Women as Weapons of War

In her book Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex, and the Media, published recently by Columbia University Press, Kelly Oliver vividly depicts, and correlates, the perverse behavior of a female suicide bomber in Iraq with that of a female Army private, Pfc. Lynndie England, whose sadomasochistic behavior towards her captors at Abu Ghraib drew international scorn.

This Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy, at Vanderbilt University, draws important parallels between empire building and the "free market," as well as the deployment of women as both purveyors and pariahs of battle, thereby exposing the vulnerable to be both wounded and wounder. And, by extension, she shows how global occupation by a country that increasingly emulates the behavior of some back-alley dominatrix can only be linked to ongoing sexual repression.

In her interview with AlterNet, Oliver describes how, in the name of imperial expansionism, we, in the West, are quickly becoming victims of our own sexualized consumerism:

Jayne Lyn Stahl: How are women being used as weapons of war, figuratively and literally?

Kelly Oliver: News media repeatedly describe women soldiers as "weapons." Women warriors are not referred to as women with weapons or women carrying bombs, but their very bodies are imagined as dangerous. For example, a columnist for the New York Times said, "An example of the most astounding modern weapon in the Western arsenal" was named Claire, with a machine gun in her arms and a flower in her helmet. After news broke about female interrogators at Guantánamo Bay prison, a Time magazine headline read "female sexuality used as a weapon," and the London Times described Palestinian women suicide bombers as "secret weapons" and "human precision bombs," "more deadly than the male."

Even Pfc. Jessica Lynch (the U.S. solider who was captured and rescued early in the Iraq invasion) was labeled a "human shield" and a weapon in the propaganda war. Media and public reactions to the more recent capture and release of British Seaman Faye Turney display some of the same tendencies. The British media accused the Iranian president of using Turney as a weapon in a propaganda war at the same time that conservatives used this image of a mother prisoner of war to argue against women warriors.

The metaphor of weapon in public media discloses the association between women, female sexuality and danger in the popular imagination. This imaginary association appears to have become part of military interrogation strategy at Guantánamo prison and Abu Ghraib, where women's participation was reportedly used to "soften-up" recalcitrant Muslim men. And just this month, Al Qaeda allegedly used two mentally impaired women to detonate bombs in crowded markets in Iraq. Reports indicate that the use of women suicide bombers is on the rise in Iraq because they can more easily get through checkpoints without arousing suspicions. For this reason, media coverage imagines them as more dangerous than their male-counterparts.

Explain the "virgin-whore" motif with respect to female suicide bombers and women soldiers.

Within the rhetoric of mainstream media, what female suicide bombers, recovered heroes like Jessica Lynch and Faye Turney, and the bad girls of Abu Ghraib have in common is that they are figured on one side or the other of the classic virgin-whore dichotomy that has been a mainstay of Western culture -- think of the new fragrance for women called "Angel or Demon." On the demon side, what some reporters have called "equal opportunity killers" need to be interpreted in light of older images of violent women from Hollywood films, literature and religious traditions. These latest examples of women figured as weapons are a continuation of stereotypes of dangerous women who use their sexuality as a deadly weapon to deceive and trap men. Some soldiers still name their fighter-jets and bombs after Hollywood bombshells and "buxom babes" from magazines. The atom bomb that ended WWII was named after Hollywood "bombshell" Rita Hayworth's most famous femme fatale character, Gilda.

In the wake of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, some commentators said that what they called the "whorehouse" behavior at the prison was the result of the presence of women, who trigger the natural sexual impulses of men. Several of these types of reports blamed the abuse on the very presence of women in the military. Underlying this thinking is the association between women and sex, and more to the point, the connections between women, sex and violence that permeate our culture.

If, on the one side, we have the so-called "whorehouse" activities of women at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prisons, on the other we have the images of helpless women in distress or of mothers whose place is at home with their children. Lynch was described in the press with wildly varying characterizations from a "female teenage Rambo" to a "princess" and "damsel in distress."

While the young women at Abu Ghraib are portrayed as whores, Lynch is portrayed as an innocent virginal blond "country girl" and Faye Turney was figured as an emblem of British motherhood. Female suicide bombers have also been variously figured as virginal heroines in the Muslim world and as "more dangerous than the male" by the Western press.

