“War on terror” in the name of feminism

2012-01-25 11:28

The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City led to a hunt for alleged terrorists worldwide. In American war propaganda, liberating oppressed women was an argument for strikes against Afghanistan and Iraq. Several researchers hold the view that the so-called war against terrorism resulted, instead, in a gigantic setback for gender equality.

We all remember what we were doing on that September day in 2011: the day when the Twin Towers in the Big Apple were reduced to a billowing cloud of smoke and ash, and heaps of rubble, with thousands of dead victims. This terrorist atrocity also precipitated the then President George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’.

The attacks were more than terrorist deeds. They amounted to a declaration of war on the American people and the whole of western democracy, according to Bush. So the agenda was set for what, in the ‘Bush Doctrine’, represented self-defence to save the world from evil.

Immediately after ‘9/11’, images of the heroes emerged. Tribute was paid to men in police and fireman uniforms, while men in military uniforms on TV studio sofas analysed the forthcoming assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan. Women were eclipsed and gender stereotypes had a renaissance, according to ethics researcher Anna T. Höglund, who has studied the war on terrorism from a gender point of view.

‘The war was a male concern. Masculinity was hailed and all the war rhetoric was filled with old cowboy clichés. Bush declared that the enemy was to be ‘smoked out’ of his hole and captured dead or alive. As Höglund sees it, there seems to be an acceptance of reverting to old gender patterns when there is unrest in the world. But there is also, she finds, a deliberate strategy to induce young men to seek out war assignments, in which they can act out the image of male heroes saving vulnerable womenfolk from peril.

Gender patterns reinforced by war

In war situations traditional gender patterns are strengthened, thinks political scientist Maud Eduards. The fact that women are now accepted as soldiers in military organisations around the world has not, in her view, brought any gains for gender equality. Rather, women are used as arguments for legitimising violence and acts of war.

‘Women and feminism have been commandeered to justify aggressive wars on the other side of the globe,’ Eduards states. She thinks the war against terrorism has adversely impacted women all over the world.

From witnesses in the world’s troublespots, there is ample evidence of how soldiers use rape as a means of waging war. Apart from the suffering of the women concerned, it is a way of destroying the honour of those men who do not succeed in protecting ‘their’ women. This makes them weak and bad men in others’ eyes.

‘Some assert that this is something that has always gone one. In my opinion, though, rape is a partially new strategy, because it’s cheaper than dropping bombs and your opponent suffers a moral defeat,’ Maud Eduards says.

Motives for invading Iraq

The theme of much propaganda for the war against terror is that the West must help to liberate oppressed women in Muslim countries. This was a major factor for legitimising the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, feminism became an entrenched underlying argument for the war, says Sophia Ivarsson, a gender researcher at the Swedish National Defence College.

‘It’s based on a notion that we live in a part of the world where we’ve achieved gender equality. So it’s western men, in regiments, who have to help give oppressed Muslim women equal status with men. This may seem a bit comic, since the military can hardly be seen as the most gender-equal institution in the world,’ Ivarsson remarks. She warns, too, that this kind of world view is impeding work for the feminist groups that do, in fact, exist in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Counter-productive arguments on gender equality

When gender equality is used as an argument for invasion, it is seen as a product from the attacking West. This is why, in some places, there is now more resistance to gender equality than before 11 September 2001. This has made life more difficult for the local women activists who exist in these countries, Ivarsson thinks.

‘In the Swedish Armed Forces, I’ve sometimes experienced a negative atmosphere when the question of gender equality has come up in discussions. But when soldiers go to other cultures, it seems as if they’ve convinced themselves that they come from gender-equal Sweden to contribute equality between the sexes. Then, all of a sudden, talking about gender issues is fine.’

An understanding of how fighting terrorism affects women, men and sexual minorities, and how gender stereotypes are used and influence relationships, is lacking. This is the view of Jayne Huckerby, research director at the New York University Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, and a project leader for the recently issued report A Decade Lost: Locating Gender in U.S Counter-Terrorism. This report surveys how the USA’s anti-terrorism measures have affected women’s and sexual minorities’ rights worldwide. The country’s increased military commitment, security work and civil–military collaboration to counteract terrorism have, according to Huckerby, engendered a situation of great vulnerability for women and girls.

‘Trafficking has increased, for instance, and the local forces working for demilitarisation have been undermined,’ she says.

The US Government is working for opposed objectives, Huckerby thinks. According to the Government, women’s lack of equal rights threatens national security. At the same time, development assistance for women and girls is becoming a lower priority, and financial support for organisations working for women’s rights is being cut back. This is happening although these organisations are in the front line against violent terrorism in their local communities.

‘Women and sexual minorities are squeezed between terror and anti-terror. And no one’s security improves from that,’ Huckerby concludes.

Author Torbjörn Bergström and Inga-Bodil Ekselius. Translation: Clare James
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