Ballistic Bodies: Gender, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Palestine/Israel

Virginia Woolf once described woman as ontologically stateless. Because women were denied equal protection under the law, she said, and because history treated them as slaves, women should be indifferent to the project of nationalism: “for as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” (Woolf 129) Andrea Dworkin echoes this sentiment in her essay “Whose Country Is It Anyway?”, as she discusses the interlocking matrix of oppression which furthers the cause of nation-building and how ethnicity, gender, class, and trauma are exploited to justify the aggressive domestic policies of the state of Israel. This post will present an examination of  Dworkin’s essay as well as the state of Israel through the lens of feminist security theory. I will first discuss how the identity of the state, like the identity of the subject, is performative. I will then examine the importance of narrative and cultural memory in the project of nationalism. I will then conclude with two examples illustrating the use of both Israeli and Palestinian women as weapons of war.

The project of nationalism often depends on the reification of patriarchal relationships to provide the appearance of legitimacy and security of the state and its subjects. It is in this way that the concepts of nation-building and gender are actually closely related: while nation building is a political process by which a national identity is constructed, gender is a political process which helps construct our identity as subjects within the state. If gender and identity are performative, or something one “does”, it follows then that viewing the project of Israeli nationalism through a gendered lens could help us to understand more about the performativity of the state’s identity as well.

Jonathan Wadley says that “states can be observed reifying themselves through performances of security, particularly those which establish them as stable and masculine protectors…it becomes evident that by “being” masculine protectors, states can position themselves favorably and gain legitimacy from domestic audiences.” (Wadley 40) Thus, war and occupation are not only performances of the protector/protected identities, but are also often seen as ways to masculinize a people and legitimize the state. In her essay, Dworkin says that the demasculinization of the Jews led to the need to reassert their masculinity through the creation of the State of Israel (Dworkin 165), and that this assertion of masculinity is reproduced in Israeli domination of women and Palestinian people. Establishing this kind of patriarchal protector/protected relationship between the state and its subjects is problematic to begin with: the subjects will be considered subordinate to and dependent upon the superior and masculine power of the state. Even within a “democracy”, this reconstruction of the patriarchal household leaves half of the population extremely vulnerable. According to Dworkin’s essay, approximately 100,000 Israeli women are victims of domestic violence each year: if these women wish to retain their rights as citizens, they must remain with their abuser until given permission to leave. (Dworkin 163) This relationship is mirrored in the relationship of the Palestinians to the state of Israel. The Palestinians have no voice in the Israeli court, are not granted their freedom of movement. If they fight back, they are beaten more harshly. But they are never quite divorced from Israel and cannot leave without express permission.

Another way that gender and ethnicity are manipulated to justify oppression is through the appropriation of narrative and the erasure of cultural memory. The control and development of a specific cultural memory is important in nation-building for several reasons. First, a cultural memory defines the “we”: it establishes the collective through the narration of shared history, reified ideals, and sometimes collective trauma. It is important to note that while the “us” is established, so is the “them”. It is in this way that cultural memory serves to create a hierarchy of binary oppositions, a group to be excluded, feared, and fought. Dworkin says that the Palestinians, considered “primitive, uneducated, dirty”, fill this role to the state of Israel, and rightfully predicted at eleven years old that they would always be “second-class by definition”. (Dworkin 157) By characterizing the indigenous people as “nothing in the most literal sense”, it is easy to justify the occupation of Palestine. Dworkin alludes to a similar rewriting of history in the North American celebration of “Thanksgiving”: neither Americans nor Israelis, she says, can “afford to face” that the land they occupied was taken by force.

Finally, the collective Jewish (and global) trauma of the Holocaust is almost as important a narrative as the one which claimed that Palestine was barren and free for the taking. For just as the latter renders the suffering and displacement of Palestinians invisible, the former brings the persecution of Jewish people to the forefront of every conversation about Israel’s “right” to exist. For Dworkin’s family, and for many Jews, the persecution of Jews (which is not limited to the Holocaust alone) is fundamental to their shared identity: to even have a sense of identity or self, Dworkin says, she must be “pulled into the mass grave” with the victims of the Holocaust. (Dworkin 156) This creates another justification for the racial paradigm comprising Israel’s identity: that in order to not be like the dead, to not be like the Jews on the trains, “Israel had to become either a fortress or a tomb”. (Dworkin 157)

