I’ve just finished reading two news reports.
In the first, a 57-year-old Alaskan hiker was mauled by a seven-foot-tall brown bear on a wilderness trail. Bitten seven times, she walked 2.4 km to her truck and then drove to hospital to be treated. The police said she was “very pragmatic and calm about everything” when she checked herself into the hospital and the people working on her were more shocked than she was.
The second report is on how the women of Hassakeh, a Kurdish-majority city in north Syria, are taking up arms against extremists. Female fighters and commanders reportedly make up 30 per cent of the forces of the People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. Britan Derek, 33, a commander in the unit, has been quoted as saying: “Women can fight better than men. We remain calm and steadfast. We are usually snipers, or on the fighting front.” Derek’s friend and co-fighter Ameena is just 19. Her father tried to stop her from signing up but couldn’t. “She is braver than I am, and stronger than her brothers,” he says.
This is not the first time we’re witnessing courageous acts by women. As a child, I saw my grandmother visit the police station to offer information about a possible killer in the neighbourhood when no one else was willing to speak up. Some years ago, I read a report on the wife of a Scottish minister squaring up to a drunk beating up his girlfriend while her husband and other bystanders chose to look away. The story of Delhi’s ‘Nirbhaya’ doesn’t bear repeating; her given name says it all.
Why is it then that the dictionary describes manliness as the “traditional male quality of being brave and strong” while womanly merely connotates the physical characteristics of a female? Look up suggested usages of womanly, and you’ll immediately find “smooth, womanly skin” or a “womanly body that is fully developed and curvaceous”.
Back in 2004, Chicago researchers Selwyn Becker and Alice Eagly assessed heroism among men and women in a wide variety of global activities. They studied people who had saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, or joined the Peace Corps, donated an organ or volunteered for service in dangerous locations. Everywhere, women disproportionately outnumbered men.
Why then is the heroism of women so unsung? As Nelson Mandela pointed out, courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. It’s not about being physically strong enough to beat back intruders, but about having the will to do it. Heroism is about defending your terrain, your belief and your people against all odds. It’s not always dramatic. Giving up a successful career and following your husband to a remote posting, not knowing what you will find, is also courage.
There’s probably a downside. Psychologists say women jump in to help without pausing to consider the consequences of their actions. Does that make them brave or naïve? I’m not sure I know. But I would like to think that most women have tired of the ‘look the other way’ school of thought, and are prepared to battle even if they have to bleed. Sometimes it’s by picking up arms and fighting; other times, it’s by surviving a bear attack. Because, as every woman knows, losing a war is not the same as losing heart.