Type: Narrative Essays
Sample donated: Lorena Vega
Last updated: July 24, 2019
Gender is and has been one of the mostcontestable concepts in politics throughout our time. From looking at whethergender is socially constructed or biologically determined to exploring genderstereotypes, expectations and conventions, from tensions within gender toissues between genders, analysing the world through a gendered lens revealsmany insights. In addition to that, the most contentious topic of our currenttime 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 thehottest topic of our time, and as such I am going to explore how gender shapesour understanding of The War on Terror.
Following the attacks of September 11th 2001 inthe USA, the Bush administration declared a ‘War on Terrorism’ and thiscommitment has been an integral part of American politics and governance eversince. (Sides & Gross, 2013). 7 yearslater Gargi Bhattacharyya evaluates the ‘War on Terror’ in her book ‘Dangerous Brown Men’ (Bhattacharyya, 2008). The titleitself is ironic, Bhattacharyya seems to be calling attention to and condemningthe Western tendency to categorise dark skinned men, as “dangerous” based ontheir race and gender, she refers mainly to Muslim men.
Sides and Gross explorethe way in which stereotypes against Muslims, in America, influence support onthe War on Terror. Harrowingly, it seems that allMuslims are categorised together in these unfair stereotypes; meaning thatlittle distinction is made between the regular Muslim man, who is of coursepeaceful, and the extremist who has taken a radical interpretation of theQuaran. The idea of stereotypes embodies the need for individuals tocategorise the world around them.
Sides and Gross conclude that the mostsignificant warmth stereotypes Americans affiliated with Muslims are, that theyare “violent and untrustworthy” (Sides & Gross, 2013). A warmthstereotype is concerned with the level of threat an opposing party is perceivedto impose, it is evaluated through asking whether they wish to help or harm aswell as looking at “goal compatibility”; the more disparate the goals of theopposing party are the more dangerous they are seen to be. And so it is clearthat much like Bhattacharyya’s belief, there is a trend towards perceiving Muslimmen as potentially dangerous. “Violence” is associated with brutality,extremity and the desire to cause harm and it seems that the perception of Muslimmasculinity is becoming connected to these traits.
Sides and Gross seemed toconclude that in general those with a negative judgement of Muslims would bemore likely to support the War on Terror (Sides & Gross, 2013). George Bush plays on these feelings of fearand threat and in many of his publicaddresses his sentiment is divisive. Bush’s rhetoric distinguishes between’them and us’, us being the “civilised world” (Bush G. , 2001). And so wesee that this war transcends national boundaries, it is a war of culture andvalues, with the West perceiving theirs as more “civilised” and establishing ahostile ‘other’.
Gender is used to deepen thisdivide through the construction of opposing masculinities. The West develops anotion of superior masculinity in comparison to that of their enemies. As such apicture of the uncivilised, barbaric and “violent” (Sides & Gross, 2013) Muslimextremist, versus the sophisticated and refined men of the West, is beingillustrated through Western narrative.
In such a waythe Muslim man is portrayed as someone to be feared. Thus the opposingrepresentations of masculinity are used to demonise the enemy, Western men areportrayed as being able to “express emotion and enact relations of care” whilstthe ‘other’ are “lacking the ability to gain pleasure from even the mostheterosexual of relations” (Bhattacharyya, 2008, p. 6).These divisive constructs are gendered and orientalist (Khalid, 2011), and so gender is being used in the War on Terror to debasethe 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 tointersectionality I cannot completely disregard race as they are stronglyinterlinked. The division between East and West, forged through race, drawsstrongly upon ideas from Edward Said’s groundbreaking book Orientalism. Hesuggests that the West have constructed the Orient, which didn’t exist untilthey imposed conventions and stereotypes on to the East.
These subsequentlycreated a “relationship of power, of domination, and of varying degrees ofcomplex hegemony” (Said E. , 1978, p. 13). Thesupremacy of the Occident feeds into the ‘War on Terror’ whereby orientalism isan integral factor as the West’s imposition of their values onto the EasternWorld, as well as their superiority seems to be patronising. A crucial element of the portrayal of extremist Muslim men bythe West is in their behaviour and attitude toward women. The ‘War onTerror’ has been directly associated with a battle for the rights of women anda defence of their freedoms, as Laura Bush declared in a radio address inNovember 2001 the fight against terrorism is equally “a fight for the rightsand dignity of women” (Bush L. , 2001). Many howeverargue that the use of women was politically calculated, a means to justify awar, which lacked “clear strategic and political goals, against an ill-definedfoe” (Steans, 2008).