I would like to conclude this paper by examining the ways in which both Palestinian and Israeli women are used as literal and figurative weapons of war. Dworkin describes the importance of egalitarianism and gender equity in the cultural memory surrounding the birth of Israel: from the kibbutz, to Golda Meir, to the women conscripted alongside men to serve in the IDF, Israel has perpetuated the narrative conflating Israel with progressive and egalitarian values. Though Dworkin’s essay discusses the actual legal rights and living conditions of Israeli women (and how they contradict this narrative), what she does not mention is that by conflating women’s rights and nationalism, Israel has turned women into what Kelly Oliver calls “defensive weapons in the propaganda war”. (Oliver 11) Regardless of how women are treated by Israeli courts and domestic policy, their safety and happiness are used as justification for the creation and fortification of the state  of Israel. In this way, I see them as a figurative weapon in war.

Palestinian women, too, have been used as weapons of war and nationalism. In another bizarre interpretation of “equality”, Yasser Arafat declared to over a thousand female supporters in Ramallah that “men and women are equal…you are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks.” (Oliver 8) Hours later saw the death and detonation of Wafa Idris, the first female shahida, or suicide bomber, in the cause of Palestinian statehood. While we cannot dismiss the political agency of Wafa Idris or the shahidet who followed her, it is important to note that they live in a society which will pay lip service to gender equality when it serves the cause of nationalism. In this way, the body of the Palestinian shahida becomes a literal weapon in war.

Toward the cause of nationalism, Virginia Woolf would say that woman might “find herself in possession of very good reasons for her indifference.” (Woolf 129) And while Woolf and Dworkin would agree that women must always be women “first, second, and last”, Dworkin might accuse Woolf of having some blood on her hands. “The low status of women in Israel is not unique,” she says, “but we are uniquely responsible for it.” (Dworkin 162) To be a feminist, Dworkin says, is not to be indifferent to nationalism and to hierarchy but to fight it. To be indifferent, to turn a blind eye to the abject living conditions of those living under Occupation, is to have blood on one’s hands: not only that of Palestinians, but of all women.

Works Cited

Dworkin, Andrea. “Israel: Whose Country is it Anyway?.” Ms Magazine September 1990. Print.

Oliver, Kelly. Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex, and the Media. Columbia University Press, 2010.

Wadley, Jonathan. “Gendering the State: Performativity and Protection in International Security.” Gender and

International Security. Ed. Laura Sjoberg. London: Routledge. 38-54. 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas (Annotated). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.



My daughter
wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
She waited
Until it left of its own accord

If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn’t a place to call home
And you’d get to go biking

She said that’s how others
Become refugees isn’t it?

-Fady Joudah


From an interview with Leila Ahmed posted this morning in +972 Magazine:

“After her first hijacking in 1969 at the age of 26, Leila chose to go under the knife to change her face and perform a second hijacking without being recognised. While the doctor complained that plastic surgery was meant to beautify, not deform, Leila called the operation a minor sacrifice for her cause, and put it in context in an interview to Jennifer Jajeh. ‘Women change their faces, their lips, and all these plastic surgeries to beautify themselves, but they didn’t beautify their minds. I did that. Beautified my mind.'”

Some extracurricular reading.

“What she did:

In order to prove to her captives, and also to her fellow-captors, that the idea of failure, or surrender, would never weaken her resolve, she emerged from her momentary retreat in the first–class cocktail lounge to stand before them like a stewardess demonstrating safety procedures.

But instead of putting on a lifejacket and holding up blow-tube whistle etcetera, she quickly lifted the loose black djellabah that was her only garment and stood before them stark naked, so that they could all see the arsenal of her body, the grenades like extra breasts nestling in her cleavage, the gelignite taped around her thighs, just the way it had been in Chamcha’s dream. Then she slipped her robe back on and spoke in her faint oceanic voice. ‘When a great idea comes into the world, a great cause, certain crucial questions are asked of it,’ she murmured. ‘History asks us: what manner of cause are we? Are we uncompromising, absolute, strong, or will we show ourselves to be timeservers, who compromise, trim and yield?’

Her body had provided her answer.”