Has what you perceive as the commoditization of women changed in recent years, and what role do the media and technology play in terms of what you call the objectification of women?

Yes, there are at least two very noticeable trends in recent years: First, in films and on television, we see not only continued objectification of the female body -- now with less clothes on than ever before in prime time -- but also a glorification of violence toward women. In other words, we see women's bodies being blown up, shot, falling out of planes, thrown through windows and beaten. Of course, we also see more violence toward men and violence, in general. But often the violence toward women in contemporary films is accompanied by showing off the scantily clad body, which gives the violence a marked sexual overtone. In addition, this violence is often packaged in the genre of the feminist avenger-type film, where the female protagonist is constantly attacked by men but still comes out on top, so to speak.

Throughout the book you refer to what you call the "pornography of looking." What do you mean by that?

The pornographic way of looking or seeing takes the object of its gaze for its own pleasure or as a spectacle for its own enjoyment without regard for the subjectivity of those looked at. It reinforces the power and agency of the looker while erasing or debasing the power and agency of the looked at.

This way of looking operates on both literal and figural levels: Sex and violence literally have become spectacles to be looked at, and sex and violence figuratively have become linked within our cultural imagination, evidenced by the fact that the phrase "sex and violence" has become part of our everyday vocabulary. In terms of Hollywood films, it is difficult to think one without the other.

In a general sense, my book is about the connection between sex and violence in contemporary culture. More specifically, it is about how this imagined connection plays itself out in the theater of war currently staged in the Middle East. Furthermore, it is about how this pornographic way of looking plays an essential role in waging war and how historically it has been used, even developed, within the context of colonial and imperialist violence. In this regard, the American occupation of Iraq follows in a long line of colonial and imperialist ventures executed by the "West" in the "East."

How is the violence that is happening overseas, often in support of patriarchy, connected to women's lives here in the U.S.?

By pointing to the lack of women's freedom elsewhere, we ignore the ways in which women are coerced at home, where ideals of femininity lead young girls to eating disorders; religious conservatives try to prevent young women from using birth control and limit their access to abortions; women continue to have the lioness's share of childcare; soccer moms resort to caffeine, Prozac and sleeping pills to maintain their busy schedules; and most of the people living in poverty in the U.S. are women and children.

It is telling that conservative politicians employ feminist rhetoric to justify war even as they cut programs that help women at home, including welfare, state-sponsored childcare, planned parenthood and affirmative action. They can simultaneously blame feminism for the abusive women at Abu Ghraib and invade Afghanistan to liberate women. The irony is that conservatives will use feminism when it suits their purposes and defame it when it doesn't.

Has technology enhanced the ability to exploit women while at the same time engendering the illusion of empowering them?

Yes. In the book, I discuss some of the ways that technology allows more women to work from home. So, in addition to domestic work, they use computer technology to work from home. Of course, this makes their schedules more flexible and gives them more power over time. But, like the other "time-saving" technologies, it also brings with it new demands to be available 24/7. Moreover, it can leave women "trapped" in their homes in a way that they aren't when they work outside the home. This is just one example; there are many more.

"As the Eye, so the Object," so said poet William Blake. How does this concept relate to embedded reporting technologies?

The effect of this new style of reporting on journalists and on their news reports is multifaceted. First, insofar as the journalist's safety depends upon the troops with whom s/he moves, and insofar as s/he is in close quarters with them, the journalist's objectivity is compromised. The journalist begins to take on the perspective of the military. More than that, "embedded" reports are as much about the emotions of the journalist and the troops involved at that moment in military action. Rather than step back and give the viewer the larger perspective or context of the situation, embedded reporting encourages human interest stories and snippets of action that appear more like war movies than journalism. The live action effect of digital technologies increases the sense of intimacy and gives the viewer the feeling of being there.

The viewer is not just put in the place of the photographer as subject looking at the "native" other as object. With moving images and real-time Internet and television broadcasts, the viewer assumes the dynamic agency of the looking subject, along with his apparent right to look at and even manipulate the bodies of "native" others. These images not only record but also reproduce relations of domination. By comparing the images coming in from Iraq to images from the history of colonial enterprises in Europe, we see that they are just the latest visual technologies of oppression and occupation.

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