Occupation Is Not (Women’s) Liberation Part II

I now turn to the sphere of domestic U.S. politics, to examine a glaring rift between current anti-war organizing against the occupation of Iraq, and mainstream feminist politics. I wish to call attention to the analytical omissions springing from this divide. The occupation of Iraq offers a case study of how imperialism and patriarchy are linked and mutually reinforcing – nevertheless, neither political group has mobilized a movement that adequately implicates the relation between these systems.

Partly due to its focus on individual women’s professional advancement rather than gendered class issues, the U.S. feminist movement lacks a critique of militarism that its counterparts in other countries, from Chile to the UK, handle more adeptly. These latter movements have been influenced by an awareness of the class exploitation required for militarization, as well as other social inequalities from gendered oppression to racial strife, incubated in the process. In contrast, the failure of many U.S. liberal feminists to question militarism as a system, as well as class society, has too often resulted in sacrificing the interests of working-class and poor women in the U.S., as well as in those countries subject to U.S. aggression. Mainstream U.S. feminism’s scrutiny of the military has centered more on pursuing the institution’s diversification and acceptance of women within its ranks, than criticizing the role of U.S. armed forces on the world stage.

Julia Sudbury has called ‘imperial feminism’ a standpoint that “bemoan[s] the oppression of Third World women without acknowledging the role of racism, colonialism and economic exploitation … which claims solidarity with Third World women and women of color, but in actuality contributes to the stereotyping of Third World cultures as ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilized.'”[43] Disturbingly, as my discussion in Part One should have made clear, liberal mainstream feminism includes imperial feminist strains. In the historic April 2004 March for Women’s Lives, the largest feminist activist mobilization in years, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked to speak. She described the right to choose as a “global imperative” related to fighting terrorism and opposing fundamentalists. Yet while serving under Bill Clinton, Albright defended economic sanctions and military attacks on Iraq, despite being confronted with their costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women and children – her now infamous comment was that if 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of U.S./UN imposed economic sanctions, this “price” was “worth it.”[44] Albright’s gesture at solidarity during the March typifies imperial feminism, given her direct role in overseeing foreign policy towards Iraq.

Furthermore, the ongoing war in Iraq did not receive any mention by the March’s official speakers. The massive rally fittingly center-staged the issue of reproductive choice – but the war with its tremendous costs, as well as the U.S.’s over-bloated military budget, as the world’s number one military power, are not unrelated to access to healthcare and reproductive rights. As of November 2004, the war in Iraq had already cost $150 billion in taxes, and the Bush administration recently asked for $80 billion more this February. The rightwing is conveniently using the budgetary strains under the supposed necessity of war to lend urgency to social service cuts; the Bush administration has already targeted Social Security. Intimidated by the election year’s climate, the March’s leaders did not publicly make the connections between public spending for war, and the lack of resources for health services – ignoring substantial forces shaping patriarchal inequality. The March fell short of articulating concrete demands regarding the expansion of access to choice related to the allocation of resources, focusing simply on Roe vs. Wade and exhorting participants to ‘vote’ (for Kerry, who supported the war). This failure to substantially grapple with class exploitation, instead concentrating on abstract rights, hinders liberal feminism’s ability to unite a constituency of women affected by economic constraints and concerned with broader healthcare access issues. Feminist activists have yet to fully take advantage of the opportunity to reframe the right-wing’s debate on morality using war, poverty, and women’s – especially working-class women’s – lives. Although U.S. imperialism and its strategy of pre-emptive war will arguably shape the government’s domestic policies for years to come, the mainstream feminist movement has been stilted in publicly recognizing this, and constrained in the extent of social change it is willing to fight for.

For their part, anti-war activists have rightly and frequently noted the tremendous impact of the U.S. occupation on Iraqi women in terms of sheer physical violence and death, wrought upon women as ‘civilian’ casualties. Women along with children are sprinkled throughout anti-war literature, used as archetypes of the ultimate innocent victims of U.S. military violence. Unfortunately, however, the anti-imperialist movement frequently does not extend a gendered analysis beyond this mere observation of carnage. By gendered analysis, I mean an analysis of patriarchy that does not simply note a few of its effects where convenient, but attempts to dissect its workings and processes – the gendered power dynamics by which these effects are produced.

This is different from simply the observation that women are harmed, or even that women are disproportionately harmed. It is also the examination and acknowledgement of how gendered exploitations produce those harms; and how this exploitation is irreducible to just class or economic exploitation that would otherwise apply to men or women equally. Furthermore, it involves a broadened consideration of which women are harmed to include those who are not just the most convenient for male-dominated interests – in the case of the anti-war movement, this might include prioritizing the development of a response to the rape of Iraqi women by Iraqi men, not just U.S. occupiers, or a response to U.S. patriarchy.

