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Gender Constructions as a Justification for MENA interventions: Where are the Women?

Updated: May 1, 2022

By Melis Tarakcioglu

Women are a big part of international relations, they make up half of the world’s population and they are located everywhere men are. Yet, they are invisible in the stories of global politics. When women are mentioned, they are identified with their need for protection. So, why is the agency of women rare in the political field or why do political discourses exclude them? Cynthia Enloe asked the question ‘where are the women?’, sparking the critical reflection on the study of war and militarism. This has led to the analysis of the blurring of boundaries between the war zone and home front, and thus male warrior and female combatant in the nation and family. Then, where are women in war and how are they constructed? Is this political passivity adopted or imposed on them?

This article aims to answer these questions by discussing how gender constructions are used to justify interventions and war, and how women are only visible as victims robbed of their agency. Theories of security states, masculinity protection, orientalism, and the war on terror will be discussed and the analysis of gender constructions in the intervention of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq will be given as examples.

Security States and Masculinity Protection

Iris Marion Young argues that security states construct a gendered logic of the masculine role of “protector” in relation to women and children that justifies waging war abroad and expects obedience and loyalty at home. This patriarchal logic allows the masculine protector to put those who are protected—women and children—into a subordinate position of dependence and obedience. Furthermore, this causes the citizens of democratic states to allow their leaders to adopt a protector-stance over them, which simultaneously gives the citizens a subordinate status. This logic of masculinity protection legitimates authoritarian power over its citizens internally and justifies aggressive war outside. In relation, the democratic values of due process, separation of powers, free assembly, and holding powerful actors accountable come into danger when leaders mobilize fear and present themselves as protectors.

Masculinity can be constructed in ways to achieve different goals or give certain communities specific identities. The male domination model identifies masculine men as selfish, aggressive, and dominant beings who desire the sexual capture of women. Another image of masculinity is the one associated with chivalry; real men are neither selfish nor do they seek to enslave or overpower others. Instead, the masculine man is loving and self-sacrificing, especially concerning women. In this way, dominative masculinity is used to constitute protective masculinity which means that, masculine protection is needed to protect its home from uncivilized men. In return, the woman concedes critical distance from decision-making autonomy. Feminine subordination, in this logic, adores her protector and happily defers to his judgment in return for the promise of security that he offers. Further, a dichotomy between “good” women and ”bad” women appears. A “good” woman stands under the male protection and submits her judgment of what is necessary for her protection while a “bad” woman is unlucky to not have a man protecting her, or claim her right of judgment.

Similarly, security regimes that suspend certain rights and legal procedures declare a state of emergency. They claim that special measures of unity and obedience are required in order to ensure protection from unusual danger. Because they take the risks and organize the agency of the state, it is their prerogative to determine the objectives of protective action and their means. In a security state there is no room for separate or shared powers, nor for questioning and criticizing the protector’s decisions and orders. Good citizenship in a security regime consists of cooperative obedience for the sake of the safety of all.

This logic of masculinist protection provides a framework for understanding how government leaders who expand arbitrary power and restrict democratic freedom believe that they are doing the right thing and why citizens accept their actions. It also helps explain this state’s righteous rationale for aggressive war. The Bush administration has repeatedly appealed to the primacy of its role as protector of innocent citizens and liberator of women and children to justify executive power at home and dominative war abroad. Masculinist protection elevates the protector to a superior position and exerts authority and puts the feminine citizens into a dependent position. In this position, democratic equality and accountability disappear.

It is discovered then, that when citizens criticize state policies they can be sanctioned, they are not able to assemble in public places. When they wish to demonstrate on issues other than security regimes, they are subject to arrest, and even when there are peaceful protests they are threatened with tear gas by officers riding horses and cameras taking their pictures. Organizations may appear on lists of terrorist organizations and citizens won’t be able to know if their emails are monitored or their phones are tapped. Even more so, some citizens become defined as ‘bad’ citizens simply because of their race or national origin and are subjected to ethnic profiling.

The Bush administration has mobilized the language of fear and threat to gain support for constricting liberty and dissent inside the United States and for waging war outside. This stronger U.S. security state offers a bargain to its citizens: obey our commands and support our security actions, and we will ensure your protection. Justifying the war against Afghanistan as a humanitarian war was effective because the Bush administration and journalists focused on women. The women of Afghanistan constituted the ultimate victims, putting the United States in the position of ultimate protector. Although years before the attacks of September 2001, U.S. feminists lobbied the Clinton administration to put pressure on the Taliban government regarding women’s rights, neither Clinton nor Bush had any concern for the situation of women under the Taliban before the war.

