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New Texts Out Now: Nicola Pratt, The Gender Logics of Resistance to the "War on Terror"

[Cover of [Cover of "Third World Quarterly"]

Nicola Pratt, "The Gender Logics of Resistance to the 'War on Terror': Constructing Sex-Gender Difference Through the Erasure of Patriarchy in the Middle East." Third World Quarterly 33:10 (2012).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Nicola Pratt (NP): This article is based on fieldwork conducted in 2007 and 2008 at the “Cairo Conferences,” which were a series of conferences in opposition to imperialism, Zionism, neoliberalism, and dictatorship. Initially, I attended the 2007 Cairo Conference as an anti-war activist. At this time, the US and its allies were occupying Iraq and Israel had launched deadly assaults on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in the previous year. As part of the conference, I participated in the “Women’s Forum” and was interested in the opinions expressed and positions taken within the session. Unsurprisingly, these were all in stark contrast to the “women’s empowerment” discourses that were important (and remain so) for the Western justification of the “war on terror.” Simultaneously, as a result of my previous project with Nadje Al-Ali on the impact of the US-led invasion on women in Iraq, I was interested in the gendered impacts of conflict, on which there is a substantial academic as well as policy-related literature. Yet, there was nothing within that literature that helped us to understand the political responses of women to conflict, including the voices of the women at the “Women’s Forum.”

In 2008, I returned to the conference (which turned out to be the last one held) as an activist and an academic to further document the voices at the “Women’s Forum.” One of the biggest paradoxes for me was that most women speakers valorized women’s agency in resisting the “war on terror” (in its many dimensions) in terms of their positions as wives, mothers, and sisters, whilst dismissing gender equality and women’s empowerment. The article tries to understand why anti-war movements may be inhospitable to feminist goals, without reducing the issue to the nature of the ideological currents (Islamist, Arab nationalist, and socialist) represented at the conference. I find that the problem arises from the huge task of bridging multiple identities to build a movement, which thereby makes it difficult to resist multiple relations of domination at the same time.

[Poster from the 2007 Cairo Conference. Image via the author.]

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

NP: The article aims to theorize women’s agency within the context of an anti-war movement. I focus on a range of women activists, not only Islamist women or only women’s rights activists, but also women activists who are socialists or Arab nationalists as well as women workers. It engages with feminist literature on women and resistance and the problem of women’s collective solidarity against the backdrop of intersecting inequalities. Whilst engaging with feminist literature, it also seeks to understand women’s non-feminist activism. It builds on post-colonial/black feminist literature that highlights the significance of race, nation, class, and sexuality as well as geopolitical and global political economic processes in shaping women’s identities and their resistance. Much of the literature on Middle East women’s activism tends to focus on women’s feminist resistance or women’s activism in pursuit of women’s rights objectives. The exception to this is the literature on Palestinian women’s activism, which has been framed by both national and gender-specific objectives.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

NP: It builds on my previous work with Nadje Al-Ali on the impact of the US-led invasion and occupation on women and gender relations in Iraq by considering the wider impact of the “war on terror” on women’s agencies and identities in the Middle East. It also builds on my earlier work on civil society in Egypt, which was the subject of my PhD project. I wouldn’t necessarily term it a “departure,” but this article further develops my interest in post-colonial feminist theory as a means of understanding women’s agency in the Global South, particularly in the context of the Middle East’s geopolitical position.

J: Who do you hope will read this text, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NP: I published this article in a non-women’s studies/feminist studies journal in the hope that it will be read by a wider audience interested in politics and society in the “Third World,” particularly with regard to the study of social movements and resistance. However, the article mainly addresses two audiences, which, from my experience, rarely intersect: scholars of feminist international relations and feminist security studies, on the one hand; and scholars of Middle East women’s studies/gender studies, on the other. I hope that these audiences will be prompted to explore further not only the historically-specific production of gender, but also its geopolitically-specific dimensions. I think that there are a lot of excellent studies examining this in relation to the colonial period. However, I have not come across much literature that does that for more contemporary cases. In addition, I hope to encourage further thinking about the ways in which social relations of “gender,” “sexuality,” “race,” and “class” may intersect in contradictory and complex ways, not only in theory, but in everyday practices (such as anti-war activism). This has implications for progressive politics.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NP: I am currently working with Katherine Allison of Glasgow University to edit and publish a roundtable discussion that we began at the International Studies Association conference in 2012 on “Feminist Engagement with the ‘War on Terror.’” I am also working on a book project that examines the role of geopolitics in shaping women’s rights and women’s mobilization in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon in the post-independence period. Meanwhile, I am preparing to convene a workshop in July 2013 on “Rethinking Gender in the ‘Arab Spring,’” which will be held as part of a joint project with Birzeit University Institute for Women’s Studies.

Excerpt from “The Gender Logics of Resistance to the ‘War on Terror’: Constructing Sex-Gender Difference through the Erasure of Patriarchy in the Middle East”

Feminist scholars have highlighted how the so-called War on Terror is “gender-ed,” as well as “race-ed,” “sex-ed,” and “class-ed.”[1] This literature illustrates how the “war on terror” has been constituted by and constitutive of constructions of “brown women” in need of saving from “barbaric” “brown men” by Western militaries, evocative of Gayatri Spivak’s description of colonialism as “white men saving brown women from brown men.”[2] Such tropes have been criticized for stereotyping Muslim women as “passive” and “oppressed,” Muslim men as “terrorists,” and Western governments and militaries as “enlightened,” thereby helping to naturalize and even to perpetuate the “war on terror.”

