Gender and the War on Terror

By Caroline Cottet:

Specialist Lynndie England holds an Iraqi detainee on a lead at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, 2003. Photo: Wikipedia.

When making sense of the people and things around us, it is often tempting to rely on binaries. There’s “us” and there’s “them”, there are “men” and “women”, “masculinities” and “femininities”, some are “white” others are not. These lists apply to our our daily routines as much as to extraordinary events. For example, the last few days have seen various forms of celebration for International Women’s Day. The ways in which such an occasion is observed highlight the common dichotomy between “men” and “women”. This constructed binary, like many others, may seem harmless. But those who consider themselves to be outside of that binary construction would disagree, arguing that if you do not conform to the binary labels then you might suffer intolerance, insecurity and perhaps even violence. The extent to which such binaries are problematic is most visible in the War on Terror, as this article sets out to demonstrate.

When the War on Terror was first announced by President George Bush in 2001, it was set up as a simple war of good against evil. The media, caught up in the post-9/11 hysteria, largely followed this narrative. But what has been missing from our general understanding of the War on Terror has been the importance of gender power relations in defining its narrative. While there is a wealth of scholarship on the subject, researchers in gender studies have a tendency to use technical language and to remain within strict academic circles. This is an attempt to step outside of that circle.

Gender can be understood on several levels and so should the War on Terror. On the individual level, certain policies target people because of their gender (such as liberating Afghan women and condemning Taliban men). On a collective level, Western culture is deemed vulnerable and feminised against the dangerous and masculinised “Other”, represented for a long time by al-Qaeda. [1] Gender is socially and politically constructed, it is immaterial yet at times instrumental. Ultimately, gendered narratives and power relations are mutually reinforcing, and make violence possible.

Looking at gender does not mean analysing the positions of men and women as subjects of masculinities and femininities respectively; gender should be considered beyond bodies, and in parallel with other binaries, such as that of skin colour. This is called “intersectionality”.

On an individual level, there is commonly understood to be a static correspondence between gender and sex. In other words, visual instincts draw people to assume that ‘men’ and ‘women’ will behave in certain ways, according to their gender. Traditionally, the gender binary also follows that of gendered roles in war: men and women; the Just Warrior and the Beautiful Soul; the protector and the protected, the soldier and the civilian. [2] While this construction has been increasingly debated and undermined on a theoretical level since the 1950s, [3] it nonetheless presents the major challenge in trying to make sense of several distressing episodes during the War on Terror.

One of these episodes was the torture at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison, in 2003. Photographs of the abuse were widely circulated, and people struggled to make sense of what they were seeing, principally because it did not jive with their understandings of the supposed man / woman binary.

During the scandal Lynndie England received most attention. A female-identified soldier, her acts called for extraordinary justifications: a Sjobergian Monster, a victim of feminine submissiveness by blindly obeying her – male – superior; or a subject deprived of feminine characteristics with an androgynous body. [4] Worst of all for Barbara Ehrenreich was that the photographs represented “imperial arrogance, sexual depravity … and gender equality”. [5] Gender equality?! Ehrenreich’s last, and preposterous, suggestion points to an important mistake: gender cannot be understood solely on an individual level. Trying to do so fails to unveil the gendered power relations that underlay the War on Terror.

Instead, we should consider gender beyond bodies. The femininities were not the female-identified US-soldiers, and the masculinities were not the male-identified prisoners. Instead, Abu Ghraib prisoners were feminised and members of the American armed forces were hyper-masculinised. Torture aside, the emasculation of the “Other” also proceeded domestically in visual representations. For example, an increase in male media anchors to cover the War on Terror, the figure of the heroic male firefighter of 9/11, and posters with sexual humour depicting Ben Laden as “gay”. [6]

In Abu Ghraib, the process of emasculation was much less subtle:

And he called…me “faggot” because I was wearing the women’s underwear, and my answer was “no”. Then he told me “why are you wearing this underwear”, then I told them, “Because you make me wear it”.    (Abu Ghraib Detainee #151108) [7]

When instructing naked male prisoners to wear women’s underwear, when they were held on a leash, or were covered in red ink that was supposedly menstrual blood, the gendered dynamic was one of inequality, inequality between the American hegemony and its inferior enemy. [8] This is not an attempt to point fingers. Rather, I am trying to make sense of the power relations present in gendered torture.

