Gender and Media in the War on Terror

Faten Staitieh

When you think of wars, you often think of the men as soldiers, commanders, fighters, and the women as wives of soldiers waiting on the home front. The archetype of the masculine in war has always been a warrior and of the feminine a mother: these are the normative gender categories in war. However, during the war on terror, the normative gender categories have been challenged by Jessica Lynch, Lynndie England, and Ayat Akhras by taking on new and non-traditional roles in the warlike army soldiers and bombers. England was an American soldier in Abu Ghraib, Lynch in Iraq, and Akhras among others was a suicide female bomber.  

England challenged the normative gender category by becoming an American soldier and by taking roles that were initially reserved for men. England humiliated Iraqi prisoners by torturing them and using violence, leaving out feminism from her acts, which made her a highly mediated figure (Howard & Prividera, 2008). 

Similarly, Lynch did not only challenge the normative gender categories by becoming an American soldier, but also a hero. During her service in Iraq, she was captured by Iraqi soldiers. When she returned home, she was portrayed as a hero, although she was saved by American soldiers. This was because of her toughness and returning home. To further emphasize the role of women in the victory, some narratives claimed that she fought back:“her ability to endure the pain inflicted by an enemy turns her into a hero” (Kumar, 2004). This behavior does not fit in the normative gender categories nor shows any sign of femininity.

Female suicide bombing further challenged normative gender categories because they were women bombers and took independence in their acts. The suicide operations are usually done by substate groups who do not have the necessary armies, and so decide to perform violence on their political agency (2008). These women have done the same thing by placing themselves at the forefront of the scene, and putting themselves in the center of the spectacle, as they are demanding to be seen. These women independently and willingly sacrificed themselves and did these acts of violence which “enhances the sense of perplexity, fear, and aversion to the perpetrators of the acts” (Naaman, 2007), in other words, creates more discomfort and fascination. All this attracts media and public attention, thus challenging the normative gender categories.

To sum up, Lynch, England, and Akhras challenged the normative gender categories by taking the role of female fighters in the war. They used torture, heroism, toughness, etc. while showing no sign of feminine behavior. However, the media failed to communicate this new representation of women in the war of terror.

With these new representations of women, the media needed to reinforce the normative gender categories and reuse familiar archetypes. In other words, the media had to represent these women in a way to reestablish the normative gender categories by focusing on their femininity, vulnerability, victimization, female bodies, and/or relational dimensions to the exclusion of their military identity (2008). This means that the media selected a part of reality and made it its focal point until this frame became the most obvious part of reality.  

First, the media focused on victimizing the soldiers and bombers by undermining their agency. In the case of England, the media spotted the light on her relationship with Graner, who was in a higher rank in the army, to prove her victimization. The media framed this story to show that she was only doing what she did to please her boyfriend and superior at work, which undermined her agency (2008). Mann, Prividera, and Howard agree that women cannot be looked at as individual agents: they can’t be held accountable, as it is the agency of the military that is violent. And so, this built the image of England as a victim; it is not fully her fault because she was tied to a higher institution. Meanwhile, in the case of Lynch, she was directly considered a victim, as she was a soldier captured and imprisoned by Iraqi soldiers (2008). Finally, the media pictured female suicide bombers as oppressed women or victims in a patriarchal society. In this way, the media justifies the female suicide bombings by reinforcing normative gender categories (2007).

Second, the media also used the vulnerability of women soldiers to reinforce normative gender categories. In addition to being considered a victim, Lynch was also considered a hero, but she was only a hero in the feminine type. Lynch is constructed in a gendered way in the hero and victim stories since she was saved by male soldiers and thus, she is a victim and vulnerable. This fits in perfectly with the normative gender ideologies as this woman was strong to stay alive, but not strong enough to save herself. 

Furthermore, focusing on feminine looks and femininity also helped in reinforcing the normative gender categories. England left the army and became impregnated. This helped to redeem her identity as a mother, as a civilian playing a social role in society (2008).  Moreover, Lynch was pictured wearing red lipstick, and a US army helmet showing her whiteness and blondness while representing the perfect American girl worthy of empathy (2004). In the case of female suicide bombers, the Arab media accommodates the deviation from the normative gender category by associating a title that enforces beauty like “the bride of Palestine” (2007).  

Finally, the media focused on finding an individualized psychological explanation for the deviation of female suicide bombers. For example, the western media focused on the fact that Wafaa Idris was infertile, and couldn’t perform her traditional function, which justifies her deviation and violence (2007). 

All in all, England, Lynch and Akhras challenged the normative gender categories in the war on terror by taking on new roles like a female bomber, torturer, hero, etc. However, the media reinforced the normative gender categories and reused familiar archetypes, and ignored this new representation of women by focusing on their femininity, vulnerability, and victimization.

The current policy also creates the conditions for the mobilization of all public services and professionals, with emphasis on training and awareness-raising. Created in January 2013, the Miprof   was instructed by the Minister of Women’s Rights to develop a training plan for all professions likely to come into contact with women victims of violence.

In a nutshell, the involvement of all professional actors who, in the field, are confronted with violence against women, is necessary. The rate of violence against women will only be able to drop if the whole of society is vigilant and if the victims’ path out of violence is facilitated. Therefore, the training of health, justice, social work, and law enforcement professionals is a priority. Health professionals have a key role in identifying, providing medical care, and referral of women victims of violence. 

Because even if only to offer victims a space to express themselves by asking the question of violence, appropriate medical care and orientation towards the rich network of associations engaged in the fight against violence is already decisive for him. make it possible to initiate a journey towards the end of violence.

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