As we can see in the British Army’s current PR campaign, particularly in their podcast episode with Laura Whitmore, feminism is being appropriated in order to paint military service as empowering to women. Another, perhaps even more dangerous way in which feminism has been misused is in the portrayal of Western military interventions as liberatory to civilian women. Both of these narratives are used to expand the military reach and both erase the lived experiences of women who have suffered at the hands of militarism. The image of Western military powers as an emancipatory force for women has been promoted for over a century, yet ultimately could not be further from the truth.
Historically, Britain and other European powers have attacked the rights and undermined the autonomy of women in colonised countries. In the process of colonisation, the social, legal, and economic structures of patriarchy were often forced upon native societies. For instance, in pre-colonial Canada, indigenous society generally valued women, and indigenous women often held leadership and decision-making roles. Furthermore, because of strong kinship systems, women were not economically dependent on men. However, colonial settlers ignored the position of women in indigenous culture, refusing to engage with female spokespersons and enforcing the patriarchal norms that had been well-established in Europe by that time. The lasting impact of patriarchal colonialism can still be seen in Canada today, where indigenous women face the highest rates of violence, poverty, and poor health.
“The image of Western military powers as an emancipatory force for women has been promoted for over a century, yet ultimately could not be further from the truth.”
Despite this reality, the subject of women’s rights was used to defend British imperialism. This phenomenon relied on the portrayal of women in the Global South as victims, who need to be saved from their own culture by “civilised” Westerners. This paternalistic and racist narrative has been used time and time again to justify devastating wars and exploitative invasions, particularly in Islamic countries. As scholar Leila Ahmed discusses in her book Women and Gender in Islam, the late 19th-century British coloniser Lord Cromer used the veiling of women in Islam as evidence of the inferiority of Islamic civilisations, and ultimately as justification for the colonisation of Egypt. Lord Cromer actively opposed women’s suffrage in Britain and hindered the progression of women’s liberation in Egypt – yet none of this stopped him from using women’s rights as a pretext for his colonial endeavours. Disturbingly, a similar pattern is still playing out in the 21st century.
Since the early 2000s, Britain and the United States have used “feminist” rhetoric to help justify imperialist military invasions in the Middle East. In 2001, George Bush pushed the idea that war in Afghanistan would free “women of cover ” – reverting to the same patronizing portrayal of Muslim women that was used to defend British colonialism over a century prior. Concerningly, women were also complicit in promoting this storyline, with both Laura Bush and Cherie Blair being wheeled out to speak on the plight of Afghan women in the lead up to war – as though Western military invasions and bombing raids would somehow help liberate them. Yet in 2011, ten years into the war, Afghanistan was named the “most dangerous place in the world to be a woman”, with ongoing conflict and NATO airstrikes among the primary reasons cited. In a similar fashion, the narrative of rescuing women was used to legitimise the Iraq war. Bush repeatedly made vague, non-committal statements about women’s rights in the lead-up to the invasion. “Respect for women can … triumph in the Middle East and beyond”, he said in a speech to the UN in 2002 in which he urged action on Iraq. While Iraqi women were granted some benefits on paper during the war period, in reality, they were disproportionately harmed by conflict and left with less security and economic autonomy than before. The vast suffering of female civilians at the hands of British and U.S. military action highlights the utter emptiness of feminist language in this context.
In conclusion, despite the empty words of political leaders and the vague sentiments of military PR campaigns, war poses a threat to women’s rights throughout the world. The suffering of civilians has always been inherent in the military action of countries such as Britain and the U.S., and women have shouldered the brunt of this injustice. The use of feminist rhetoric in a pro-war context is not only hypocritical but serves to erase the experiences of civilian women in war, including those who have lost their lives.
Stay tuned for episode 3 of this series which will explore whether or not gender representation in the military actually promotes equality.
Featured photo by USA Today