Certainly, the Taliban should have been condemned for its policies. What is wrong with this stance is that it fails to consider women as equals, and it does not have principled ways of distancing itself from paternalist militarism.

Protection Scenario and Orientalism

Carol A. Stabile and Deepa Kumar have argued that, in the political discourses of Afghan women, two narratives converged: the protection scenario and orientalism, which draws its force from discourses of imperialism. The argument about protecting women, used as a justification for the bombing of Afghanistan, combines elements of both traditions. Orientalist discourses often employ protection scenarios as justification for imperialist aggression, although Orientalism has a specific colonial history. Susan Jeffords describes the logic of the protection scenario as the need for women to be protected from the “enemy”. This protection scenario is established through three categories: the protected or victim; the threat or the villain; the protector and the hero. Cynthia Enloe gives added depth to this analysis, describing it as the “women-and-children-protected-by-statesmen” scenario. Captivity scenario dates back to 17th century where Native Americans were accused of kidnapping white women and these allegations justified for genocide, or in the 1880s, the role of the Christian race to rescue Muslim women was the key reason to justify the British occupation of Egypt. Protection scenario is linked with justificatory narratives of colonialist projects where exotic brown women must be saved by the civilized white hero from barbaric villains. Militarism by the world's imperialist powers never improves the lives of women and children, instead, this political discourse, used by the media and politicians, renders women as passive subjects and denies women any agency in the decision-making processes that affect their everyday lives and futures.

Orientalist thought polarizes the world into two unequal parts: the “different” one, called the Orient, and “our” world, known as the West. This polarization between “us” and “them” causes Islam in particular, as well as the Middle East in general, to be reduced to a monolithic culture governed by religious barbarism, while the West is defined as the civilized Christian world. The idea that some races have a higher aim in life than others gives the more civilized the right to colonize others in the name of a noble ideal. In the case of the war on Afghanistan, the ‘noble ideal’ was the protection of women. Thus, the protection scenario and the ‘civilizing’ mission were brought into an uneasy alliance to justify the destruction of a country’s infrastructure in order to protect women.

This logic not only erased the struggles of women in Afghanistan for their own liberation, but it also erased the struggles of women in the West against sexism. By presenting women’s equality as a natural part of ‘Western humanist values’, centuries of women’s political activity for suffrage, equal pay, and reproductive rights are erased from history. This discourse renders Western and Afghan women invisible and constructs artificial barriers to international solidarity by consenting to an Orientalist logic that seeks to protect women, and that serves primarily as a cover for imperialist aims.

The War on Terror

Jill Steans argues that narratives on the War on Terror have worked to construct and reproduce the identities of gender and woman between the “us” and “them”, and between the protectors and the protected. In the political discourses of the Bush administration, women have been portrayed as victims or as the symbol of home. The United States has used this narrative to create “liberated western women” and “oppressed Muslim” women in order to present itself as the beacon of civilization. This has created polarity between the West and the Islamic world as well as generated narratives about male protectors and the protected female. The masculinity in the “war-front” affirmed heroic actions performed on the battlefield and the “home-front” femininity presented domesticity and peace.

Regarding September 11, feminist scholars have argued that women were written out of their dominant narratives and became invisible from the public frontline where women as ‘protectors’ did not fit in. The frontline is both the physical and symbolic location where identity politics are played out, and women on the frontline as rescue personnel, including police and firefighters, have challenged the boundaries. The gendered division between the male protectors and female victims was visible in the media coverage as well, where male firefighters and police officers were shown and women were overwhelmingly portrayed as victims of the aggression perpetrated by the ‘other’ men. Captain Brenda Berkman of the New York Police Department commented: “I was immediately struck by the total invisibility of women in the media coverage of the rescue and recovery efforts in New York. Women rescue workers found that our own agencies were even ignoring our presence at the countless funerals for our co-workers’’.

