Feminist thought enables us to understand that when we function within the world of contemporary conflict and political violence, we do so as our gendered and sexualised selves. If we fail to understand this, we fail to understand one of the most basic tenets of how we identify ourselves and with others. Using Foucault’s notion of bio-power as the basis of my argument, I argue that it is the nation-state’s fascination with the management of life that has created essentialist ideas about gender which have formed the basis not only of sexual inequality, but also the ways in which we identify one another. A feminist understanding therefore, deconstructs the gendered way in which we view contemporary conflict to reveal the inherently constructed manner in which we view it. If we can understand masculinity and femininity and their respective sexualities to be constructed as a function of bio-power, we can better understand the ways in which the state has attempted to harness our perceptions of what are the “correct” masculinities and femininities in order to gain support for the war on terror.

I intend to present my argument in three parts. To begin, I wish to outline Foucault’s ideas about bio-power and offer a short critique of essentialist notions pertaining to gender. I will then present an explanation as to how I believe essentialist ideas about gender have been born out of the modern nation state’s need to govern life itself. Within this, I will discuss important ideas pertaining to the necessity of propagation of hegemonic masculinity within the international sphere and within the military. The second part of my argument will be a critique of essentialist concepts within themselves. Thirdly, I will demonstrate how the gendered identities that we have developed in the western world have led to a justification for the undertaking of liberal wars, on the basis that the masculinities and femininities that we possess in the west are superior to those in the country’s that we “help”.

Before continuing any further however, I feel that a few clarifications are in order. When I speak of bio-power, I speak of Foucault’s notion that populations are managed by states in their individual capacity as living, dying beings. Power over life has two main facets; firstly, to harness the human body as an effective machine and to discipline it as such and secondly, to harness the body’s biological properties in order to ensure survival of the species[1]. Although Foucault never wrote explicitly about the feminism, his work very much lends itself to investigation within the discipline, as many of the key topics that he wrote about such as power and sexuality are of utmost interest to feminist scholars. Indeed, there has been much feminist scholarship in recent years pertaining to the work of Foucault. It seems fitting therefore to attempt to problematize the ways in which essentialist ideas about gender in our understanding of contemporary conflict and political violence can form part of his overarching ideas about the body, society and war.

Essentialism refers to a way of thinking that “claims to recongnize the unchanging essence of individual and social identity, and which then connects views and behaviour to identity[2]”. In terms of gender, essentialist thought sees gender roles as being fixed and unchanging and men and women as having an essential nature – generally in the context of war of men being strong, rational life-takers and women being weak, irrational life-givers. This is epitomized by Elshtain’s “Beautiful Souls and Just Warriors[3]”. This essential difference is sometimes ascribed to the respective biological properties of men and women, often citing women’s capacity as mothers inherently making them more inclined to nurture life rather than to take it. Essentialism has even been used by feminists in the past, with pacifist feminists appealing to the inherent nature of women in an attempt to mobilize them against conflict[4]. There are many problems with the essentialist way of thinking, not least of which is its reductionist approach that fails to take into account some of the most basic facts about the world in which we live in. There are many male pacifists and have been many violent females in contemporary conflicts. A number of studies have been conducted in recent years on female combatants in El Salvador, the LTTE and the Rwandan genocide, to name but a few[5] that have found women to be just as effective at killing as their male counterparts, even in some cases using the preconceptions of others about their femininity in order to pursue their combat objectives more effectively[6]. This tells us then, that gender roles are not fixed or immutable. In this essay, I argue that essentialist ideas about masculinity and femininity have actually been used by the modern nation state in order to make life as manageable as possible. Feminist thought then, gives us the ability to deconstruct these essentialist claims in order that we may become aware of this.

Bio-power represents the attempt to use the body in the most effective way possible for the running of the capitalist nation-state. It is my contention that men and women have been placed within particular ideas about masculinity and femininity when it comes to war because they provide the most efficient manner in which to run society and to propagate life. A society that was entirely at war would cease to exist. Several feminist scholars have noted this in their critique of Hobbes’ state of nature[7]. At least some of the bodies that make up a particular society would be required for the roles that support warfare and as Cynthia Enloe notes, these roles have typically been fulfilled by women[8]. In terms of bio-power, it makes biological sense to make this the case as not only are women required to “bear the next generation”[9], women would also be unable to fulfil the role of a soldier whilst pregnant. Placing women in a constructed role as the caring creators of life optimizes their abilities as part of the machinery of the nation state as it harnesses their reproductive capabilities and binds them up with the nurturing capabilities necessary to perpetuate life and keep society functioning. Men on the other hand, have their bodily power optimised through their construction as the binary opposite of the feminine life-giver, as strong, rational life-takers. Binary oppositions are what make constructed identities function best[10] and therefore, the two sets of bodies function best when mirrored against one another. Essentialist conceptions of masculinity and femininity then, serve to reduce the respective bodies to performing in roles optimal to the functioning of the nation state. We can see then, that a feminist perspective gives us much insight into the way that the body is harnessed into a system of bio-power in warfare.