-Salman Rushdie, from “The Satanic Verses” (emphasis mine)

Pin-Ups and War Machines

I’m not gonna lie: I have always had a healthy appreciation for the pinup art of the mid-twentieth century. Of course, the question of what is “healthy” never arose until recently: is it “healthy” to appreciate photos and paintings of women caught in embarrassing “whoops!” type situations which inevitably expose a stocking here, maybe some panties or a nipple there? The images range from voyeuristic to flat out bizarre: women going about their usual womanly business of cooking, grocery shopping, or gardening when their skirts inexplicably fly up to expose secret nether regions. Woman lounging in an intimate, private setting.

When I was young, I thought these paintings beautiful. But they also made me feel uncomfortable, and a bit unsafe. Is it sexy for a woman to be exposed against her will, even by accident?

I’ve only just begun to think about this this morning, as I drink my coffee over the morning perusal of Facebook. My partner, Joshua, posted some images of World War II planes decorated with pinup images of the 1940s, and it occurred to me that here was the juxtaposition of two things which have always made me feel uneasy: the pinup and the war machine. The hypersexualized, hapless, exposed 40s housewife and the machines responsible for the deadliest firebombings ever seen.

With names like “Flying Fortress” and “Liberator”, and emblazoned with images of beautiful women in vulnerable and compromised positions, these planes represent some of the ideas I am exploring with this blog: nostalgia for a time when women filled their proper roles and our country was still proud and great, merging sexuality with nationalism and war, and the apparent correlation between a culture of sexual aggression/force and the idea that this culture keeps our nation strong and safe. (Please see my entry on Tailhook and military rape for more on this.)


Salome is the prototypal femme fatale. In Christian tradition, she is famous for her seductive and mysterious “Dance of the Seven Veils” which led King Herod (inflamed with incestuous desire) to bring her the severed head of John the Baptist.

Like Jezebel, Salome is often held up as an example of the dangerous and evil power of feminine sexuality.






plane2Here is another image of some blonde, angelic, soft looking women delivering what look to be warheads made of delicious milk chocolate.







plane3 “Surprise Attack”: attack the naked woman in the shower, or the children of Dresden? Collateral damage, both.







A woman in the crosshairs, a woman as wolf (enemy?) bait, and my favorite: a beautiful, naked, cheerful plane4woman serving as a grotesque war machine herself.

A “Dear Jeanne” Letter: Breaking Up With Jeanne D’Arc

Ma très chère Jeanne:

Although for years you have served as inspiration and comfort to me, it pains me to say now that we have grown apart, and our relationship has cooled. For awhile I thought that it was me: I wasn’t worthy, maybe I didn’t understand you, I don’t know. I felt guilty.

For how could I possibly hope to emulate you, Jeanne?

Legend says that you spoke directly to God, and followed his directive to enlist and lead the armies of France to victory joanofarc_suffragetteagainst England in the Hundred Years’ War. You famously bobbed your hair and dressed as a man, but emphasized the fact that you were both a woman and a virgin.

This appealed to me when I was young, Jeanne, but I am not going to lie: it makes me uneasy now that I am grown. Your image has been co-opted by feminist movements as a symbol of acceptably feminine power. But you simply “passed” as a man to gain entrance to male society. Once there, you emphasized your “purity” and your “womanliness” (true female virtues) to support and perpetuate the status quo. It was important to you (and to the patriarchy) that you remain merely the exception. The whole “Madonna/Whore” question seems so cliché now, but I am starting to think that maybe you were part of the problem.

After all, you certainly were not the first woman to take up arms and fight battles. But you may be the only one sainted for it. So what gives? It’s never classy to compare, but I can’t help but hold you up to some of my other girlfriends, Jeanne. Bear with me.

Maria Quitéria
Maria Quitéria

Umm Hakim, who fought in a religious ecstasy alongside the Prophet, was a married woman and a mother of sons. Predating you by almost a thousand years, she fought the wars of men, but wrote erotic poetry about her yearning to be well met in battle as well as bed.

Maria Quitéria, who in 1822 enlisted for military service as a man, but who fought for the independence of Brazil while wearing a skirt. Maria didn’t die the pure and martyred death of the virgin: she left her husband in order to marry whomever the hell she wanted. After leading a battalion of women to victory and helping to secure Brazil’s independence, Maria settled down to raise a daughter and do a bit of farming.

Moving ahead to the 21st century, I recognize in the shahida traces of you, Jeanne. Becoming more virginal in their deaths, the shahida are manifestations of how problematic it is to focus on woman’s “womanliness” as a special weapon of war. Hours before the death of Palestine’s first woman suicide bomber, Wafa Idris, Yasser Arafat declared that “women and men are equal…you are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks.”