In this narrative, women soldiers are, in a sense, a “bad women '' because they challenge the gendered stereotypes. In stories about heroism in war, women are likely to be marginalized or ignored. The rescue story of Private Jessica Lynch was unfolded in a way that she struggled to hang on her identity as a soldier; she became a woman held up in conflict, rather than a soldier doing her job. One of the most high-profile ‘dissident’ women in the United State was the peace campaigner Cindy Sheehan, a mother who wanted to bring her ‘private’ pain into public. Motherhood has a special place in war, which portrays mothers as innocent women who have suffered as a consequence of the acts of ‘other’ men. Thus, private pain can be highly politicized. When Cindy Sheehan called for pulling out troops from Afghanistan, the Bush adminisration and pro-media responded carefully not to launch a direct attack on her, while right-wing media accused her of treason and identified her as co-founder of an Muslim terrorist organization.

Women's rights have been placed in the middle of the struggle between “good” and “evil”; “civilization” and “barbarism”. However, this commitment to women’s rights has been more rhetorical than real, a ploy that has been used to sell war to the US public. Thus, actual women and women’s political struggles have been written out of the story.

Construction of Gender in the Bush Administration Discourse on the Attacks on Afghanistan, post-9/11

The Bush administration put on particular constructs of gender in the preparation for and subsequent conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Laura J. Shepherd defines the performances of masculinity in two complementary images under ‘the nation’: Ordinary Decent Citizen and the Figure of Authority. The feminine position constructed was: the Happy Shopper.

The construction of masculinity is visible in the speeches of the Bush administration: ‘“The strength of this nation is founded in the character and dedication and courage of everyday citizens”. These citizens are represented as overwhelmingly masculine. Bush identified “police, firemen and rescue workers” as the “Heroes in New York”, lending weight to this construction. The Ordinary Decent Citizen was constructed as an image of national identity, it was the embodiment of masculinities, represented as the form of ‘the nation’, then the Figure of Authority was its counterpart, represented as the brains of the body politic. This imagining was reinforced by the claims to responsibility and protection of ‘western’ values that the USA made pre- and post-9/11. International politics was once again, for the most part, represented as the preserve of elite white men, supported by Ordinary Decent Citizens.

This reinforced the notion that women in positions of power must surrender their femininity. In contrast, performances of appropriate femininity, represented by Laura Bush, enter into the construction of the US self-as-nation as a supportive counterpoint to the “real man’s” world.

“Woman” was discursively permitted to mother, care for, shop, and support, all of which are behaviors associated with a very traditionalist model of gender; she became visible as a Happy Shopper. Other than these allowable demonstrations of agency, women performing femininities post-9/11 were silenced and absented from public debate. Virtually the only female faces in the media were the victims; women were cast as passive.

The feminized passivity of ‘women’ in the nation overlaps with the construction of ‘women’ abroad, identified as Helpless Victims, which is important for the gendering of ‘the enemy abroad’. This discourse of gender is heavily racialized, as the privileged position is held by ‘the nation’ reinforced by imperialism and colonialism’. The women abroad are recognizable within this discourse as variations of the ‘average third world woman’ who ‘leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender and her being “third world” (which meant: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized). This in turn marks ‘the enemy abroad’ as inferior, backward, and uncivilized. The issue of the veil, or burqa, was central in constructing this image of ‘the enemy abroad’ as an Irrational Barbarian. Relating closely to the image of the ‘average third world woman’, the veiled women of Afghanistan were reduced to a snap-shot with the denial of their agency.

The attacks on Afghanistan were articulated through a discourse of gender that centered on notions of appropriate protection These marked the enemy abroad as the Irrational Barbarian in need of rectification and punishment from the Figure of Authority. Additionally, through reference to accepted narratives of gender, this construction of the enemy facilitated the conceptual division between ‘the nation’ and ‘the enemy’. The construction of ‘the intervention’ was troublesome as it marked the ‘hard’-military initiatives as a masculine domain, while humanitarian-‘soft’ concerns were feminized.

The Bush administration’s commitment to liberating women in Afghanistan did not add up for several reasons. Bush, was no feminist, on his very first day in the Oval office he cut off funding to any international family-planning organizations which offer abortion services or counseling. The ways in which these constructions were organized around narratives of gender, class, sexuality, and race produced a dangerous ideology as it provided justification for military intervention. Even though abuse of Afghan women was headline news during the preparation for war, they were hardly mentioned after it.

