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Women As Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex, and the Media

Interview with author Kelly Oliver

By: Tyler Zimmer

Posted: 11/7/07

Kelly Oliver is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies here at Vanderbilt. Oliver has written widely on topics ranging from theories of oppression, the politics of recognition and film theory to affirmative action, the ethics of reproduction and war in the Middle East. Her most recent book, "Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media" examines, among other topics, the ways in which women are figured as both defensive and offensive weapons in our discourse about war.

Orbis: What do you mean that women are weapons of war? Could you give a few examples?

Kelly Oliver: I was inspired to write "Women as Weapons of War" when I noticed that news media repeatedly describes women soldiers as weapons. For example, a New York Times columnist calls women soldiers 'the most astoundingly modern weapon in the Western arsenal'; a Time magazine headline after news broke about female interrogators at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay read 'female sexuality used as a weapon'; and The London Times describes Palestinian women suicide bombers as 'secret weapons' and 'human precision bombs.'

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 recent capture and release by the Iranian military of British Seaman Faye Turney displays some of the same tendencies. The British media accused Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of using Turney as a weapon in a propaganda war, at the same time that conservatives in Britain used this image of a mother prisoner of war to argue against women in the military.

In the book, I investigate the association between women and weapons in the news coverage of recent female soldiers' involvement in war in the Middle East. I link these images of what some reporters have called 'equal opportunity killers more dangerous than the males' with older images of dangerous women from Hollywood films, literature, and religious traditions.

I argue that these examples are in an important sense a continuation of stereotypes of dangerous women who use their sexuality as a deadly weapon to deceive and trap men. In World War II, soldiers named their fighter jets and the bombs that they dropped after Hollywood bombshells and 'buxom babes' from magazines. For example, the bomber that dropped the atom bomb that ended World War II was named after the pilot's mother and the bomb itself was named after Hollywood 'bombshell' Rita Hayworth's most famous femme fatale character, Gilda.

From mythological characters such as Medusa and Jocasta, to Biblical figures such as Eve, Salome, Delilah or Judith, to contemporary Hollywood femme fatales, women's sexuality has been imagined as dangerous, even more so because we imagine that it can be wielded as a weapon by women against men.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this fantasy as it appears in recent military engagement is the seemingly intentional use of female sexuality as a top-secret 'classified' interrogation technique in Guantanamo Bay prison, where reportedly women interrogators stripped off their uniforms, rubbed up against prisoners and threatened them with fake menstrual blood. The use of women both here and at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have been described as techniques to 'soften-up' prisons. I argue in the book that the use of women in these situations also works to 'soften-up' public perceptions of abuse and torture.

Why do you say that feminism plays a problematic role in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? How are women used to bolster support for war?

The issue of feminism is complicated. While feminists want women's liberation across the globe, many also realize that cultural differences between women mean that freedom will take different forms. While we might interpret wearing a veil or hijab as a form of oppression, women in Muslim countries might see the ideals of femininity and motherhood in the United States and Britain as oppressive.

Indeed by pointing to the lack of women's freedoms 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, and soccer moms resort to caffeine, Prozac and sleeping pills to maintain their busy schedules.

It is interesting that political conservatives use feminism when it is convenient. For example, the Bush administration talked of liberating 'women of cover' in Afghanistan and women's rights were an important part of the discourse justifying invasions of Iraq and especially Afghanistan. As we now know, women in Iraq have much less freedom of movement than they did under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Many have been forced to quit their jobs and quit going to school for fear of bodily harm or kidnapping.

It is also fascinating that in the West the veil or hijab has become a symbol of women's oppression. It has become more important than education or career status as a measure of women's rights. Women's freedom has become defined in terms of the right to 'bare arms' and the freedom to shop. It is noteworthy that in the case of Turney much of the public and press outrage was over the fact that she was forced to wear a head scarf while in captivity. Photos circulated after her release show her holding the floral head scarf between her index finger and thumb as if it were a dirty rag.

One British feminist historian wrote that the 'shapeless garments and a head scarf' made Turney appear as 'a nobody, a vulnerable, defenseless little woman.' Some feminists in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other hand, are donning hijab as a statement of protest against U.S. occupation. The head scarf and hijab are powerful symbols that galvanize feminists on both sides.

After the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public, some commentators blamed feminism not only for women's presence in the military but also for their violence toward men. Some people wondered whether feminism meant equal opportunities for abuse. Some commentators went so far as suggesting that the abusers were man-hating lesbian feminists.

This sort of rhetoric makes manifest some of our stereotypes about feminism. The irony is that conservatives will use feminism when it suits their purposes and defame it when it doesn't.

Could you briefly discuss the visibility of women in the military?

As I mentioned before, it is telling that of the 15 British seamen captured, the media focused almost exclusively on the only woman. Even though as many men were involved in the abusive activities at Abu Ghraib prison, pictures of the women, Lynndie England and Army Spc. Sabrina Harman, circulated across the globe.

Compared to Lynndie England, the so-called ring-leader, Charles Graner, hardly got any press. Instead, the press and the public were fascinated by the smiling teenage girls giving thumbs up over stacks of naked Iraqi men or prisoners forced to perform sexual acts. And we rarely hear about the male soldiers who abuse female prisoners, almost as if it is business as usual.