Wafa Idris, who had been divorced after producing a stillborn daughter and being declared “sterile”, was said to have suffered bouts of desperation and depression: unable to remarry, unable to move away from her family’s home, family members said she lacked the cultural resources to remedy her situation. She felt that she was in limbo, and family members say that martyrdom in service to Palestine became what she saw as a “release”.

Wafa Idris

 And while I will not dissect the case of Wafa Idris and the many reasons she chose to become become a shahida (for that would take a whole separate research project, I think, and she  deserves so much more than I have to give right now) I will say that we can read her case (and thousands more like hers) as not exceptional, but as instead symptomatic of the problem I see in you, Jeanne: restrictive gender roles in a patriarchal society where the only option left for a woman who cannot fit into those roles is martyrdom. While this is by no means limited to women in the “Middle East”, it is worth noting that the decision to use women as suicide bombers prompted several clerics of Islam to pronounce women eligible to achieve holy martyrdom. Before they were willing to destroy their bodies in service to the state, women could not reach paradise as holy martyrs: that honor was reserved for men.

Jeanne, I want to introduce you to another one of my amantes, Dr. Vaginal Davis. She confuses and excites me: she makes me wonder what I even mean by words like “gender”, “warrior”, and “identity”.

Dr. Vaginal Davis
Dr. Vaginal Davis

Vaginal Davis (who named herself in salute to Angela Davis) is a performance artist specializing in what has become known as “terrorist drag”: it hijacks and lampoons through her stage performance the personas of militiamen, serial killers (who are predominantly white and homophobic) and white supremacists.

Unable to “pass” as a heterosexual black militant within the Black Panther Party (an organization often fraught with sexist and homophobic tensions) Davis began to employ performative disidentification to parody “Black Power” and remake it into something else.

Jose Esteban Munoz describes Davis’ strategy of disidentification as a means of “resisting the interpellating call of ideology which fixes a subject within the state power apparatus”. A kind of “counterpublic terrorism”. Through performative disidentification, she critiques the co-opting of African, Hispanic, and LGBT culture by the mainstream”. She refuses to “pass” within the traditional drag scene, and refuses to adapt it to integrate it into the normalizing discourse of dominant ideology. It is in this way, Munoz says, that Davis is a sort of social guerilla warrior. A fabulous one.

Could it be that this is the answer? Disidentification? Would refusing to “pass” have saved you from execution, Jeanne? For that is what got you in the end, wasn’t it? In spite of the fact that you were a pure and chaste paragon of maidenly virtue, you dressed like a man. You did precisely what they needed you to do: led armies to victory, filled everyone’s hearts with patriotic and religious fervor, made a hell of a mascot, and then burned prettily at the stake.

Finally, Jeanne, I think that you need to meet Chelsea Manning: the woman who guided me through this research project when I found that you could not. I chose her for guidance because, frankly, she inspires me in a way that you do not. The way we see both gender and the rules of war is changing so rapidly, Jeanne, and Chelsea represents that.

Currently serving a sentence of 35 years for leaking over 700,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning is the first prisoner in Fort Leavenworth history to request hormone replacement as treatment for gender dysphoria.

In spite of the repeal of DADT, transgender soldiers are still not allowed to serve openly in the military: nearly 20% of transgender people serve anyway (twice the rate of the general population). Since transgender people cannot openly serve, and since she cannot be discharged from service until she is released from prison, Manning was denied treatment for gender dysphoria. Prison officials have further stated that she may not dress as a woman, either.

Though it is widely assumed that Chelsea Manning was acting out of anti-war or pacifist beliefs when she leaked those documents to the press, she wasn’t: she said that he felt obligated to enlighten the public about “what happens and why it happens” and to “spark a debate about foreign policy.” She says that she didn’t believe that the information would harm her country. On the contrary, she leaked it because she believed so strongly in human life and equality that she felt obligated to.

As with Wafa Idris, I cannot begin to dissect the complexity of Chelsea Manning’s case: she deserves more than I can give her here. But it is worth noting that she spoke warmly of her country, her military, “the greater good”. Manning believed that she was serving her country. And now that country is forcing her to wear men’s clothing. You were fighting for the patriarchy, Jeanne, but Manning seemed to be fighting for something better.

