Gender is arguably terrorism and the ‘War on

Gender is and has been one of the most
contestable concepts in politics throughout our time. From looking at whether
gender is socially constructed or biologically determined to exploring gender
stereotypes, expectations and conventions, from tensions within gender to
issues between genders, analysing the world through a gendered lens reveals
many insights. In addition to that, the most contentious topic of our current
time is arguably terrorism and the ‘War on Terror’ waged by the West since 9/11.
In this essay I will bring together the age-old issue of gender with the
hottest topic of our time, and as such I am going to explore how gender shapes
our understanding of The War on Terror.   

Following the attacks of September 11th 2001 in
the USA, the Bush administration declared a ‘War on Terrorism’ and this
commitment has been an integral part of American politics and governance ever
since. (Sides & Gross, 2013). 7 years
later Gargi Bhattacharyya evaluates the ‘War on Terror’ in her book ‘Dangerous Brown Men’ (Bhattacharyya, 2008). The title
itself is ironic, Bhattacharyya seems to be calling attention to and condemning
the Western tendency to categorise dark skinned men, as “dangerous” based on
their race and gender, she refers mainly to Muslim men. Sides and Gross explore
the way in which stereotypes against Muslims, in America, influence support on
the War on Terror. Harrowingly, it seems that all
Muslims are categorised together in these unfair stereotypes; meaning that
little distinction is made between the regular Muslim man, who is of course
peaceful, and the extremist who has taken a radical interpretation of the
Quaran. The idea of stereotypes embodies the need for individuals to
categorise the world around them. Sides and Gross conclude that the most
significant warmth stereotypes Americans affiliated with Muslims are, that they
are “violent and untrustworthy” (Sides & Gross, 2013). A warmth
stereotype is concerned with the level of threat an opposing party is perceived
to impose, it is evaluated through asking whether they wish to help or harm as
well as looking at “goal compatibility”; the more disparate the goals of the
opposing party are the more dangerous they are seen to be. And so it is clear
that much like Bhattacharyya’s belief, there is a trend towards perceiving Muslim
men as potentially dangerous. “Violence” is associated with brutality,
extremity and the desire to cause harm and it seems that the perception of Muslim
masculinity is becoming connected to these traits. Sides and Gross seemed to
conclude that in general those with a negative judgement of Muslims would be
more likely to support the War on Terror (Sides & Gross, 2013).

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George Bush plays on these feelings of fear
and threat and in many of his public
addresses his sentiment is divisive. Bush’s rhetoric distinguishes between
‘them and us’, us being the “civilised world” (Bush G. , 2001). And so we
see that this war transcends national boundaries, it is a war of culture and
values, with the West perceiving theirs as more “civilised” and establishing a
hostile ‘other’. Gender is used to deepen this
divide through the construction of opposing masculinities. The West develops a
notion of superior masculinity in comparison to that of their enemies. As such a
picture of the uncivilised, barbaric and “violent” (Sides & Gross, 2013) Muslim
extremist, versus the sophisticated and refined men of the West, is being
illustrated through Western narrative. In such a way
the Muslim man is portrayed as someone to be feared. Thus the opposing
representations of masculinity are used to demonise the enemy, Western men are
portrayed as being able to “express emotion and enact relations of care” whilst
the ‘other’ are “lacking the ability to gain pleasure from even the most
heterosexual of relations” (Bhattacharyya, 2008, p.
These divisive constructs are gendered and orientalist (Khalid, 2011), and so gender is being used in the War on Terror to debase
the men of the other side and present the West as more enlightened.
Although in this essay I will mainly be focusing on the gender aspect, due to
intersectionality I cannot completely disregard race as they are strongly
interlinked. The division between East and West, forged through race, draws
strongly upon ideas from Edward Said’s groundbreaking book Orientalism. He
suggests that the West have constructed the Orient, which didn’t exist until
they imposed conventions and stereotypes on to the East. These subsequently
created a “relationship of power, of domination, and of varying degrees of
complex hegemony” (Said E. , 1978, p. 13). The
supremacy of the Occident feeds into the ‘War on Terror’ whereby orientalism is
an integral factor as the West’s imposition of their values onto the Eastern
World, as well as their superiority seems to be patronising.