We also do not hear about female soldiers who are raped and sexually abused within the military, even though recent studies have shown that the rates of such abuse are high. So, in answer to the question: There is more media attention on women soldiers when they are violent and abusive (particularly in sexual ways) or when their presence is interpreted as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. But there is little media attention to the everyday situation of women in the military who not only risk their lives in combat zones but also risk bodily harm in their own units.

Do you think women should serve in the military?

Let me begin by discussing the ways that debates about whether or not women should serve in the military have been transformed by recent media coverage of situations like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, female interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, the capture and rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and the capture and release of Seaman Faye Turney.

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.

If on the one side we have the 'whorehouse' activities of women at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo 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, Jessica Lynch is portrayed as an innocent virginal blond "country girl." The fact that this pretty innocent girl found herself in a combat zone lead some people to question the wisdom of allowing women to join the military.

Within the rhetoric of mainstream media, what the bad girls of Abu Ghraib and the recovered heroes like Lynch and Turney 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. Within this logic, women should not join the military because either they will turn the operation into an orgy with their dangerous sexuality, or they will humiliate the military and shame entire cultures who cannot protect and care for their innocent women and mothers.

Although there are other more credible arguments on both sides of the debate over women in the military, these examples have inflamed public sentiment and emotions and replaced the realities of war with the fantasies of women as virgins or whores who either need protection or threaten with their dangerous sexuality. These stereotypes of women not only distract from what women are actually doing while in the military but also make the military climate difficult for women. For example, the Rand report released by the Pentagon in August showed that significant numbers of the women serving in the U.S. military suffer a double-whammy: war trauma and sexual trauma.

Like many of their male counter parts, they return home with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. But on top of that, they also return home with traumatic memories of sexual abuse perpetrated by men with whom they serve. There are reports of women dying from dehydration from refusing to drink for fear that they will have to use the latrine in the night where they face the real risk of rape. This is not to say that women should not serve in the military but rather that the military has a long way to go before these women quit fearing their male colleagues so that they can concentrate on the 'enemy.'

How do photojournalism, embedded reporting, the Internet and other televisual technologies affect the public's perceptions of war?

During the first Gulf War, commentators remarked that the coverage of the war on television looked like a video game with high-tech targeting and 'surgical strikes.' The footage released by the Pentagon made it seem as if no life was lost on either side.

With the deployment of ground troops and the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the pictures from the war this time around aren't so pretty. Because there is no well-defined combat zone or front lines and because the Pentagon restricts news coverage, journalists have started traveling with military units rather than engaging in traditional sorts of war correspondence.

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 she/he moves, and insofar as she/he is 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 very much about the emotions of the journalist and the troops involved at that very 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.

In addition, on television and the Internet, we get real live reports, videotaped action, simulated situations, along with scrolling news bars, talking heads, commercials and entertainment. The affect of the easy movement between real-life reports and simulations blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy.

Insofar as human interest stories sell news programs and give them more popular appeal (after all, they too compete for viewers and a share of the market), the focus on individuals replaces any assessment of the context or history in which to view them. Viewers are encouraged to empathize with the individuals involved rather than reflect on the politics or public policies that lead to the situations of these people.

What do you make of the rhetoric of vulnerability that is very often used to justify the "war on terror"?

The most frequent word to appear in mainstream media immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11 was "vulnerable": America was wounded and wanting to wound. The word that surfaced fastest on its heels was 'war.' The lightening move from vulnerability to war suggests that feelings of vulnerability can trigger fear, hatredand violence. Psychologically, it is true that violence towards others is often a defense against one's own sense of insecurity. More than this, however, the very concept of vulnerability contains within it violence toward others associated with war: wounding and wounded. It is interesting that the word 'vulnerable' comes from the Latin word 'vulnerabilis' which means 'wounding.' The first definition of 'vulnerable' in the Oxford English Dictionary is 'having power to wound; wounding'; the second is 'that may be wounded; susceptible of receiving wounds or physical injury.' 'Vulnerable' means both the power to wound or wounding and the capacity to receive wounds or to be wounded.
It is this violence at the heart of the concept of vulnerability that should make us question a policy that begins in vulnerability. Certainly, denying vulnerability and holding onto the illusion of invincibility and absolute security can lead to violent acts of war.
We have seen how this happens when strength in the face of crisis is reduced to military might. Hatred and the urge for revenge can be seen as a manifestation of fear, fear of our own vulnerability. Victimization of others literally puts our own vulnerability onto others. We become the bully instead of the playground weakling. It is not surprising, then, that privates in the military, themselves subjected to hazing and humiliation as part of basic training, would act out these same rituals of humiliation and subordination on others in order to establish their own authority. But just because we can or do wound others when we are wounded, does not mean that we have to do so. Indeed, in order to move beyond war and violence, it is necessary to be able to imagine humanity defined not in terms of its power to wound but in terms of its power to heal.

How does our cultural fascination with sex and violence figure into the media coverage of the 'war on terror'?

Although the deaths of women in the war in Iraq received little attention, reports of women's violence and abuse captured public imagination. Why? Why did the images of women abusers from Abu Ghraib generate so much press and media speculation? My book is an attempt to answer this question by analyzing both the media coverage and the events themselves within the context of what I call a pornographic way of looking at sex and violence, which is normalized through popular media. 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 or subject position of those 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, this 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 theatre 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. Placing the events at Abu Ghraib and their media coverage within the historical context of Western colonial violence allows us to see how they are a continuation of military practices that normalize violence, particularly in relation to women and sex.


Copyright 2007 The Orbis

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