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Feminist IR 101, Post #6, War and Security (In Practice)

March 10, 2011

(after a long hiatus, which you don’t even want to know about)

When we last visited “Feminist IR 101,” we were talking about the ways that gendered lenses reformulate the way(s) we think about what security is and how it is practiced (empirically and normatively) in the global political arena – and I promised to put gendered lenses to work to talk about a “real world” security problem – what Feminist Security Studies might look like in practice.

The usual caveats apply – theory is practice, the “real world” as IR theorists see it is overdetermined by and co-constituted with IR theory’s orthodoxies; there are many feminist approaches that don’t all converge on the same issues; and there are many levels on which feminisms can engage the “real world” however conceived. Above and beyond that, feminisms have critiqued the field’s assumption that the personal and the political/international are separable, which extends to questioning whether we can analytically separate the world “out there” and the world “in here,” wherever that is.

Those caveats aside, the question “do what does feminist theorizing say about [insert news story here?]” is compelling to explore. So, what “what does feminist theorizing contribute to thinking about the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq?”

While I can’t speak for all feminists, I can talk about it from my feminist perspective. Of course, the easy answer is one might be against it – through gendered lenses and perhaps generally as a sane/leftist human being. But there’s more to it than that …

There are a number of angles through which feminist lenses can look at the continued military presence in Iraq. Thinking about the international arena as structurally gender-hierarchical allows us to think both about the relative gendered positionings of the United States and Iraq, and how the initial and continued United States military presence there impact those relative positionings. For example, in 1991, a “tough but tender” masculine United States (under the leadership of George H. W. Bush) scolded and punished a hypermasculine Iraq, where George H. W. Bush lectured Saddam Hussein on the evils of “real men” “invading a neighbor at night by surprise” and Saddam Hussein responded by offering to show the United States real masculinity upon a military invasion. A decade later, American “cowboy” masculinity chided the Saddam Hussein regime for failing to “man up” and confront the invading forces, and an American missile read “to Saddam, with love, up yours – Dick” signifying sexual violation of (weaker) Iraqi masculinity. While masculinity as an idealized characteristic of the state was an underlying assumption in many of the gendered discourses between the United States and Iraq, the two states disagreed on the ideal content of masculinity during the first Gulf War, and their masculine state self-identities changed fairly significantly over the evolution of the conflict. In 1991, the United States “tough but tender” masculinity shamed the hypermasculine (facade of the) Iraqi state; in 2003, American cowboy masculinity imposed its will on (weak, shamed, feminized) Iraqi masculinities (think Abu Ghraib). The relative positions of the states was expressed through gender hierarchy, and the relative genders of the states changed over time and in relation to each other. The continued US military presence in Iraq has also been framed in terms of gendered state personality-characteristics: the United States has alternately been framed as a bully, an evangelist, etc.; while the Iraqi insurgency has been framed in terms of barbaric masculinities reminiscent of colonial discourses.

Thinking of gender in “second image” or dyadic terms, rather than structural terms, leads one to think about the “international relations” between the United States, Iraq, and other players in the continued military presence there in terms of the (oft-neglected) second part of that phrase – relational. Even when we think of “US-Iraq relations,” we often think about it as two separate/separable entities, the properties of which affect the likelihood of them engaging in conflict. Is Iraq a democracy? How much trade does it do with the United States? Generally? What’s Iraq’s selectorate? The same questions could be asked the other way around. Feminist theorists have questioned the idea of radical or reactive autonomy, whether it be of persons or of states, arguing that we aren’t really independent actors with no constraints on their behavior but instead are relationally autonomous – they maintain recognizable identities, but sometimes have obligations imposed on them that are not of their choosing, directly or indirectly, and are influenced and constrained by other actors. Thinking about the relationship between the US and Iraq _as a relationship_ with all that entails could be a radically different way of understanding the continued United States military presence in Iraq. In relationships, actors interact, but they also are co-constituted; they react to each other, but they also see, feel, and interpret each other; they act in “their own interests,” but those interests are sometimes emotional (and or rather than material); they look for good, but sometimes lie, manipulate, use, miscommunicate, posture, and hide. Relationships, even those like the one between the United States and Iraq with radically disparate power dynamics, are also always hybrid – the powerful actor is always influenced by (perception about) its relationship with the less powerful actor, and the powerful actor is often (for those reasons) insecure.

Any analysis of the continued United States military presence in Iraq would also benefit from the feminist questions – where are the women? where are the men? where are the masculinities? where are the femininities?

Cynthia Enloe does a much better job of tackling this question than I can in a blog post, but I’ll give it a start – the gender(s) of the actors in the continued military conflict in Iraq matter. Enloe tells the story of the war through the lives of eight women – four U.S. citizens, four Iraqis – who live and experience the war in ways that are often invisible to IR scholars but crucial to knowing what is really going on. Through the eyes of a woman who owns a beauty parlor, Enloe tells the story of the crucial role of the politics of private spaces in the continuation and redevelopment of Iraqi social structures. Through the eyes of a woman whose son was injured as a member of the United States military, Enloe tells the story of the intricate interweaving of marriage, women’s unpaid labor, and social responsibility with the United States’ self-identity and self-perception of its mission in Iraq. As the United States “remains in” or “withdraws from” Iraq, gender tropes play into military recruiting, military training, the structure and employment of private military corporations, the structure and action of intelligence communities, and the like. These tropes don’t play a simple role (men do this, women do that), but are nonetheless crucially important to understanding differences that the policy world is interested in. For example, it isn’t just incidental that many PMC employees talk about their split from their military careers in terms of masculinity, and their PMC “families” in domesticated terms – it means something about what PMCs are, how they function, how they interact with Iraqis, etc. Interactions about valuing race, culture, ethnicity, religion, and form of government are also often transmitted through gender-based languages and actions (the increased domestic violence and rape rate in Iraq over the course of the occupation, both “domestic” and by American soldiers) can be read that way. Spike Peterson’s “triad analytics” framework helps to understand the significations of military/militaristic behavior in Iraq.

This is, of course, too broad to be truly illustrative, so, the next substantive post will focus on a particular dynamic of the conflict specifically and in detail.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.