A crucial element of the portrayal of extremist Muslim men by
the West is in their behaviour and attitude toward women. The ‘War on
Terror’ has been directly associated with a battle for the rights of women and
a defence of their freedoms, as Laura Bush declared in a radio address in
November 2001 the fight against terrorism is equally “a fight for the rights
and dignity of women” (Bush L. , 2001). Many however
argue that the use of women was politically calculated, a means to justify a
war, which lacked “clear strategic and political goals, against an ill-defined
foe” (Steans, 2008). Thus the portrayal
of the extremist Muslim man as an oppressor of women was utilised to define, identify
and demonise the “foe”; this would serve to legitimise US imperialism. There is no doubt that the Taliban regime is acutely oppressive against
women. Their laws and practices, which include lashing women in public if they
have disobeyed a rule like not appearing in the street without a relative, are
deplorable. However it seems that the sudden concern with these gendered human
rights violations stemmed from a desire to legitimise and gain support for the
war on terror, rather than genuine distress against these injustices. Feminist groups
and leftists had been protesting these practices for years (Steans, 2008) and only after
9/11 did they seem to trouble the US government. Therefore it can be said that
the war on terror was corrupting female rights discourse through its “misuse of
feminism” (Bhattacharyya,
to justify the government’s actions. There is of course an irony in this portrayal
of George Bush as a defender and upholder of women’s rights. He is a
conservative who would typically seek to protect the “traditional – real
patriarchal – American family” (Steans,
Furthermore, the characterisation of the West as having a healthy attitude
toward sex, as being open, accepting and upholding of the sexual freedoms and
rights of all individuals (Bhattacharyya,
is, too, ironic. These assertions circumvent years of women’s suffrage
struggles and other inequalities that are deeply embedded in society and still haunt
it to this day. The recent sexual assault scandals in Hollywood and the British
parliament exemplify this, illustrating the entrenched patriarchy in Western
society. Therefore we see that gender issues are politicised in the ‘War on Terror’
to serve a purpose, rather than being a genuine concern.

When analysing the way
in which the Bush administration proceeded to enforce their feminist stance it
is clear the government was completely misled. Female rights discourse became
strongly fixated on the burqa, but this seems to have been a propaganda tool,
used for “geopolitical manipulation” (Fluri, 2011). Following
interviews and participant observations with Afghan families, Jennifer Fluri
revealed that in fact the complexity of the burqa was not understood by US aid
workers and that rather it seemed they were regurgitating requests from the US
government or simply following development ideologies (Fluri,
It seems that there was unwanted concern surrounding female body and dress. This
begs the question of why then was the government so concerned with the corporeal?
It is likely that this was because of its use as a visual propaganda tool. The
imagery of Muslim women dressed in a burqa acted as tangible evidence of the oppression
they were submitted to under the Taliban; visually differentiating the ‘liberated’
Western women from the oppressed and victimised Muslim women, and helping to
reinforce the West as an archetype of civilisation. When the Taliban was
defeated images of Afghan women ripping off their burqa were mass-produced and circulated
by US media, in effort to relay the success of the ‘War on Terror’ campaign (Steans,
However in reality the situation did not vastly improve for women under the new
US supported regime, despite this their voices were no longer heard. Afghan
women had served their purpose and were no longer of use or of interest to
political elites (Steans,
Thus demonstrating that the Bush administration’s concerns for women’s rights
were a façade. In addition, analysing the relationship between the RAWA
(Revolutionary Assosciation of the Women of Afghanistan) and the Bush
administration is very insightful. Women from the RAWA were invited to
contribute to the table of high politics following the declaration of the ‘war
on terror’ and the subsequent promise to protect women’s rights. However their suggestions
were often ignored, for example they strongly advised against intervention, believing,
as many other Muslims did, that this would cause “resentment of US
imperialism and create the conditions in which fundamentalist and terrorist
groups would flourish” (Steans, 2008). Further they
asked the US “not to support other fundamentalist regimes that denied women
their most basic rights” (Steans, 2008) such as the
Northern alliance. But the ignorance of these requests exemplifies the
dismissive attitude of Western men toward women, and shows us that the promise
to protect women’s rights was a political guise.

Throughout the ‘war on
terror’ there is a sense of Western men glorifying themselves as the
benefactors of freedom but as such they are exerting dominance over women in a
backhanding way; they hold the power to grant them rights and to give them
involvement in the cause. In reality, however, it is all on their terms and
serves them a purpose. The idea of men as the protectors of women was
cultivated right from the initial media coverage of 9/11 which seemed to
completely ignore the courageous efforts of female fire fighters, police
officers and other on ground workers, in an attempt “masculinise” the ‘war on
terror’ (Steans,
This would domestically ingrain the idea of men as the protectors and women as
those to be protected, which would subsequently feed into the international
conflict. The trend of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Chakravorty Spivak, 1985) has been
prevalent throughout history. Much like the claims to defend women in the ‘war
on terror’, during the 1800s, the British abolition of the Hindu suttee ritual
was justified as a protection of women. However, this was also an example of Orientalism,
of the West imposing its values onto the East and using women to validate imperialism;
as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak outlines in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’
“The gravity of imperialism was that it was socially cathected as a ‘social
mission'” (Chakravorty Spivak, 1985). As we have
seen, the ‘social mission’ is sometimes gendered, but the West’s claims to
superior masculinity and women’s rights are often flawed. The basis of women’s
rights should not be, men deciding which rituals and practices they think are
‘good or bad’, but rather giving women the freedom and power to decide for


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