It is important to recognize that the “war on terror” (which constitutes a number of different but interconnected processes, including military and intelligence measures, economic restructuring and political and diplomatic alliances) not only has differential effects on different social groups (according to the configurations of intersecting gender, class, ethnicity, nationality, and other significant relations of power) but that groups resist these processes in ways that also have implications for gender and other relations of power, and, in turn, for wider political, socio-economic and cultural processes. However, the subject of resistance to the “war on terror” has been under-studied.

Whilst some attention has been given to the construction of militarized masculinity in violent resistance to the “war on terror” (sometimes depicted as mirroring the militarized masculinity of the US army and its military allies),[3] until now, the theorising of non-violent resistance to the “war on terror” and how it may be gender-ed, race-ed, class-ed, and sex-ed has been almost neglected. Those scholars who have written about the gender-ed dimensions of non-violent resistance to the “war on terror” have focused on feminist or “feminist-friendly” resistance,[4] often highlighting the links between war, militarism and masculinity/”patriarchy.”[5] Yet, such an approach implicitly assumes that patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and militarism are mutually reinforcing, thereby rendering it unproblematic for women to resist all of these simultaneously.[6]

This article examines how gender-ed identities, or particular femininities, are constituted by and constitutive of resistance to the “war on terror,” focusing on the case of the Middle East. Towards this end, the article begins by attempting to theorise resistance in the context of international relations, highlighting the significance of (strategic) identity construction. The following sections examine the processes of constructing femininity in/through resistance to the “war on terror” at a series of conferences against imperialism, Zionism, dictatorship, and neoliberalism, held in Cairo between 2002 and 2008. I find that women mobilize to resist different relations of domination based on imperialism, Zionism, neoliberalism, and dictatorship through the construction of national/religious or class differences. However, the gender logics of the “war on terror” shape the performance of a femininity that valorises sex-gender difference as a source of agency (rather than a source of oppression). I argue that this notion of femininity is constructed strategically to foreground the national/religious and class dimensions of power relations that underpin the “war on terror,” whilst erasing “patriarchy”/gender-based domination. This notion of femininity also enables the bridging of class and ideological differences amongst women.

This suggests wider implications for how we understand the construction of gender-ed identities in international relations, the significance of gender in women’s activism and the relevancy of feminism in struggles against multiple and transnational relations of power. Rather than speaking of anti-feminist blowback in the “war on terror,” it is perhaps more useful to problematize the construction of resistance femininities as the outcome of a dialectical relationship between, on the one hand, multiple relations of power at the inter-personal, national and transnational levels and, on the other, the need to bridge multiple identities to build collective resistance to these structures.


I thank the British Academy for funding this research as part of a small grant to study “Women and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” I am very grateful to Victoria Basham, Bice Maiguashca, Warwick Critical Security Studies Reading Group, and participants in the Tenth Mediterranean Research Meeting on Social Movements in the Middle East and North Africa, Lancaster University’s Center for Gender and Women’s Studies seminar series, the SOAS Department of Politics seminar series, the 2010 WOCMES panel, “Reconceptualising Gender in the Middle East,” and the 2012 ISA panel, “Reconceptualising Security: Gender, Race, and Sexuality after 9/11” for useful feedback and discussion. 

[1] Z Eisenstein, Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy, London: Zed, 2007; K Hunt and K Rygiel, eds., (En)Gendering the War on Terror: War Stories and Camouflaged Politics, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007; R L Riley, C Talpade Mohanty and M Bruce Pratt, eds., Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism, London: Zed, 2008; A M Agathangelou and L H M Ling, “Power, Borders, Security, Wealth: Lessons of Violence and Desire from September 11,” International Studies Quarterly 48, 2004, pp. 517-538; G Bhattacharyya, Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the War on Terror, London: Zed, 2008; M Khalid, “Gender, Orientalism and Representation of the ‘Other’ in the War on Terror,” Global Change, Peace & Security 23:1, 2011, pp. 15-29; L J Shepherd, “Veiled References,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 8: 1, 2006, pp. 1-23; L Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?,” American Anthropologist 104: 3, 2002, pp. 783-790.

[2] G Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?," in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, London: Macmillan, 1988, p. 92.

[3] Agathangelou and Ling, “Power, Borders, Security, Wealth: Lessons of Violence and Desire from September 11”; Michael S. Kimmel, “Globalization and Its Mal(e)Contents: The Gendered Moral and Political Economy of Terrorism,” International Sociology 18:3, 2003, pp. 603-620.

[4] C Cockburn, From Where We Stand: War, Women's Activism and Feminist Analysis, London: Zed Books, 2007; Riley, Mohanty, and Pratt, eds., Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism; Z Eisenstein, Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism and the West, New York: Zed, 2004.

[5] C Enloe, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004; Cockburn, From Where We Stand: War, Women's Activism and Feminist Analysis; C Cockburn, "Gender Relations as Causal in Militarization and War," International Feminist Journal of Politics 12, no. 2 (2010); L Sjoberg and S Via, eds., Gender, War and Militarism: Feminist Perspectives, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010, amongst others.

[6] J Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 81-82.

[Excerpted from “The Gender Logics of Resistance to the ‘War on Terror’: Constructing Sex-Gender Difference through the Erasure of Patriarchy in the Middle East,” by Nicola Pratt, by permission of the author. © 2012 Taylor & Francis. For more information, or to order the article or the complete issue, click here.]

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