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Feminism and war: confronting US imperialism

Nathaniel Mehr reviews (Feminism and War) and writes that it is essential reading for anyone who is remotely convinced by the feminist pretensions of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq

March 8, 2009
7 min read

‘Feminist geopolitics,’ writes Jennifer Hyndman, ‘aims to recast war as a field of live human subjects with names, families, and home towns.’ The intersection of feminist critique and anti-imperialist resistance to the so-called ‘war on terror’ forms the subject of this illuminating collection of essays from a range of scholars and activists who convened at the October 2006 ‘feminism and war’ conference in New York.

The essential premise of the project is to wrest back from pro-war mainstream discourse a feminism, which it had appropriated for the purpose of furthering an imperialist agenda. As Zillah Eisenstein explains, ‘Imperial democracy mainstreams women’s rights discourse into foreign policy and militarises women for imperial goals’. In particular, Jennifer Fluri and Shahnaz Khan identify the Bush administration’s attempt at rallying people around the cause of women’s rights in Afghanistan as a disingenuous appeal which not only misrepresents the history of that oppression as a relatively recent phenomenon, but also serves to cast Afghan women as a people waiting to be rescued – a practice that is not unprecedented in colonial history.

Each of the twenty-one essays in this volume connects a feminist critique with broader patterns of dominance based on class and race – patterns that are reflected within the United States itself. It is this holistic methodology that gives Feminism and War its singular relevance. Jennifer Fluri is unequivocal in her assertion that the US war in Afghanistan was not about confronting Islamic misogyny, but rather ‘the imposition of US congressional and other government discourses that cite humanity and rights, while disseminating these ideals through a ‘rational’ and efficient destruction of people and landscape to secure our enduring power, military superiority, and ‘free’ market reconstruction.’ In this context, Huibin Chew challenges the mainstream assumptions that the success of individuals like Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton comprises a final victory for feminist principles. These assumptions inform the construction of US society as a model of gender equality – a construction that is exploited by pro-imperial ‘feminisms’. Challenging sexism, she argues, is not merely about breaking misconceived gender expectations on an individual basis; as a focus on individual achievements overlooks the fact that sexism is ‘an institutionalised system, with historical, political and economic dimensions…’, and so ‘relegates a task that can be achieved only through collective action or organising to the realm of individual exploits.’

Such an approach necessarily entails a broader examination of the structural make-up of a highly militarised US society, and it is for this reason that Angela Davis encourages us to ‘place state violence, war, prison violence, torture, capital punishment on a spectrum of violence.’ So the scope of the study is by no means limited to a discourse on the disproportionate burden of suffering endured by women in countries under attack from US-led aggressions. The people of the United States are paying a heavy price for the militarism necessary to this project, and this manifests itself in a wide variety of ways. Zillah Eisenstein notes that domestic violence is three to five times higher in military couples than civilian ones; men who have been in combat are four times more likely to be physically abusive. Berta Joubert-Ceci reminds us that US wars are being paid for by large cuts in social welfare, with poor working class families bearing the brunt. The overarching class dimension of the analysis is encapsulated by Leilani Dowell: ‘It is the policies of the ruling class – including policies that institutionalise sexism and racism in society; policies that fuel war and aggression and take money away from jobs programmes, education programmes, healthcare; policies that create poverty – which promote and perpetuate this violence.’

The primary focus remains, however, on the essentially neo-colonial framework that the discourses on gender, class and race must be understood. In her lucid critique of international legal systems, Elizabeth Philipose emphasises the importance acknowledging that all hitherto existing legal frameworks – including those dedicated to the protection of human rights – have been constructed for the service of that same ruling class that has historically pursued policies of imperial domination: ‘Without recognising the colonial function of the use of torture, we miss the point that structurally the [‘War on Terror’] is a war against racialised peoples for the retention of ‘first world’ domination.’ This point is also considered in Isis Nusair’s discussion of the numerous cases of sexual abuse against men and, to a far greater extent, women in US prisons in Iraq. Nusair argues that sexual abuse serves as a means of breaking the spirit of a colonial people, in order to dominate them: ‘The aggressive, hostile and violent act of unveiling, stripping, penetrating and tearing apart Iraqi bodies … where the body is left nude, exposed and laid bare, is a guarantee for the colonial power that the body, consequently the mind, become knowable, observable, visible and thereby able to be manipulated.’ By contrast, public knowledge of, and discussion about, the rapes of hundreds of Iraqi women is kept to an absolute minimum, as any acknowledgement would ‘shatter the civilising and rescuing nature of the US military mission in Iraq’.

The breadth of the analysis in Feminism and War goes beyond the somewhat parochial approach implied by Leslie Cagan’s essentially sound observation that ‘All the values of feminism are contradicted – if not rendered impossible to achieve – by the realities of war and the machinery of war-making’. For this study is not merely focused on the ways in which imperialism and militarism obstruct the cause of women’s liberation; the interaction between feminism and war is often far more nuanced. The complexity of the relationship between imperialism and feminine identity is perhaps best exemplified by Cynthia Enloe’s chapter on the public relations activities of the US military. As Enloe notes, the end of conscription in the US, Canada, Britain and elsewhere prompted military recruiters to employ, at considerable expense, the services of top advertising agencies, with a view to persuading young men and their most important ‘influencers’ to appreciate the merits of a military career. Women, as girlfriends, wives and mothers, were among the most important ‘influencers’ and, accordingly, a highly derivative construction of feminine identity have formed a central focus of many army recruitment advertisement campaigns over the past few decades. Enloe encourages feminists and anti-imperialists to question and challenge the ‘militarised ideas about – and practices of – the heroic veteran, the sacrificing mother, the loyal girlfriend’ that are represented in such campaigns.

A final section dedicated to activism reminds us of the importance of activism and organisation as an essential complement to – or, rather, culmination of – intellectual activity in the ongoing struggle against US imperialism; as activist Nellie Hester Bailey insists, ‘If we do not have agitation, we will not have change. We never have and we never will.’ Scholarly, accessible and uncompromising, this collection is essential reading for anyone who is remotely convinced by the feminist pretensions of the US-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq; for those in Britain and the United States seeking to resist the onslaught that is carried out in our name, Feminism and War provides an invaluable intellectual framework for anti-imperialist activism.

Nathaniel Mehr is co-editor of London Progressive Journal

Robin L Riley et al eds, Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism (London: Zed Books, 2008)

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