In fact, the U.S. anti-war movement, in its ground operations – in its speeches, its articles, its events, and brochures – has for the most part failed to connect the dots between the current conditions of Iraqi women, and the Bush administration’s fallacious hypocrisy in claiming to bring democracy and women’s liberation. Because it simply does not place the situation of women in the center of its analysis as a high priority, it has failed to frame its observations within an articulation of the above argument, and moreover, a gendered analysis of why imperialism has failed Iraqi women particularly. This has made anti-war activism weaker as a movement – we have so far failed to effectively use the situation of women in Iraq to dismantle the Bush administration’s ideological pretexts for war and reveal the true motivations of the occupation.

Unfortunately, the lack of appreciation for the situation of Iraqi women has been indicated by an absence of information in brochures and anti-war databases, of curiosity, and inquiry. For example, while www.occupationwatch.org includes an invaluable collection of news articles about Iraqi women reprinted from mainstream and alternative press, for a year it neglected an inquiry on the effects of occupying forces on women in terms of sexual violence and prostitution – paralleling the general press’s neglect of this topic until articles began to appear in the UK. As noted in the beginning of this article, early on in the occupation before Iraqi women’s organizations became famous in Western media, the mainstream press usually couched women’s predicament in the assumption that continued occupation was necessary to improve their situation, focusing on Iraqi patriarchy as the problem. The anti-war movement has barely begun to deliver a response on that.

In male-dominated anti-imperialist groups that focus on economic exploitation, there has been a lack of attention to the economic effects of the occupation on women. Anti-war groups have handled the escalating sexual and domestic violence against Iraqi women by Iraqi men awkwardly, unable to present practical alternatives to immediately address this problem beyond vague calls for a male-dominated resistance to replace the occupiers. Most oddly, they have been silent on the abuse of female detainees. Perhaps this is because female detainees are few, but as a result the sexual power and patriarchal implications of this abuse has dropped off activists’ radar. Ignoring female detainees allowed the anti-war movement to ignore striking connections between imperialism and U.S. rape culture. These omissions appear to reflect an analytical confusion about how to understand the collusion of two patriarchies within imperialism, as well as the course resistance to these systems should take.

When leftist groups from the Nader campaign to the Campus Anti-war Network fail to take seriously the predicament of Iraqi women, who constitute as much as 65% of the Iraq’s population, they deflect anti-imperialist attention and resources from the following questions: posed at the crudest level, what does it mean when resistance, whether union strikes or muhajideen violence, is led by men? And more importantly, what would it mean on a practical level, for a nationalist movement to be feminist in priorities and methods? Anti-war activists have failed to imagine and articulate an alternative that incorporates Iraqi women as equal political actors. While it is not the place of American organizations to command the Iraqi resistance and women’s organizing for them, the inability to dream, to think of the possibility for better alternatives, weakens our anti-occupation message – as well as our ability to find Iraqi actors to work in solidarity with towards a truly progressive vision.

When we speak of supporting the right of Iraqi resistance to oppose U.S. occupation, this does not mean we necessarily have to lend verbal and material support to every tactic of resistance, or every ideology everyone fighting the occupation stands for. Constantly drawing attention to how resistance is fostered as a response to much larger-scale U.S. violence and wrongdoing, does not mean supporting it uncritically. Rather, we must be on the look out for the diversity of forms of organization that are developing in Iraq, and ready to offer solidarity to progressive struggles. We must build a different sort of internationalism to counter our government’s exploitation.

For example, above I criticized the anti-war movement’s narrow handling of sexual assault perpetrated by Iraqi men. One possibility for a different approach might have been to promote or seek to support the struggles of Iraqi women’s organizations demanding a better response to rape – whether in terms of proper health services, a end to punishing the victims with honor killing, or the creation of democratic neighborhood militias to ensure security. Why is freedom from rape different from the right to food, safe water, or electricity? A variety of women’s organizations opposed to occupation are springing up, and the U.S. anti-war movement should examine how it can concretely help local struggles by Iraqis around issues affecting lives, whether by donating resources, supporting protests to pressure occupation authorities, building an International Solidarity Movement.

But most pressingly considering our standpoint as U.S. feminists, male-dominated leftist groups have demonstrated their bad faith, their willingness to dismiss problems of systemic exploitation by gender and sexuality, when they do not tackle the interconnectedness of imperialism with U.S. patriarchy. Beyond taking up the cause of Iraqi women wounded by the U.S. military – in a manner quite undistinguishable from Iraqi nationalism of any stripe – the movement fails to explore what imperialism/patriarchy means for U.S. women. Addressing this nexus requires an expanded view of who is affected by war beyond the traditional focus on our troops, the enemy combatants, and even their immediate families. The U.S. anti-war movement has already attempted to force the public to acknowledge a wider view through its slogans like “Money for Jobs, Healthcare, and Education, not War and Occupation” – but a bias towards placing our own male soldiers at the center of analysis, to the exclusion of those whose interests might conflict, persists.

