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How Ancient Women Survived War

Smoke rises over the Syrian city of Kobani, following a US led coalition airstrike, seen from outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Monday, Nov. 10, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Traditional stories from around the world are providing insight into how ancient women survived war. The oral histories tell of women developing strategies to protect themselves and their children.

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Whether it was centuries ago, or today, women have suffered greatly in war -- even though they are usually not combatants. Stories passed down through the generations indicate they used their wits to make the best of terrible circumstances.

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama -- an anthropology instructor at the University of Oregon – studied those stories. They come from North American Indian tribes, the Eskimo of the arctic, Australia’s aborigines, the San of South Africa and tribes in South America. She says both indigenous people and anthropologists agree that hunter-gatherers passed down their knowledge by telling tales not by writing them down.

“My main interest is the role that story telling has played in human evolution – and how far back it dates in human pre-history. And the basic argument that I make in my research is that it dates back thousands of years, tens of thousands of years to when all humans on the planet were making their living by hunting and gathering. So I just started asking myself, well, what kinds of information does it take to make a living as a hunter-gatherer? What are some of the problems that they face on a regular basis? And warfare is one of those problems.”

She said that there’s a lot of research in evolutionary psychology on warfare and when it emerged in human pre-history. But she said there’s little information on women and war through the ages.

“The research focuses on men because warfare is primarily waged by men, especially in forager societies. Women are victims of it. The defend themselves, but they don’t really participate in attacking other groups. The research is focused on why males would be motivated to engage in this behavior. What the possible benefits are – on how male psychology has been shaped to enable males to engage in warfare,” she said.

Scalise Sugiyama said oral stories provide long-term patterns of behavior that archeology, for example, cannot provide. She says more men die in war than women, but adds that women are affected by war in many ways.

“Death in violent interactions is not the only potential cost of warfare, especially in the case of women. Women are often taken captive and children, too, whereas men are more likely to be killed. They don’t tend to be taken captive. So that just started me thinking about the different ways in which warfare affects women,” she said.

She gave an example of how women in the midst of war could react.

“If a woman was taken captive and she wanted to escape, well, one really useful piece of information would be what the terrain is like between the enemy village that you’ve been taken to and her natal village – the village that she’s trying to get back to. You have to be able to find your way back. Another set of useful information would be, well, how do these different enemy groups -- living around me -- how do they treat their captives? Do they tend to adopt them into the tribe and treat them like group members? Do they torture them? Do they rape them?”

So, would it better to fight her attacker or go along as a captive knowing she would not be killed? Another possible strategy, she said, is the use of sex by women to escape.

She said, “Women are typically taken as wives. So, she’ll pretend to like her new husband. And then when an opportunity to escape arises she will typically engage him in very vigorous sexual intercourse to tire him out so he falls into a deep sleep. And then while he’s asleep she kills him. Or sometimes her husband kills him. Her husband may be in on the escape attempt. So, he’ll sneak into the tent after the captor has been exhausted – kill him – and then he and his wife make their escape.”

The anthropology instructor said the so-called Stockholm Syndrome may have ancestral roots. It’s when hostages bond with their captors during abusive conditions.

“When I started researching it I was surprised to discover that there are actually no validated criteria for diagnosing it. And it’s not recognized as a psychiatric disorder or condition by the medical community. And so that suggests that it might actually be a coping mechanism or a coping strategy. It may increase the captive’s chances of survival by motivating her to identify with her captor and adopt his views and the views of his society so she can fit in in this new society,” she said.

Scalise Sugiyama said she wonders what the psychological state might be of hundreds of girls kidnapped earlier this year by Nigeria’s Boko Haram militant group.

“When women are taken captive they’re put in this really difficult position, which is: you don’t know if you’re going to be rescued or not. So, you don’t know if you’re going to spend the rest of your life in this new society in which you’re basically an enemy, an outsider – or if you’re going to manage to get back to your natal group, you know, your own people.”

She added the research could lead to better social and psychological help for women affected by war. The findings appear in Springer’s journal Human Nature.