If the ways in which masculinity and femininity have been structured to serve a bio-political purpose, it is not surprising that the study and academic understanding of contemporary warfare is itself gender blind.[11] This has been a subject of enquiry for a number of feminist scholars, including Tickner and Elshtain. Academics have noted how from its very inception, theorizing of the behaviour of states in the international sphere has relied upon constructed notions of hyper-masculine militarization[12]. This is by no means a difficult point to illustrate within realist or liberal discourse, with realists basing their theory of state behaviour on the dependability of the violent male actor[13] and liberals placing absolute emphasis on the rational, essential nature of human beings. Ideas based on constructed notions of gender are then, key to the ways in which states interact and therefore, key in modern warfare. If states themselves have placed emphasis on the necessity of a strong male warrior, it is inevitable that the world of states will interact within a discourse that values masculinity and will leave femininity to the domain of the state level. This is a representation of each individual state harnessing it’s bio-power in the manner that it deems most effective. In particular, Rousseau’s ideas about the ideal state are based upon the binary opposition of male and female roles, deeming women unfit for civic participation but saying that they must teach their sons how to be virtuous citizens[14]. Elshtain describes this as a paradox, but if we understand Rousseau’s thoughts within the context of bio-power, this is not the case as in this axiom, women have the capability to be full citizens but this would not be the most effective way of harnessing their bodily power. Indeed, Rousseau does not attempt to essentialize women’s nature, describing the ideal woman as a woman of Sparta, who would give precedence to the fate of her state at war over the life of her son[15]. One can see then, how feminist discourse provides us with an insight into the hypermasculine nature of international relations discourse which resonates in our understanding of contemporary conflict and political violence. We are able to view international conflict as being conceived within the hypermasculinity valued by states through their use of the male body as a violent object.

The Military of course, provides us with the absolute example of the organization of life along gendered lines. As mentioned previously, women have always played the supporting roles in conflict[16] as this represents the most effective use of their labour. Several scholars, perhaps most famously Cynthia Enloe, have noted the ways in which militaries have depended consistently on constructions of masculinity and femininity in order to function at the most basic level. To be a man makes you not a woman, to be masculine makes you not feminine[17]. Militaries rely upon this binary opposition between men and women in order to make the male body into the most effective weapon possible. Militaries cannot rely upon men to be naturally violent and so must construct a type of masculinity that can only be proven through acts of violence. The most efficient way of doing this is by positing the identity against the binary opposite of women as weaker, pacific beings. Men are encouraged to join the military in order to prove their masculinity. As Enloe notes “Acquisition of manpower has required an elaborate gender ideology and social structure[18]”. By applying feminist thought to our understanding of the military, we can see that in a bio-political context, the ascribing of extreme gender roles to men and women optimizes the capabilities of the male body to become violent and therefore constribute to the nation state in the best way possible. If he does not become violent, he can be branded a woman but if he does he can be awarded the highest honour of all and become a man.

Achieving this militarized masculinity has the benefit of first class citizenship attached to it, a privilege that women have historically been denied because of their inability to fight. Feminist positions on the military are extremely varied. Liberal feminists generally point to the necessity for women to be able to fight in the military, in order that they be afforded the same rights and privileges as men. A contrasting viewpoint is that emphasis placed on the need for women to become militarized only perpetuates the myth that the military is so central to the social order. Here we can see then, a fundamental disagreement that runs through feminist thought. Liberal feminists are quite often criticised for their lack of examination pertaining to the construction of gender itself, seeing as they do, human beings as effectively sexless beings[19]. Attempting to problematise gender issues within the military within the framework of the liberal feminist outlook is therefore very difficult as they seem to be attempting to ignore both biological facts and the constructed notions of masculinity and femininity that pervade society. Van Creveld has outspokenly been against women serving in the military, saying that their inclusion has resulted in a decline in military effectiveness. He claims that as a result, women have “tragically” lost their femininity and men have been emasculated[20] as he understands the military as an institution that functions within the bounds of a certain type of militarized hypermasculinity and claims that not only do women make poor soldiers, they jeapordise the very foundations on which the military is built. This is an extreme perspective and understandably one that has received much criticism from contemporary feminist writers. Perhaps most notably within the bounds of this discussion, is Enloe’s statement that in actual fact, women serving in the military are actually often ridiculed if they are perceived to have become less feminine[21]. How then can we understand femininity within the modern military? I argue that as long as we understand that gender roles are fluid and changing, a feminist perspective has much to tell us about the bio-political implications of women in modern militaries. Within the context of the War on Terror, the role of the feminine body has been optimised by holding her up as a bastion of liberal civilization, whilst simultaneously portraying her as weak and in need of protection from an aggressive Arab masculinity. Any threat that liberal feminism may have posed to this militarized masculinity is dealt with by the “discourse of interracial rape[22]”. This enables the liberal state not only to portray itself as more civilized than non-liberal states and to wage wars by subverting the feminist cause, but also to maintain the hypermasculinity of its military by ensuring that women remain something to be protected.

