(WOMENSENEWS)-- Following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States gendered images were everywhere, many of them threatening.
Osama bin Laden taunted the West for becoming feminized. Previously, political scientist Francis Fukuyama was concerned about it, too. In a 1998 article in Foreign Affairs, Fukuyama, although more positive than bin Laden about what they both saw as the feminization of Western culture, pointed to similar dangers. He counseled against putting women in charge of U.S. foreign policy and the military because of their inability to stand up to unspecified dangers (perhaps more specific since 9/11) from "those [non-democratic] parts of the world run by young, ambitious, unconstrained men."
Five years earlier, political scientist Samuel Phillips Huntington warned of a "clash of civilizations," an only slightly veiled reference to a demographically exploding Islam, a "fault line" between Western Christian societies that have progressed in terms of economic development and democratization, and the Muslim world where young men's frustrations are fueled by the failure of these same phenomena.
For others the danger was closer to home; the "real" fault lines were here in the United States. In a 1994 article that lauded Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis, James Kurth, then a political science professor at Swarthmore College, focused attention on the "real clash," an internal one. Extolling the rise of Western civilization and the Enlightenment, a secular society based on individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, the rule of law, free markets and the separation of church and state, which came of age at the beginning of the 20th century, Kurth saw the Enlightenment in decline at the century's end. What he termed "post-industrialism" has moved women into the labor market and out of the home with negative consequences for children, particularly those reared in split family or single-parent households. The United States was, according to Kurth, threatened not only by feminism, which bears the responsibility for the liberation of women, but also by multiculturalism--the presence, and recognition, of large numbers of African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans who, unlike earlier immigrant populations, remain unassimilated in terms of Western liberal ideas.
'Strong Men' in Charge
The fears of these scholars, and Fukuyama's solution--to keep strong men in charge--seemed more real in the aftermath of 9/11 than when they were first articulated. Post–9/11 discourse produced some strange bedfellows. As bin Laden goaded America for its moral decadency and lack of manliness, Christian evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed 9/11 on the ACLU, homosexuals and feminists because they "make God mad." The terrorists were those unconstrained young men, some of whom managed to live among us rather than "out there" beyond the fault line.
So, contra bin Laden, masculinity was back in vogue in the United States. Writing in 2002, Peggy Noonan proclaimed that, since 9/11, "the male hero has been a predominant cultural image, presenting a beefy front of strength to a nation seeking steadiness and emotional grounding. They are the new John Waynes…men who charge up the stairs in 100 pounds of gear, and tell everyone else where to go to be safe." In spite of the Bush administration's appointment of the first female national security adviser, TV screens after 9/11 were full of (mostly white) men in charge, briefing us about "America's New War" both at home and abroad. We felt safer when "our men" were protecting us (against other men) and our way of life.
So where did all the women go? According to an analysis by the British newspaper The Guardian, women virtually disappeared from newspaper pages and TV screens after 9/11. Carol Gilligan noted that men's rising star all but eclipsed that of the many heroic women who rose to the occasion, as firefighters or police officers. Women were also among the combat forces deployed in Afghanistan where male warriors waving guns and shouting death to America looked menacing and unrestrained. If we did see women, they were likely to be faceless Afghan women in the now familiar blue burka. Their shadowy and passive presence seemed only to reinforce these gendered images I have drawn.
A Complicated Picture
Yet the picture was more complicated. Bin Laden taunted the West for its feminization, but he also railed against its "crusaders," an image more likely to invoke medieval knights on horseback than the modern-day "feminized" men about whom Fukuyama, as well as bin Laden, was concerned. And the masculinity of bin Laden's own foot soldiers also came under scrutiny. Mohamed Atta, whose last will and testament banned women from his grave lest they pollute it, was "a polite shy boy who came of age in an Egypt torn between growing Western influence and the religious fundamentalism that gathered
force in reaction . . . [he] had two sisters headed for careers as a professor and a doctor." Grumbling that his wife was raising him as a girl, his father is reputed to have "told him [Atta] I needed to hear the word 'doctor' in front of his name . . . We told him your sisters are doctors . . . and you are the man of the family."
And, contra Fukuyama's and Kurth's fears about the feminized weakening of America, American women supported the war effort in overwhelming numbers while Afghan women beneath the burka protested American bombing and exhorted their sisters to fight against gender oppression. The U.S. Catholic bishops gave qualified support to the war on the grounds that it was a just war, while University of Chicago Political Science Professor John Mearsheimer (2001) counseled against it. Liberals, such as Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, condoned the use of military tribunals and the detention of more than 1,200 young men, none of whom (as of December 2001) had been charged in connection with the attacks.
So, if the story was not a simple one where gender and other ideological lines were firmly drawn, what can a feminist analysis add to our understanding of 9/11 and its aftermath? War both reinforces gender stereotypes and shakes up gender expectations. The conduct of war is a largely male activity on both sides but Meena, the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), exhorted
women to fight, too. Nevertheless, gender is a powerful legitimator of war and national security; our acceptance of a "re-masculinized" society during times of war and uncertainty rises considerably. And the power of gendered expectations and identifications have real consequences for women and for men--consequences that are frequently ignored by conventional accounts of war and civilizational clashes.
J. Ann Tickner is an emerita professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California and a distinguished scholar in residence at American University.
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