Jeanne, it’s really late and I should probably wrap this up. I just felt the need to explain to you why I’ve been so distant since this whole project started. And I don’t really feel guilty about it anymore. It isn’t me: it’s you.

Mille tendresse, darling.


Video and Argument Analysis: Tailhook and the Persistent Culture of Rape in the US Military

TRIGGER WARNING: Both the video and my discussion of it contain references to sexual assault and harassment.

This New York Times video revisits the 1991 Tailhook scandal, the military coverage which surrounded it, and the changes to the US military in its aftermath. Though the scandal highlighted  a military culture which was hostile to women and resulted in “more oversight” and investigations into sexual abuse, some say it has done more harm than good. Tailhook has been said to have resulted (albeit indirectly) in women being allowed into active combat as well as the implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse. Has the “zero tolerance” policy worked? Are women better off today than they were 20 years ago?

Paula Coughlin, the whistle blowing officer famous for exposing Tailhook to national media, said that she grew up in a military family and was “in love” with the idea of serving her country. “You could do whatever you wanted to do in life, you just had to be hardworking and set your mind to it.” At the time of Tailhook, women were not allowed to participate in active combat in the US armed forces. Paula was only allowed to serve as “support staff”, but excelled and landed a coveted job with the Navy.

Tailhook, 1991

Before it was a scandal, Tailhook was an aviation symposium in Las Vegas, NV. In a moment of foreshadowing, the video shows a symposium panel taking questions about women serving in active combat: before the question is even articulated, male officers in attendance drowned the question out with boos and hisses. When will women be able to serve in combat? The question was not even acknowledged by the panel. To Coughlin, this said that “women are second class citizens, and whether they can fly a jet or not, let’s party and have at it.”

At the convention, drunken Naval officers attacked both civilian women and Naval officers in a hallway they called “The Gauntlet”. Among these women was Paula Coughlin, who was manhandled and forcibly disrobed. Upon reporting the incident to her supervisor, Coughlin was told: “That’s what you get when you walk down a hallway full of drunk aviators.”

Barbara Pope, who was at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, says that from the beginning, no one took her claims seriously. Of the 1500 officers investigated, only two cooperated with investigators. Pope, like Coughlin, was told that “this is what you get” when women serve in the military.

What is remarkable to me is that the language of the media at the time of the scandal focuses on Tailhook as an example of “sexual harassment” in the military. Perhaps it was to make the issue more palatable to audiences, but changing the crime from assault to “harassment” makes it more nebulous, and more contentious. There is no acceptable assault. It is criminal. But harassment? It could be “boys being boys”.

In the civilian world, when a person reports sexual assault they are entitled to a certain measure of privacy and protection. For Coughlin to even bring her case to justice, she was forced to go on national television and recount her experience to the world.

In the end, the official investigation showed that there were 90 victims of assault and abuse at the Tailhook conference. There were 140 officers accused of assault. There were zero convictions.

Sexual Assault in the US Military

Though both justice and closure eluded  Coughlin, the scandal did bring to light the culture of misogyny and abuse in the military. But where are we now? Studies show that women in the US military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than they are to die by enemy fire. Sexual crimes in the military are up 34%, while reporting has gone down to less than 10%. The military is a hierarchical society, and victims of abuse are usually subordinates. Sexual assault is a crime of violence and power, and it is a critical point in this case (made by Paula Coughlin) that the crimes were committed without legal consequence. Not only did 62% of victims face retaliation from peers, commanding officers, and the administration, but less than 1% of those accused were actually convicted of a crime.

It needs to be noted that over half of sexual assault victims in the military each year are men. Former petty officer Brian Lewis, raped at knifepoint by a commanding officer, says in the video that “Rape is a crime of power and control. The military is very much about power and control.” In a culture where men are manly and are expected to be able to defend themselves, it is no surprise that sexual assault against male soldiers goes largely unreported.

So why, if Tailhook brought this “silent epidemic” to light, does the problem seem to only be getting worse? Coughlin, through her work with the organization “Protect Our Defenders”, says that the first step in ending the culture of rape in the military is to actually start prosecuting rapes in the military. Other, lesser crimes are swiftly prosecuted and punished. Why, she says, do we ignore rape and assault? The only answer is to investigate claims thoroughly and prosecute the perpetrators.

Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman disagrees. In this essay, Lehman nostalgically extols the virtues of yesteryear’s most manly and heroic officers: bearing a “self-confidence, even a certain swagger”, the very qualities which make these heroes indisposable during wartime make them particularly vulnerable during peacetime to the scourge of “political correctness” and “risk aversion”. Brilliantly deploying a slippery slope fallacy, Lehman suggests that we will only realize how dangerous “political correctness” is when the Navy is weakened to the point of impotence, “when our naval weakness ends our ability to deter”, and when we are sucked into another unnecessary war.

First, I think that it is telling that Lehman equates swaggering bravado with a culture of rape and assault. It is also worth noting that Lehman attributes the military’s ability to defend the country to its officers ability to forcibly assault, abuse, and penetrate subordinates.

Next, I think this speaks to my questions about gender, militarism, and nationalism: Lehman posits that to assault, to take by force, is a heroic and masculine thing, which ultimately makes our nation safer and stronger.

Remember also what Lehman is calling “political correctness” is not referring to a wishy washy, mealy mouthed proclivity for saying things in a way that doesn’t offend. He is referring to the military’s zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse. Attacking “political correctness”, something which is subjective, not easily defined, and misunderstood by many people (in some ways, like feminism) Lehman creates a straw man to distract his readers from the real issue: rape. Everyone knows what rape is. We “know” that rape is “wrong”. It would be a political disaster for him to write an essay with the title: “Why We Have to Rape Subordinates in Order to Preserve Our Nation’s Freedom”.

In conclusion, the New York Times video gave few easy solutions but raised many good questions: If half of the victims of sexual assault in the military are men, is it really a culture of “sexism and misogyny” which leads to the high sexual assault rates? While the military polices and prosecutes itself, can there ever be real justice for military victims of sexual assault?

Book Review: “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times”

TRIGGER WARNING: This book review contains images and discussion of the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

In the book “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times” by Jasbir K. Puar (2007), discourses of gender and sexuality run parallel and are interwoven with discourses on nationalism, imperialism, xenophobia, and military aggression. Using this method of intersectional analysis, Puar explores the emerging concept of homonationalism: what she posits are subtle but definite “collusions between homosexuality and US nationalism” (46).

Did that paragraph give you a headache? Did your lungs constrict and your body break out into a panicked flop sweat? Did you immediately check your text messages, your baby’s diaper, anything to prevent you from engaging this hairy and scaled intergalactic meteor of new ideas and academic terms? Such was my initial experience with “Terrorist Assemblages”, which was not only my first academic experience with problems of gender and war, but also my first experience studying political philosophy and critical theory.

I chose this book for two specific reasons: I wanted to explore the relationship between gender (especially non-binary gender) and nationalism, and I wanted to explore their relationship in a space of conflict. In researching the latter, I came upon Puar’s book and was pleased to find that it addressed one of my research questions in a very specific way: in a world where both war and gender are becoming less easily defined, how do we begin to see how one informs the other? “Terrorist Assemblages” asks us to think critically about both the war on terror as well as national discourses on the “acceptable” other. It helped me to understand my research topic and answer several specific questions about the relationship between the state and the nonbinary gender citizen. I will attempt in this review to summarize Puar’s main points and concepts, as well as raise questions of my own about her work.

Nationalism and Identity Politics

Puar’s analysis of homonationalism and biopolitics is a theme carried throughout the book. But she breaks it down into four sections: the sexuality of terrorism, Abu Ghraib and US sexual exceptionalism, a “re-reading” of the Lawrence Supreme Court case decriminalizing consensual sodomy, and the issues of racial profiling in times of queer diaspora. By examining the issue of biopower through the lens of events    like Lawrence, Abu Ghraib, and the racial profiling of Muslims and Sikhs after 9/11, Puar deftly shows the intersectionality of issues like race, gender, and class and how they inform an individual’s relationship to what Puar calls the “tactics, strategies, and logistics of war machines” (iv).

In the first section, “The Sexuality of Terrorism”, Puar introduces an important concept to her work: US sexual exceptionalism. In her work, this exceptionalism refers to both the discourses that present the US as the arbiter of morality and civilization as well as “states of exception”, such as those at Abu Ghraib: in short, an extreme measure “justified” by a time of state crisis.

