Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism

Riley, Robin L. et al. (eds.)
London and New York, Zed Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1 848130197, 280 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Rosemary Galli

Network of Oxford Women for Justice and Peace,

Charlbury, UK

Just as the US anti-war movement muffles its protest in deference to President Obama comes this blistering, myth-exploding attack by a group of mainly US feminists, including such distinguished critics as Angela Davis, Zillah Eisenstein, Leslie Cagan, and Cynthia Enloe. The book is product of a conference held in 2006 at Syracuse University, New York, organised by its Women’s and Gender Studies Department for the express purpose of confronting the Bush administration’s claim to liberate women in its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the recent change in US government, the book’s underlying critique is still pertinent – and in more countries than simply the United States. The main premise is that war and militarisation permeate the daily lives of men and women, promote gender identities that serve power, profoundly affect the lives of civilians, especially women and children in war-torn countries, increase sexual and racial violence, and serve as a pretext for curtailing civil liberties.

Organised into four sections, the book addresses ‘Feminist Geopolitics of War’, ‘Feminists Mobilizing Critiques of War’, ‘Women’s Struggles and the War in Iraq and Afghanistan’, and ‘Feminists Organizing Against Imperialism and War’. This review will highlight some of the articles in each section.

Angela Davis opens the first section with a definition of feminism as imagining a different world, one that ends war, torture, and pervasive militarisation as well as slavery, inequality, and capitalism. It also means examining the concepts and tools used by feminists to construct this new world. This entails making inter-disciplinary analyses, making connections, and exploring contradictions. It means scholars talking with activists, and vice versa. Feminists need to assess the vocabulary that they and others use, such as the word ‘democracy’ and the process that turns it into a justification for torture (p. 25).

Zillah Eisenstein considers the female face of the War on Terror; that is, the female presence in the military, in government, and in suicide bombings. Militarisation redefines masculinism and femininity. Even though women make up 18 per cent of new US army enlistees, 17 per cent of navy recruits, and 23 per cent of air- force recruits, ‘war is a process by which masculinity is both produced and reproduced’ (p. 35). It promotes essentialist arguments: men kill, women are peaceful. Rape is a form of war that happens to both men and women; it feminises men. Female recruits are frequently raped by their male counterparts. Both signify rape as politics. ‘Women’s bodies become the universalized representation of conquest while male bodies are both masculinised in victory and feminized in defeat (p. 39). ‘Female suicide bombers defy these stereotypes; they deny the traditional gender essentialism’ (p. 44). Eisenstein appeals to American women not to let themselves be used to present a kinder and softer face to militaristic global capitalism. African feminist Patricia McFadden takes up a similar cry. She feels that US feminists must not let themselves be caught up in a nationalistic discourse that would ‘rescue’ the ‘poor, incapable victims’ in the name of liberal values and democracy. US feminists need to understand and identify with the resistance on the ground to this imperial project.

In the second section, Elizabeth Philipose looks at the role of international law and finds it wanting in terms of bringing about peaceful relations between states and peoples. It is essentially a colonialist tool, based on a dichotomy between the civilised and uncivilised. The decolonised surrender their right of self-determination by accepting the desirability of being like Europeans. This, according to Philipose, is a surrender of their uniqueness and identity in exchange for alliance with Europe and the US (pp. 106, 107). International law legitimates the use of violence and war against the non-civilised. ‘Without an active decolonizing of the foundational assumptions of international law, its implementation reproduces colonial efforts to civilize those who are deemed backward and incorporates them into a culturally specific version of modernity, albeit as lesser beings’ (p. 113).

Nadine Sinno considers the efforts of an anonymous Iraqi woman via her blog (Riverbend.com) to expose the manipulation of the truth in US military claims. ‘Riverbend’ explodes the use of the term ‘terrorist’ through her examples of the ten- and eleven-year old so-called terrorists killed during US troop raids on family homes in Iraq. She shows how these raids and other abuses of power breed terrorists, in addition to striking terror into civilian populations. The ‘liberation’ that the US trumpets for Iraqi women and men is a liberation from jobs, homes, family, friends, and all that constitutes a stable life. Riverbend laments ‘the post-invasion status of Iraqi women, who actually lost many of their rights as a result of the invasion and the ensuing spread of fundamentalism’ (p. 139). Shanaz Khan speaks of colonial feminism that involves ‘a discursive construction of Third World Women’, emphasising misery and oppression as contrasted with the freedoms in Western culture, culminating in a desire to rescue Afghan women (p. 161). She contrasts this with Afghan women’s own battle for equal rights since 1900.

The third section focuses on organised feminist struggle. Judy Rohrer highlights three important direct-action groups: Code Pink, Women in Black (WIB), and Raging Grannies. Direct action is a tactic of public disruption and confrontation (p. 225). Rohrer makes a distinction between feminist and masculinist action: feminists use irony, humanisation, humility, and vulnerability, in contrast to the more self-righteous, aggressive masculinist anti-war organising. A good example of the latter occurred on 4 April 2009, when Black Block wrecked the anti-war, anti-NATO demonstration in Strasbourg, France. In stark contrast were the seminars and vigils held during the same week by the 40 international representatives of WIB and Women’s International League for Justice and Peace. Melanie Kay/Kantrowitz describes Israeli feminist organising against militarism and for Palestinian rights. She notes that Israel is the only nation-state that drafts women, and comments that sexual harassment is rampant in its armed forces. New Profile supports young women and men who openly refuse to serve, for which ‘crime’ their members have been investigated and arrested since September 2008. WIB comprises both Israeli and Palestinian dissidents.

In the final section, Cynthia Enloe illustrates how the military works hard at propagandising mothers and other influencers of the young. She shows how it plays on the stereotypes of the ‘caring mother’ and their ‘manly’ military sons: that is, how it creates masculinities and femininities. She feels that US women can learn to create alternative identities, visions of the future, and strategies from feminist groups around the world. Leslie Cagan agrees and underscores the need to organise transnationally in order to move forward.
Development workers who read this challenging volume of essays will question whether developmentalism in its worst forms does not also rob people of their identity and self-determination as it seeks to liberate them by bringing in external solutions to local problems. They will begin to see poverty as another form of violence and will question who benefits. They will recognise the significance of feminist ideas and organising and the need, most of all, to liberate oneself from stereotypes.