The particular relationship between the torturer and the tortured is not just gendered, but also racialized. There are the populations that can be tortured and those that cannot. [9] And yet another binary: that of the Occident (i.e. the Western or European political entities between the Enlightenment and the early 20th century) and its construction of the Orient (the broad stereotypes characterising the Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, dangerous and so on). [10] Such a dichotomy might sound like a caricature, yet what happened in Abu Ghraib was made possible by anthropological research on “Muslim culture” published in a manual called The Arab Mind. [11] Torture during the War on Terror, of which the abuses in Abu Ghraib are merely the most prominent example, were designed based on a certain archetype of the Arab/Muslim man, who would be most vulnerable to sexual humiliation, in particular when produced by a woman. [12] This shows that it is difficult to dissociate the gendered binary from the racialized one.

What I want to highlight is that binaries are not disconnected. They are all historically constructed and follow a hierarchical logic. The celebrated side of the binary builds and secures its very definition through subordination of the Other – the sexually deviant Orient.

What was made visible during the Abu Ghraib scandal may not be as blatant today, yet it is no less relevant. Making sense of people and things by using binaries places a certain values on lives. Such categorising is not harmless: it is interwoven with a certain judgement of whose lives are deemed to be acceptable subjects of violence. The Obama Administration has now ceased to capture “enemy combatants”. According to Michael Hayden, former Director of the NSA and later the CIA the strategy is now to kill, not capture: “We take another option, we kill them. Now. I don’t morally oppose that.” [13] Clearly the power relations at work have not really changed.

Why does this matter? Because the construction of binaries makes such violence possible. The animation of such binaries in the military sphere is not disconnected from the way gender is understood domestically. (Notice that the “military” and the “domestic” spheres represent another binary.) In the light of the celebrations of International Women’s Day, we should ask ourselves how the construction of “men” and “women” and its fluidity interplays with the notion of race, and how it creates and maintains artificial hierarchies that underlie and perpetuate the War on Terror.

Caroline Cottet is an MA student in Science and Security at King’s College London.


[1] Anne J. Tickner (2002) “Feminist Perspectives on 9/11”, International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 3, p.333–350

[2] Jean Bethke Elshtain (1987) Women and War, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

[3] Judith Butler (2008) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Oxon: Routledge

[4] Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry (2007) Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics, London: Zed Books, Timothy Kaufman-Osborn (2005) “Gender Trouble at Abu Ghraib?”, Politics and Gender, Vol 1 (4), p.615, and Marita Gronnvoll (2007) “Gender (In)Visibility at Abu Ghraib”, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Vol. 10 (3), p.375

[5] Barbara Ehrenreich (2004) “What Abu Ghraib Taught Me”, Alter Net, 19 May 2004

[6] Patricia Owens (2010) “Torture, Sex and Military Orientalism”, Third World Quarterly, Volume 31 (7), p.1042 and Meghana Nayak (2006) “Orientalism and ‘Saving’ US State Identity After 9/11”, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 8 (1), p.46

[7] In Owens 2010, p.1041

[8] Incidents described in Kaufman-Osborn 2005, Owens 2010 and Laleh Khalili (2010) “Gendered Practices of Counterinsurgency”, Review of International Studies, Volume 37 (4), p.1471-1491

[9] Melanie Richter-Montpetit (2014) “Beyond the erotics of Orientalism: Lawfare, torture and the racial–sexual grammars of legitimate suffering”, Security Dialogue, Volume 45, p.43-62

[10] Edward W. Said (1977) Orientalism, London: Penguin

[11] Owens 2010

[12] Ibid.

[13] Michael Hayden, former Director of the NSA (1999-2005) and later of the CIA (2006-2009), quoted in David Kravets (2012) “Former CIA Chief: Obama’s War on Terror Same as Bush’s, But With More Killing”, 9 October 2012 (available at:, last accessed on 12/11/14)

2 thoughts on “Gender and the War on Terror”

  1. I came across this article after discussion with someone who was new to the gender binary concept. They rejected that there was anything outside the gender binary and concluded “there are more important things to worry about, like war”. That got me thinking about how tied up gender binaries are in war. This article has opened my eyes to the myriad of issues surrounding this topic and is something I would love to discuss further.

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