Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Women, Words and War: Explaining 9/11 and Justifying U.S. Military Action in Afghanistan and Iraqi (1)

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Women, Words and War: Explaining 9/11 and Justifying U.S. Military Action in Afghanistan and Iraqi (1)

Article excerpt


Texts and images in the print media, outdoor advertisements, and on the Internet form the primary source material for this article. The Bush administration and the American media, drawing upon well-worn traditions of representation, contrasted American women and Muslim/Middle Eastern women, American and Middle Eastern male sexuality, and the moral qualities (good versus evil) of American and Middle Eastern people. They used those contrasts to explain 9/11 and legitimize war in Afghanistan and Iraq. 9/11 was simply explained through a contrast between American innocence and Muslim savagery. For Afghanistan, the predominant trope was liberating Afghan women from the Taliban, or white men rescuing brown women from brown men, a story at least as old as the British Raj. The Iraq representations were more complex; both pro-war and anti-war proponents used the same images of suffering Iraqi women and girls, but to different ends: Saddam Hussein was a demon who must be destroyed, or the suffering was caused by sanctions and Western military action. Saddam himself was conflated with Iraq, and images of deviant sexuality were employed. Throughout, American women and girls were portrayed as the right kind of woman: usually white and innocent, or heroic soldiers. In any case, they were free, not oppressed.

Keywords: Orientalism, Women in the Middle East, Justifying War


I am concerned in this article about the ways in which representations, primarily visual, of Middle Eastern and American women and men, generated by U.S. government spokespersons, celebrities, organizations, Internet sites, advertisements, newspapers, and newsmagazines served to interpret 9/11 and promote the agenda of war on Afghanistan and Iraq. The representations were not, of course, the only explanations of 9/11 or justifications for war, but they formed a substantial part of them.

These representations have a long if not honorable history. The images of the lewd and lascivious Turk and the effeminate or homosexual Arab go back at least to the French Renaissance (Poirier 1996: 157-159). These were images of men, but Middle Eastern women haven't fared any better in Western literature. As Judy Mabro stated in the introduction to her anthology of European travelers' accounts, the veil was always an item of fascination, as was the harem. (3) The women were almost invariably depicted as exclusively sexual beings and, locked up in harems and deprived of male company, they had recourse to lesbian practices (Mabro 1991: 1-27). The same sorts of images could be found in the postcards made for French consumption in colonial Algeria (Alloula 1986). (4) Muslim women living in the United States protest that their "identity is reduced to a burka" (Al-Marayati and Issa 2002). The harem girl is alive and well in American media; for example, "I Dream of Jeannie" lives on in television re-runs and on web sites. (5)

As "I Dream of Jeannie" suggests, stereotypic representations of Middle Eastern people are deeply embedded in American culture. For example, high school and Sunday school texts and curricula depict Middle Eastern people as violent, uncultured, backward, desert nomads whose religion teaches them that women are meant to be the slaves of men; indeed, the veiled woman is routinely depicted as a symbol of Islam (Al-Qazzaz 1975: 116-124; Abu-Laban 1975: 160-162; Suleiman 1977: 44-47). Popular American fiction is little different. Arab men are violent, sadistic and promiscuous sexually. The women are controlled by codes of honor, but also promiscuous like the men. And, of course they are oppressed (Sabbagh 1990).

These types of images have been well documented. Jack Shaheen for example, has described the "threatening, shifty-eyed, hook-nosed, dirty, sulking Arab" in entertainment television (1980: 39). In The TV Arab he developed "The Instant TV Arab Kit:" "... a belly dancer's outfit, headdresses (which look like tablecloths pinched from a restaurant), veils, sunglasses, flowing gowns and robes, oil wells, limousines and/or camels" (1984: 5). …

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