As hinted above, one direction of analysis that has not been sufficiently addressed, are the connections between imperialism, violent masculinity, and rape culture. U.S. Congress was well aware of brutal gang rapes of women in Abu Ghraib concurrent to the scandal involving Lyddie England – the anti-war movement should have been, too, since reports were available from international press. However, the treatment of female detainees never became a public scandal or issue. Would the behavior of male troops have been too divisive for the anti-war movement to bring up – or was it simply taken for granted as business as usual? If activists were afraid of making our boys look bad, surely the problem could have been tackled in the same manner that the movement responded to the scape-goating of low-level personnel for torture – by trying to implicate the full system, not just the behavior of individual actors.

Feminists have pointed out how the military nurtures a culture of sexual violence and misogyny linked to the abuse of women in occupied countries and countries with U.S. bases – as well as the abuse of women in U.S. prisons, and the high rates of rape in U.S. cities with military bases. Phoebe Jones of Global Women’s Strike and Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAAAMP) explains: “It’s all connected… You have prison guards here, like Charles Grainer [implicated in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal], who go to Iraq and abuse people there. Then you have soldiers come back from Iraq or Afghanistan getting jobs as prison guards, and they rape and abuse people. The military could stop it if they want to, but they don’t want to. They’re socializing men into doing this.” Prison torture in Abu Ghraib was outsourced to U.S. companies using personnel from domestic prisons. Of course, outside the prison-military complex which Jones begins to outline, the impact of rape culture nurtured by the military can be traced through U.S. society further.

Another political direction that the anti-war movement has not fully pursued are the gendered economic effects of imperialism not just for Iraqi women, but poor U.S. women. Again, even as our soldiers are valorized for making the deepest sacrifices, the casualties of war extend much further, and poor U.S. women bear the brunt of war’s economic costs. For instance, in Massachusetts, most Medicaid recipients, graduates of state and community colleges, welfare and subsidized childcare recipients, are women – and all these programs are facing budget cuts. Most families living in poverty are headed by single mothers. In addition to slogans such as “Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home,” perhaps anti-war activists should consider the importance of Global Woman’s Strike’s call to “Invest in Caring, not Killing.” This latter slogan critiques social service cuts and patriarchy’s undervaluing of women’s labor.

Perhaps the anti-war movement thinks it more convenient to ignore the conflicted and not clear-cut plight of Iraqi women – where a less-than-ideal resistance are not necessarily their saviors, imperialists not their only enemy. But the anti-war movement must skillfully address this complexity, because the conundrum of humanitarian justification for imperialism will surely recur. Maybe anti-war activists feel it is more timely to focus on arguments likely to appeal easily to our patriarchal culture – focusing discourse on caring for our troops. Eventually, the occupation will become militarily and economically untenable, and our troops will be withdrawn. But will this mean the death of imperialism, in terms of both its domestic and foreign effects? As a social movement, anti-war activists have an important ideological role – in expanding social consciousness, regardless of the difficulties of countering dominant assumptions. We must expand our analysis to address the connections between U.S. patriarchy and imperialism, because doing so will help counter imperial feminist myths which validate military intervention by assuming the U.S. is the pinnacle of feminist liberation. Above I have barely scratched the surface of implicating U.S. patriarchy with imperialism – but I have attempted to show how these connections do not merely exist in terms of ideological reinforcement, but also in terms of the real, sexual, and material conditions of people’s lives. We must raise awareness of the whole beast.

A last note to anti-war feminists. Let’s revitalize feminism at the local, grassroots level, and fight to have our voices heard in public space. Meredith Tax writes to those feminists who would rest easy on their 1970s gains: “We may be everywhere, but to be everywhere is to be nowhere if it means nobody can find you.”[45]

Go to Part I

43 “Building Women’s Movement Beyond ‘Imperial Feminism,'” http://www.commondreams.org/views/032800-103.htm

44 Arundhati Roy in “The Algebra of Infinite Justice”

45 in The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict 1880-1917, p. xix.

Huibin Amee Chew, 22, is a recent graduate from Harvard University, formerly a member of the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice (HIPJ) and Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM). She is part of the newly formed Coalition for an Anti-Sexist Harvard, which is launching a campaign for free childcare for all there and staged the protests against Larry Summers.

This piece was originally written for the first issue of
‘MANIFESTA: The Yale Undergraduate Feminist Journal’ on ‘Women and

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