Victims, Villains and Valour: Global War on Terror and its Gendered Connotations

Photo: Institute for Policy Studies

By Aindrila Chakraborty

The world has moved past a century marked by two types of wars, one of which can be owed to inter-imperial rivalry, whereas the other was that of a clash of politico-economic ideologies (capitalism and communism). However, the events witnessed in the very beginning of the twenty first century, with America’s Global War on Terror, have not only interrupted the apparent ‘truce’ that the world was moving towards, changing the security narrative of the global, it has produced certain images for global consumption which remain strong and relevant, in a world marked with Islamophobia, even after almost two decades.

David Chandler in his work War Without End (s): Grounding the Discourse of Global War, observes that “even before the ‘global war on terror’, Western constructions of security had begun to frame the security referent (the subject to be secured) and the security threat in global terms.” The post-9/11 war on terror and the world portraiture constructed thereafter, one may argue, has granted an entirely new meaning to the concern of security, especially that of global security with a strategic portrayal of national security (of the US) as a global concern and a global requirement. An interesting intervention with regard to this modern form of war is by Hardt and Negri in their work Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empires, wherein they opine that these wars exist and operate perpetually or that the world exists “in a generalised state of war” unlike the previous wars among empires which had marked beginnings and ends, where there were temporal distributions and divisions of wartime and peacetime. What is more interesting to observe in the context of war on terror is that it is increasingly being portrayed in the colours of culture, religion and ethnicity. This becomes conspicuous with regard to the interaction of the threatened and benign yet hegemonic masculine US maintaining global security, the vilified Muslim men who are global threats and the victimised Muslim women (especially in Iraq and Afghanistan) who are to be emancipated from own culture. What is critically important to understand about this war on terror crisis and the security rhetoric is that it is, in all ways, indefinite, engendering a perpetual state of crisis and conflict on the basis of presumptions and assumptions, which has invariably changed the very portraiture of the world and its people.

There is a considerable body of feminist work delving into the gendered perspective of war on terror. By a gendered understanding, one may initially think of it in terms of the role and state of women in the entire scenario. However, gendered understandings have deeper connotations rather than the application of linear, binary masculine and feminine frameworks. The inherent incompatibilities of the respective singular identifications of masculine and feminine has an increasingly important role to play in the gendered analysis of the crisis of war on terror and the security rhetoric.

In the domain of International Relations (IR), women have been evidently absent. This can be owed to the avid characterisation of men as valorous fighters for survival and security and women, relegated to the private sphere as the peaceful, patient, docile bodies supporting their protectors, their men. However, as Runyan and Peterson opine, “other contemporary feminists, however, have pointed out that women have historically supported wars (both imperialist wars and wars of national liberation) and fought in them, often in the name of maternalism.” Nonetheless, women have been associated with peace as opposed to their male counterparts, with men being identified as the valiant heroes of nationalism and national protection. This construction of gender identities has two-fold effects: first, it has produced gendered ideas of nationalism associated with men, with women being pushed back to their private lives after wartime and the construction of a hegemonic (aspirational) masculine identity among men. In the aftermath of the war on terror crisis, the security narrative has renegotiated and reproduced the images of women in a manner that serves the purpose of the “benign state ensuring the security of the globe” through what can be looked at as the ‘security moms’ of the United States and the Muslim women of Iraq and Afghanistan (rather all over the world) as victims.

The manifesto of the security mom appeared in USA Today (20 August 2004), written by the self-identified conservative syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin. The security moms, as Malkin identifies herself as one, is the one who is ready to protect and fight for her children and demands the state to take all possible measures to do so. As Malkin herself mentions, a security mom fears the ‘Islamic terrorists’ and the ‘illegal criminal aliens’ the most. A security mom is thus concerned with the protection of her children which, indeed, is a maternal emotion. It can be observed here that there is an enmeshing of the private and the public spheres to serve the purposes and justify the actions of the state, acting as a link between bio and geopolitics. As Grewal observes, “By making the mother into both the subject and the agent of security, motherhood becomes governmentalized.”

In the context of the Muslim women of Iraq and Afghanistan, the security narrative reproduces the victimised image of the women. Abdelmajid Ridouane (2018) notes, “Middle Eastern/Muslim women have been portrayed either as: 1) sex-crazed belly dancers in transparent dress that reveals the body, but remained barred in an opaque, hard to penetrate harem; or 2) sexually oppressed/barred and “veilified” behind a burka that is as hard to penetrate, but occupying a discursive “transparent”/“easy to read or penetrate” sociopolitical order.” The construction of such images of the Middle Eastern/ Muslim women, has justified the hegemonic masculine invasions of the United States into their homes in the name of their protection and emancipation against their vilified male counterparts without taking into consideration the actual agenda of their empowerment.

As J. Ann Ticker in her work, Feminist perspectives on 9/11, observes, there can be witnessed a constant negotiation and renegotiation of hegemonic masculine identities within the domain of masculinity, be it through the construction of a ‘vilified’ Islamic identity of the Muslim men or the valourised hegemonic identity of the American men or the constant accusation hurled at each other of being ‘feminised’ and ‘not audacious enough’. What makes this even more interesting is the media production of such images. In the aftermath of the war on terror, as James Castonguay observes, the production of content and images through the visual media has not only strategically justified the actions of the United States as a global necessity but has also commodified the American hegemonic masculine identity as a global yardstick, thereby vilifying Islamic masculinity in the global markets for global consumption.

The global war on terror and the security narratives produced thereafter has not only put forth complex challenges to the question of war and peace, but it has also strategically produced images, carrying gendered connotations, categorically identifying certain communities. Such constructions tend to be consumed globally, even today.

Aindrila Chakraborty is currently pursuing her Masters in Global Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is interested in fiction as well as academic writing, with love for visual content analysis and the impact of commercial content on knowledge production and the masses. Her research interests range from critical engagement with history to global Islam to migration, diaspora and gender negotiations. She is currently researching the plight of South Asian women in diaspora.


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