The Misogynist Undercurrents Of Abu-Ghraib
The Abu Ghraib-inspired backlash against feminism was predictably swift. The prominent portrayal of women as front and center participants in the acts of torture challenged our comfortable assumptions about how women are supposed to behave and right-wing pundits wasted no time in implicating the role of feminism in causing the atrocities that took place. Indeed, women like Linda Chavez of the deceptively named Center for Equal Opportunity were quick to claim that the presence of women in the military actually encouraged the “misbehavior.” She suggested that the recent reports of sexual harassment in the military and the pregnancy rate of female soldiers in the gulf bolsters this claim. George Neumeyr, columnist for The American Spectator opined that what happened at Abu Ghraib “is a cultural outgrowth of a feminist culture which encourages female barbarians.” he goes on to quote Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness as suggesting that feminists are good at creating “equal opportunity abusers.”
Taking a step back, we have to realize that there is an element of stage management involved in the release of the few photos seen so far, out of what are reported to be thousands of pictures (not unlike the staging of the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch). Why were these particular pictures chosen to be shown in public? Are they truly representative of what happened, or just a small piece of the puzzle? Given that women make up less that fifteen percent of those currently on active military duty (and a much smaller percentage of those in command), it is probable that the women receiving notoriety are far less significant than they have been portrayed.
The sexual nature of the torture also raises some significant issues that feminists need to address. Politicians and the media have found it disturbingly easy to label many of the images as pornography, as if it were just a matter of politically incorrect entertainment. When Arabrun websites posted photos that purported to show sexual abuse of Iraqi women by Coalition soldiers, they were summarily dismissed as fakes when it was discovered that they had also appeared on known pornography sites. One lawmaker commented that what occurred in the pictures he saw appeared to be consensual. Yet a member of the Military Police is quoted as saying that one of the female soldiers supposedly had sex “in a gang bang.” Other female soldiers have reported that they were photographed without their permission while showering by male soldiers and over 100 women soldiers have filed sexual assault complaints related to their duty in Iraq.
While much pornography is nonconsensual, clearly the acts that were photographically documented at Abu Ghraib go well beyond merely being pornographic. Placed in historical context, sexual depravity in the military has always been present, but has rarely been of a consensual nature. Male soldiers have always been entitled to the ‘entertainment’ provided by prostitutes, and sexual slavery, rape and other forms of sexual assault have always been included in the arsenal of the power tools of war.
As the horrors of Abu Ghraib started to unfold, Iraqi men were quoted as saying that they had been humiliated both by being made to feel like women and by being tortured by women. What is telling is the use of misogyny as a method of torture. The calculated sexualized torture of men by women has been seen as scandalous by Iraqis and Westerners alike. But far more misogynist is the almost total lack of attention to the ample evidence of sexual assault against Iraqi women. Quite simply, sexual abuse against women by men is business as usual. Reports by General Antonio Taguba and The New Yorker magazine confirm that this abuse has taken place. Many of the women are being detained in the hopes of getting their male relatives to provide information, not for any supposed crimes that they themselves have committed (such detention is a clear violation of international law).
The abusing, intimidation and sexual assault of these women in Iraqi culture is considered a reflection on the manhood of their men and the honor of their families. A woman who is raped or assaulted in Iraq is seen as bringing shame upon her family and is doubly victimized by being subjected to denial, ostracism or even death when she is released. In addition, she certainly cannot report these crimes to the Coalition, which has perpetrated them, and even if it would not make the matter worse, there is no Iraqi legal infrastructure in place to protect these women from being victimized again by their families. Because of this, Iraqi women are afraid to report what has happened to them and thus these sexual assaults by Coalition forces may never be truly documented.
What seems urgent at this point is that feminists must ensure that the sensational actions of a few women not be allowed to obscure the real causes of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib or to detract from focusing on the far more prevalent violence that male soldiers have inflicted on both female soldiers and female civilians.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. May/Jun 2004
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