What makes women soldiers? What might make a woman enter and seek a career in such an entrenched domain of men and masculinity as the military? What do women have to do to earn the status of ‘soldier,’ or gain recognition as a member of a nation’s armed forces? Any scholarly attempt to answer such questions must account for specificities of nationality, culture, and history. Feminist scholarship from the 1980s and 1990s reminds us that ‘woman’ cannot be assumed to be a universal category, and that race, class, sexuality and religion among other factors can create hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion that normalise some females’ conditions and issues, and marginalise others’. Moreover, while military institutions across the world may share much in common in terms of organisational structure, language, ideology, protocols, material culture and technology, it is fairly widely accepted that each individual military can also be seen to retain and demonstrate distinct national characteristics; and at a more provincial level, some regiments within a national armed force may even cultivate and proudly display more local and vernacular traits. So if we accept that ‘woman’ and ‘military’ are categories that may vary according to time and place, when trying to understand what makes women soldiers, quite simply, context matters.
My anchoring context for posing the question, ‘What makes women soldiers?’ is that of the Pacific Islands nation of Fiji. Any number of case studies from around the world could illuminate the modern phenomenon of women soldiers, but focusing on Fiji helps to shed light on the militarisation of a region of the world that is still commonly represented in popular media as idyllic. Fiji’s experience both as a British colony (from 1874) and as an independent sovereign self-governing nation (since 1970) additionally helps to illustrate the multiplicity of historical and political contexts that can engender militarisation in the Pacific Islands. While there are certainly other Pacific Island territories where women continue to serve in colonial military forces (e.g. Guam, American Samoa), are serving in their own national defence forces (e.g. Papua New Guinea, Tonga), or are being recruited by former colonial states into armed service (e.g. Marshall Islands, FSM, Belau), Fiji is the only Pacific nation where all three contexts can be observed in historical sequence.