Thus the portrayalof the extremist Muslim man as an oppressor of women was utilised to define, identifyand demonise the “foe”; this would serve to legitimise US imperialism. There is no doubt that the Taliban regime is acutely oppressive againstwomen. Their laws and practices, which include lashing women in public if theyhave disobeyed a rule like not appearing in the street without a relative, aredeplorable. However it seems that the sudden concern with these gendered humanrights violations stemmed from a desire to legitimise and gain support for thewar on terror, rather than genuine distress against these injustices. Feminist groupsand leftists had been protesting these practices for years (Steans, 2008) and only after9/11 did they seem to trouble the US government. Therefore it can be said thatthe war on terror was corrupting female rights discourse through its “misuse offeminism” (Bhattacharyya, 2008)to justify the government’s actions. There is of course an irony in this portrayalof George Bush as a defender and upholder of women’s rights.
He is aconservative who would typically seek to protect the “traditional – realpatriarchal – American family” (Steans, 2008).Furthermore, the characterisation of the West as having a healthy attitudetoward sex, as being open, accepting and upholding of the sexual freedoms andrights of all individuals (Bhattacharyya, 2008)is, too, ironic. These assertions circumvent years of women’s suffragestruggles and other inequalities that are deeply embedded in society and still hauntit to this day. The recent sexual assault scandals in Hollywood and the Britishparliament exemplify this, illustrating the entrenched patriarchy in Westernsociety. 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 wayin which the Bush administration proceeded to enforce their feminist stance itis clear the government was completely misled. Female rights discourse becamestrongly fixated on the burqa, but this seems to have been a propaganda tool,used for “geopolitical manipulation” (Fluri, 2011). Followinginterviews and participant observations with Afghan families, Jennifer Flurirevealed that in fact the complexity of the burqa was not understood by US aidworkers and that rather it seemed they were regurgitating requests from the USgovernment or simply following development ideologies (Fluri, 2011).It seems that there was unwanted concern surrounding female body and dress. Thisbegs 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. Theimagery of Muslim women dressed in a burqa acted as tangible evidence of the oppressionthey were submitted to under the Taliban; visually differentiating the ‘liberated’Western women from the oppressed and victimised Muslim women, and helping toreinforce the West as an archetype of civilisation. When the Taliban wasdefeated images of Afghan women ripping off their burqa were mass-produced and circulatedby US media, in effort to relay the success of the ‘War on Terror’ campaign (Steans, 2008).
However in reality the situation did not vastly improve for women under the newUS supported regime, despite this their voices were no longer heard. Afghanwomen had served their purpose and were no longer of use or of interest topolitical elites (Steans, 2008).Thus demonstrating that the Bush administration’s concerns for women’s rightswere a façade. In addition, analysing the relationship between the RAWA(Revolutionary Assosciation of the Women of Afghanistan) and the Bushadministration is very insightful. Women from the RAWA were invited tocontribute to the table of high politics following the declaration of the ‘waron terror’ and the subsequent promise to protect women’s rights. However their suggestionswere often ignored, for example they strongly advised against intervention, believing,as many other Muslims did, that this would cause “resentment of USimperialism and create the conditions in which fundamentalist and terroristgroups would flourish” (Steans, 2008). Further theyasked the US “not to support other fundamentalist regimes that denied womentheir most basic rights” (Steans, 2008) such as theNorthern alliance.
But the ignorance of these requests exemplifies thedismissive attitude of Western men toward women, and shows us that the promiseto protect women’s rights was a political guise. Throughout the ‘war onterror’ there is a sense of Western men glorifying themselves as thebenefactors of freedom but as such they are exerting dominance over women in abackhanding way; they hold the power to grant them rights and to give theminvolvement in the cause. In reality, however, it is all on their terms andserves them a purpose. The idea of men as the protectors of women wascultivated right from the initial media coverage of 9/11 which seemed tocompletely ignore the courageous efforts of female fire fighters, policeofficers and other on ground workers, in an attempt “masculinise” the ‘war onterror’ (Steans, 2008).This would domestically ingrain the idea of men as the protectors and women asthose to be protected, which would subsequently feed into the internationalconflict. The trend of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Chakravorty Spivak, 1985) has beenprevalent throughout history. Much like the claims to defend women in the ‘waron terror’, during the 1800s, the British abolition of the Hindu suttee ritualwas 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 ‘socialmission'” (Chakravorty Spivak, 1985). As we haveseen, the ‘social mission’ is sometimes gendered, but the West’s claims tosuperior masculinity and women’s rights are often flawed. The basis of women’srights 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 forthemselves.