their extravagant style a symbol of resistance during the Nazi Occupation. But it also depicts the difficulties of women who decided to join the army, especially as nurses, and saw their way of living and comfort change drastically. In the British army, 26% of the women who enrolled in the army in 1939 had left in 1940 because of the conditions of life, the uniform, etc.
Nick Danziger endeavours to present the life of eleven specific women from Kosovo to Afghanistan including Colombia or Sierra Leone. He met them twice, in 2001 and ten years after in 2011 to see if their life finally got better. Most of them lost years waiting for news of their missing husband or sons. He also tells the story of women who were physically victims of the war such as those teenagers who became a sexual slave or got their hands cut in Sierra Leone. Even more striking is the story of a ten years old Afghan girl whose mother has died and father has gone. She has to take care on her own of her two younger brothers, having to eat grass to survive. She is the only one that Nick Danziger did not find back in 2011 since she may had died around 2006 after getting married.
Those two exhibitions show the visitor how a woman’s life can be impacted by war. They are both travels, first through times and then around the world. The Lee Miller’s exhibition shows how our ancestors lived in our countries once. The Nick Danziger’s one shows what some women are going through nowadays all over the world because of military conflicts.
Those exhibitions echo with the current situation of women in some areas of the world. First, some of the women portrayed by Nick Danziger live in zones that are still facing conflicts such as Afghanistan, Palestine or even Colombia. Also, some new conflicts appeared. The situation of women in Syria and Iraq for example can remind some of what those eleven women have been through.
Indeed several reports underline the lot of women victims of Isis. Yezidis or Christian women for example are sold as sexual slave and raped by ISIS members even if they are still children. Women who escaped and witnessed said they “had been forced into marriage, […], given as “gifts”, […] witnessed other captives being abused” (Human Rights Watch). ISIS explained and tried to legit those practices in their October 2014 issue of Dabiq, their English-written magazine. It claimed that “Islam permits sex with non-Muslim “slaves,” including girls, as well as beating and selling them”. According to Liesl Gerntholtz, the women right’s director at Human Rights Watch, “Yezidi women and girls who escaped ISIS still face enormous challenges and continuing trauma from their experience”. Most of them are also away from their relatives, killed or held hostages by Isis.
Women who are not held hostages by ISIS and do not have to suffer rapes and forced marriages but live under their regime are also victims. Two women living in Raqqa recently filmed and told what they see every day in this Syrian city which became the headquarters of ISIS. They now have to wear the burka, can be killed for sex without being married and have to witness public executions in their city (http://edition.cnn.com/2016/03/13/world/syria-raqqa-video/).
Women are however not only victims of conflicts. They take part as combatants as well. At the 1st of July 2014 women accounted for 12.7% of officers and 9.4% of other ranks in the British regular army according to Defence Personnel Statistics (House of Commons Library).
They also fight as members of terrorist groups. Between 1985 and 2012, female terrorists accounted for a quarter of fatal attacks in Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Palestine (The International Relations and Security Network).
Lee Miller: A Woman’s War until the 24th April 2016
Admission price: 10£ for adults (5£ for children and 7£ for students)
Nick Danziger until the 24th April 2016
At the Imperial War Museum of London