I would now like to discuss the types of masculinity and femininity present within the war on terror. Rygiel points to the fact that in the War on Terror, “citizens are key weapons[23]” and that gendered and racialised policies secure identities and therefore make them more “knowable and manageable[24]”. The mobilization of the male and female body using essentialist claims about masculinity and femininity have been key in this war of identity politics.

Arab masculinity has been juxtaposed with a strong white western masculinity in a number of different ways. Firstly, the Arab male is represented as being a sexual deviant, as both a rapist and a homosexual. Post 9/11 discourse represents the attacks as the symbolic rape of the US, whilst stories like that of Private Jessica Lynch[25] present the Arab male as being a literal rapist of western women. He is also perceived to mistreat his “own” women, with the cause of the repressed Afghani woman being cited regularly as a justification for the war in Afghanistan. The construction of the sexualised masculine “other” in wartime has always played a significant role in the understanding and justification of conflict. In colonial times, the masculine “other” was the lazy, intellectually stunted “other” who needed to be civilized by the colonising country[26]. In the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, an image of the self as a strong heterosexual male in contrast to the impotent Bosnian Muslim male, played an enormous role in how nationalist forces understood and fought the war[27]. In the War on Terror, the construction of Arab masculinities has evolved in order to maximise the bio-power of both the western male and female. Western masculinity has been posited against the Arab masculinity because he threatens both the western female through his sexual deviancy, and has raped the “mother country” and therefore needs to be punished. Not only that, social scientists often refer to the actions of terrorists as being “irrational” in opposition to the “rationality” that goes hand in hand with the constructed white “civilized” masculinity[28]. He is also a homosexual, whose sexuality has a direct effect on the health of the bio-political body. Foucault notes how in the nineteenth century, homosexuality became not something that you did but something that you were[29] and this is true in the case of the Arab terrorist – he is a homosexual rapist and therefore a sexualised, racialised monster who threatens the masculinity of the American male. The Western female has had her bodily power used through the appeal to essentialist claims about femininity that have been used to appeal to women in order to justify the war. Hunt discusses the way in which American feminists were criticised for not supporting the war on terror and helping their “sisters” in Afghanistan.[30] This represents a fundamental problem in both liberal and essentialist feminism, who appeal to a common femininity between all women in order to support international intervention. There are many problems associated with such an appeal, not least of which is the fact that if we understand gender as constructed, it seems unlikely that a common femininity across cultures is possible. Also, the rights based approach of liberal feminists seems to ignore the fact that the entire concept of rights is itself western-centric. In the case of the war in Afghanistan, liberal feminists have actually managed to become a part of a war that has served to subvert the feminist cause as women have suffered greater injustices at the hands of the Taliban as a result of the fact that women’s rights have come to be perceived as a part of an attack on Islamic culture. Appeals to the supposed essential nature of masculinity and femininity and the perceived dangers of a deviant gender or sexuality seem to have powerful resonance in public understanding of the War on Terror. Feminist thought therefore, adds a powerful dimension to the ways in which we understand contemporary conflicts and political violence, particularly with the added dimension of bio-power.

In conclusion therefore, feminist thought enables us to understand the ways in which life has been organized along gendered lines in order to optimize the bio-power of both the male and female body in conflict. As long as we understand that gender is a fluid concept that changes over time, we can see how claims to the essentialist nature of men and women evolve in order to support war.

  1. History of sexuality p139
  2. Smith p.34
  3. Elshtain
  4. Smith p.44
  5. Refs from female combatants doc
  6. Alison, p.451
  7. Tickner – check
  8. Enloe
  9. Sjaelsbaeck
  10. Smith p39 Problem of essentialism in gender, peace and conflict
  11. Walker
  12. Generic quote – elshtain, tickner or steans
  13. Tickner
  14. Elshtain p70
  15. Elshtain – sovereignty, identity, sacrifice
  16. Enloe
  17. Enloe
  18. Steans
  19. Van Creveld
  20. Enloe
  21. Brittain p91
  22. Engendering the war on terror.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Hague
  25. Foucault, History of Sexuality