From propaganda to protest, music has always been an important element of war. In our darkest hours, music has the ability to remind us of our humanity. Military drummers once charged into battle, unarmed, to rally troops, demoralize the enemy, and send messages with their instruments. Throughout history, soldiers have sung ballads to remember the fallen and boost morale. And yet, while music is an effective tool in the promotion of military unity, it has also been used to segregate female soldiers in Israel and Russia.
Women serve in various military roles around the world, but only three nations conscript women. Eritrea’s indefinite conscription of men and women, instituted in 1995, is a human rights violation, while Norway’s recently approved female conscription, effective January 2015, boasts equality. Israel, however, is unique for being the first country in the world to conscript women. Shortly after gaining independent statehood and assembling the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1948, Israel began requiring mandatory military service for adult women without children. Before the late 1970s, female soldiers were restricted to serving secretarial and technical roles in the Women’s Army Corps to mitigate the possibility of their becoming prisoners of war. After five weeks of basic training, the women generally served as nurses, signal operators, flight controllers, drivers, clerks, and teachers. Manpower shortages in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, compelled women to undertake additional field roles. The 2000 Equality in Service amendment to the Military Service Law expanded these opportunities for women and sanctioned entrance into light combat and combat support roles. The amendment states, “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.”
Though Israeli women have earned the right to defend their country, they are not permitted to sing. Kol B’Isha Ervah, literally “the voice of a woman is nakedness,” prohibits women from singing in the presence of men, in accordance with Orthodox Judaism. IDF rabbis of the Haredim, a strict Orthodox sect of Judaism, prevent female soldiers from participating in certain celebrations and ask them to dance in separate areas from men. Many argue that one female voice cannot be heard within a group, under Talmudic rule, though. The Talmud, a rabbinic text, states that “Trei Kali Lo Mishtamay” (two voices cannot be heard simultaneously). This principle is used to prohibit two people from reading out of the Torah at once, but it is also being used to consider leniency for female singers.
Israeli women are required to serve in the IDF for twenty-four months, though certain service roles, such as those involving combat, may legally demand a commitment of thirty-six months. Female combat soldiers operate for three years of active duty and are required to remain in reserves service until age thirty-eight, regardless of motherhood status. Otherwise, religious conscience, marriage, pregnancy, and motherhood are all valid exemptions from joining service initially.
Though women are not subject to conscription in Russia, female soldiers represent ten percent of modern Russian military strength. However, women’s involvement in the Russian Armed Forces stems more from necessity than equality. Sustaining heavy losses during WWI, the Russian Army was forced to begin relying on women. In March 1917, a recruit named Maria Bochkareva, formerly of the 25th Reserve Battalion, formed the Women’s Battalion of Death to increase manpower. Bochkareva enlisted approximately two thousand female soldiers between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five. The young women fought bravely against German forces during the 1917 June Offensive, but the battalion was quickly eliminated. Within three months of action, the Women’s Battalion of Death was reduced from 2,000 to around 250 soldiers.
After WWII ended, many military career opportunities were closed to women, despite equality policies. Sexist attitudes run rampant, though women have the legal right to serve in the Russian Armed Forces. The modern Russian Army currently holds an annually televised beauty contest called Miss Russian Army, dedicated to determining which female soldier is the most beautiful. Held at the Russian Army Theatre, participating female soldiers and sailors are expected to model their uniforms on a catwalk while singing military propaganda songs with such lyrics as “since we are soldiers, our first concern is automatic weapons; boys come second.”
The Miss Russian Army pageant unapologetically uses female soldiers as props to increase army recruitment of young men. Ironically, Russian officials prohibit the women from wearing bikinis during the beauty pageant, though Israeli female soldiers, restrained on duty under the watchful eye of the pious Haredim, are often seen wearing bikinis at the beach while toting rifles over their shoulders. Whereas Israeli women are legally bound to serve without singing in the presence of men, Russian women are tolerated in the military so long as they entertain men with a song and dance.