Both Sexes Called To Arms as Norway Conscripts Girls

Norwegian army
IN THE ARMY NOW: Medically fit women aged between 19 and 44 will be enlisted in the Norwegian Armed Forces next year. Norwegian Armed Forces

Since the beginning of this year, Commander Per-Thomas Bøe of the Norwegian Armed Forces has been working an exceptionally hectic schedule, sending out conscription letters not just to the usual 32,000-odd 17-year-old boys but to their female contemporaries as well. And Bøe has to get ready for the girls' arrival in the summer of 2016 too, which means installing more female showers and toilets around the country's military installations and figuring out exactly how they'll fit into a centuries-old male bastion. That's because what he's doing is a first for Norway, and indeed for both Europe and NATO: female conscription.

"The Scandinavian countries are very good at leading in gender equality, so it's no surprise that Norway should pioneer female conscription," says Joanne Mackowski, a researcher at the London military think tank RUSI, who specialises in gender issues. "Norway is a small country that doesn't deploy large numbers of soldiers to international conflicts, but some nation had to take the first step, so now other countries can look to Norway."

That includes looking at how Norway is logistically handling the transformation. Bøe's staff is now sending conscription letters to all 63,000 Norwegian 17-year-olds, inviting them to complete an online questionnaire. Based on the results, the armed forces will invite 20,000 boys and girls for interviews as well as physical and psychological tests; of them, it will select 10,000 to train as soldiers. "It's all about competence," says Bøe. "By conscripting girls we get double the number of potential soldiers, so of course we get a better selection."

Among the other preparations: equipping the armed forces with enough uniforms and gear for slightly shorter soldiers and convincing parents, and indeed the general public, that conscripting girls is a good idea. If the selection board spots a particularly suited girl, it will be able to force her to perform military service, though the idea is that anybody selected will also be motivated to serve. Norway already has plenty of experience with female fighters, having opened the armed forces to women volunteers 35 years ago. Major General Kristin Lund, who last year was appointed the United Nations' first-ever female peacekeeping commander, was one of the first women to enlist in 1980.

Lund edit
Kristin Lund was the first UN-appointed female commander of the peacekeeping forces. Taral Jansen

Among the more recent female volunteers is 19-year-old Anette Tørresen, who serves in the elite 2nd Battalion, a unit specialised in Arctic warfare that has also been deployed to Afghanistan. On the day Newsweek spoke to her, Tørresen and her fellow 2nd Battalion soldiers had walked up a mountain, each carrying 40kg of gear and equipment, completed a day of shooting exercises there and marched down again. "I believe female conscription is a good thing, and that's what the boys here say too," she reports. "If the women can carry the same amount, the boys are fine having them there."

Tørresen knows a thing or two about what her male co-fighters think: she shares a room with four of them. And when the girl conscripts arrive, they'll sleep in the same rooms as boys just as Tørresen and the other female soldiers – 17% of Norway's military – already do. But Bøe says he's not worried about this nocturnal proximity: "When you have a large number of young people, of course you'll have some problems, but things are improving. The people we take will be smart enough not to get into trouble. And they'll be busy focusing on their tasks. After a long day's work, it's all about equipment maintenance and sleep." In the US Army, female soldiers on deployment usually curtain off their part of the tent with sheets.

In preparation for the first mixed-gender conscript class, Bøe's team is carrying out highly innovative pilot projects. One, an all-female paratrooper unit consisting of exclusively of female soldiers, has just begun training and will be ready to receive its first conscripted women next July. Paratroopers, the Rambos of armed forces – they parachute behind enemy lines – have traditionally always been men. In another, an air force battalion has been split 50/50 along gender lines.

Though Norway plays an active role in international military missions, it's unlikely that Norway's female Rambos will parachute behind enemy lines any time soon. Indeed, notes Machowski, "we'll be waiting a while to see firstly how women and society respond to the changed policy, and secondly how many women make it from training out into combat," she adds. Even if a Western coalition were to intervene with ground troops against, say, Islamic State, new conscripts would not be deployed.

Woman soldier
EQUAL RIGHTS: With the new bill, the ratio of men to women in the Norwegian army could be set to change. Torbjørn Kjosvold

Norway's move illustrates an international trend towards gender-neutral armed forces. Most Western countries allow women in support functions, and women's combat options are quickly increasing. Last month, the US Army Rangers conducted their first pre-training course open to women. Five female and 21 male soldiers successfully completed the infamously gruelling course, where participants run an obstacle course, march two miles carrying heavy gear, run a two-mile course with their equipment and engage in underwater combat. The United States' new Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, supports opening all military positions to women. Last year Britain lifted its ban on women serving in submarines, though British women still can't serve in infantry combat units, which literally and figuratively do the heavy lifting in any armed forces. Countries such as Germany and Denmark, in turn, allow women to serve in any position. Apparently that's not too popular with their male colleagues. A recent poll of male German soldiers reveals widespread concern about their female colleagues' abilities, with 56.6% of the male soldiers saying women are physically unsuitable for tough frontline conditions. The same poll reports that 55% of female soldiers have been sexually molested on the job.

But according to Astrid Vig, a 21-year-old professional soldier who serves as the soldiers' representative in the Norwegian armed forces board, male soldiers don't care whether you're a man, woman or the man from the moon as long as you can carry your kit. In the future, space-age innovations such as DARPA's Alpha Dog may do some of the carrying, but for now, soldiers' physical strength remains key. And, reports Bøe, young Norwegian women's fitness habits make them even better suited to military tasks than in the past. Indeed, given that many men serve in military support roles, armed forces of the future may see female combat soldiers attended to by male Florence Nightingales and fed by Father Courage instead of the fictional Mother Courage from Bertolt Brecht's famous play.

Will the first mixed-gender conscript class be divided 50/50? Bøe doesn't know. If the girls turn out to be fitter and smarter than the boys, they could end in the majority. But one thing is certain: the female paratrooper unit will remain, and though there will be plenty of women-only showers and toilets, the sleeping quarters will stay mixed. "I don't really think about the fact that there are boys in my room," reports Tørresen. The question now is when other countries will introduce female conscription – and whether they, too, will go for shared bedrooms and all-female parachute units.