Gendering the War in Iraq

Laura Sjoberg argues that the stories of women that were told in the First Gulf War were of innocent women in need of protection, or feminine emulation of masculine military values. The First Gulf War was a time when the roles of women were being discovered in war. Western, Iraqi, and Kuwaiti women served as ‘beautiful souls’ that needed protection, justifying the case against Iraq. Cynthia Enloe uses “womenandchildren” as one word to describe how women are seen as helpless, in a group without agency, or like children. The insecurity of women calls for a war, where states claims to protect “womenandchildren”. Furthermore, the woman’s role as a mother is highlighted, where motherhood serves as physical creation of soldiers, social creation of these soldiers, support of the soldiers from back home, a woman for each soldier to protect, and comfort for soldiers who are wounded in battle. In return, soldiers were cast as fighting for their ‘wives and mothers’. However, this discourse that women must be fought for fails to mention the effects of war on women where the fact that the fighting might hurt them does not enter the political conversation. American men and women were seen with their duty to protect Iraqi women from Iraqi men by force. The women who are protected are omitted from their agency, their preferences, their choices, and their ultimate fate. This passive political participant image of a woman in the Gulf War has also introduced women-as-soldiers, however, a female soldier was seen as a special kind of soldier–a woman soldier.

These semi-combat roles were fetishized in American pop culture. Soon after the Gulf War, movies such as Courage Under Fire were released. In attacking Iraq, the United States used GBU-24’s, which are smart penetrating bombs, characterized by one military guru as “with precision so great we could have hit a vagina.” Accusations that the United States had exaggerated its reports about weapons in Iraq were phrased in sexual terms as well. In response to Iraq’s perceived participation in terrorism, country singer Toby Keith wrote a song that was a top-selling single in the US in 2002. It threatened to “put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way.” A former member of a UN inspection team has made a living telling sordid (and false) sex stories about Iraqi punishments for weapons inspectors. Finally, a popular adult cartoon, “South Park,” portrayed Saddam Hussein as the “bottom” in a homosexual relationship with Satan.

Carol Cohn argues that this sexualized aggressive masculinity is paired with a discourse of femininity that makes war seem humane and masterable, despite sexualized aggression. The ‘feminine’ counterpart to the war-sex discourse is a discourse of war cleanliness that ‘cleans up’ sexualized violence and pretends that the abuse did not happen. This sexualization detracted from the suffering that the coalition caused and got carried over in the Second Gulf War, where gendered abuse of prisoners earned seven American soldiers international notoriety.

The story of Private Jessica Lynch has become one of the public stories. The understanding of women as ‘beautiful souls’, passive, and helpless have also emerged in her story about her rescue. She was captive in an Iraqi hospital, which has become the most publicized rescue mission. Lynch had to be saved not just because she could be tortured but because she was an innocent woman vulnerable to sexual violence. Even with a gun and uniform, Lynch was presented as an innocent woman rather than a war hero. Moreover, John Kampfiner documented that the coverage of the Jessica Lynch story was a feat of news management by the Pentagon. In fact, Lynch had a gun malfunction and was injured in an automobile accident, she begged Iraqi troops for her life and she was taken to a hospital where her injuries were treated. Medical staff at the hospital attempted a rescue on their own by putting Lynch in an ambulance and sending it to the United States checkpoint, which was fired on. The next day, United States troops entered the hospital and rescued Lynch while filming the rescue. This phenomenon reminds us that militarism and military culture, as well as war, rely on women, femininity, and images of them, even when they claim and pretend to ignore their existence. The war in Iraq is no exception.


This political discourse of gender construction made women seem like victims in need of Western protection from the barbaric enemy. It made women with ‘protector’ roles invisible and gave them a subordinate role where they obey the rules of men. Thus, the enemy abroad was constructed as uncivilized and barbaric, while Western authorities were seen as the protector. This discourse is still existing today and is largely used by security states and authoritarian leaders.

Trump explained the US intervention in Syria in the following way: “America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria, under no circumstance. As other nations step up their contributions we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home, and great warriors they are. Looking around our very troubled world, Americans have no illusions. We cannot purge the world of evil or act everywhere there is tyranny. No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East. It's a troubled place. We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place.”

This paints the picture again that the United States has the role of the protector with its ‘warriors’ to purge the ‘evil’ out of the enemy—the Middle East. This scenario of protectionism hurts women everywhere and uses a humanitarian mask to justify war. Women in the Middle East are identified without their agency and Western women are identified with their passivity and peacefulness, pushing them out of the decision-making and public policy process. This two-faced scenario erases women from the narratives of politics, and only makes them used as justifications for war, whenever the authoritarian male powers please.

Disclaimer: the writers' opinions are their own and not associated with MENA Student Association.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

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