According to Puar, the US regards itself as “progressive”, and more “tolerant” of LGBT groups than the rest of the world (particularly the “Middle East”). In this way, the US represents itself as protector of LGBT rights worldwide, and its enemies as intolerant, backwards, hateful. Similarly, in spite of treating its own women as second class citizens, the US still presents itself as the arbiter of feminist standards. According to Puar, this “exceptionalism works as a missionary discourse to rescue Muslim women from their counterparts.” (4) In co-opting both the causes and the lingua franca of feminist and

LGBT causes, Puar says that the US effectively aligns itself (and the West in general) with the good and progressive ideals of inclusion and tolerance and and appoints itself international “champion” of women’s/LGBT rights. Puar claims that by “accepting into the fold” an “acceptable” kind of queer citizen, the US “pinkwashes” its acts of militarism and aggression, and “an exceptional form of national heteronormativity is now joined by an exceptional form of national homonormativity, in other words, homonationalism.” (2) 

What does Puar mean by “acceptable queers”? To begin with, she says, they are people who display the same “American” ideals, habits, and goals as their heterosexual counterparts: marriage, family, owning property, consuming goods, paying taxes. “US patriotism momentarily sanctions some homosexualities,” Puar says, “through gendered, racial, and class sanitizing in order to produce ‘monster-terrorist-fags’’; homosexuals then embrace the us-versus-them rhetoric of US patriotism.” (46) Following this line of logic, the enemies of the state and the enemies of the homonationalist are one and the same. According to Puar, contemporary examples for this include peoples perceived to be “Muslim”. In a similar vein, the transgender individual is seen to be a source of anxiety to the state: not easily identified and categorized, Puar posits that the transgender person in the US is “neither us nor clearly them… a figure of ambivalence who troubles the border between us and them. The enemy is the clear opposite of the citizen, but the stranger is more fraught with anxiety.” (48)

The majority of the rest of the book visits the Abu Ghraib scandal and how both gender and sexuality informed the events which transpired and the transnational discourse following them. Puar analyzes how images from the war on terror use orientalist stereotypes as well as an emerging homonationalism to paint the Islamic man as a repressed yet repressive sadistic “other”. Puar also notes that immediately following 9/11, the news cameras focused on the image of the veiled Muslim woman and a case was made for war in order to rescue her. However, says Puar: “while narratives of the Taliban’s problematic womanless world abound, no such failure was ascribed to the “very manly moment” of the post 9/11 world of rugged firefighters, policemen, ground zero workers, and corporate suits.” (50) This is one form of sexual exceptionalism she introduced in the first section. The other can be seen clearly in the sexual nature of the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib in the name of “national security”. 

Puar submits that the media focus on the “homosexual” nature of many of the acts caught on film was problematic in two ways. First, it used orientalist, ahistorical, and generalized views about sexual taboos in Islam which relegated the subjects of torture once again to the role of other. Second, it minimized the role misogyny played in the military’s use of the feminine as an interrogation tactic, or special weapon of war. As one prisoner said, “They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel, and this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman.” (89) Why, asks Puar, are there no photographs circulated of the female Iraqi prisoners abused by American soldiers? Could it be that this would finally would destroy one of our most popular justifications for US aggression in the Middle East: rescuing the Arab woman?

Ballistic Bodies

In the final chapter, Puar draws parallels between the female Palestinian suicide bomber (such as Arafat’s “army of roses”) and the queer/transgender citizen in several ways. She rearticulates “terrorist bodies”, for instance the suicide bomber, as an “assemblage that resists queerness as sexual identity”. (205) In other words, the binary opposition between queer/not queer is disposed of: to firmly categorize and identify something underscores its complicity with dominant formations like the state. Puar claims that since queerness is “dissenting, resistant, alternative” (205), the assemblage is a more apt way of discussing things like gender and sexuality.

The female suicide bomber, Puar says, disrupts the idea that “terrorism is bred directly of patriarchy and that women are intrinsically peace-manifesting” (220). Puar describes the transformation from “woman” to “weapon” as a “queer temporal interruption”: she doesn’t just carry the weapon of war, she becomes the weapon of war. Furthermore, she illustrates the destruction of the binary, the inability to delineate distinction between the wire and the flesh, or the “ballistic body” and the bodies of those she takes down with her. It is in this way that the female suicide bomber represents the queer assemblages most feared and hated by the imperialist US state: she disperses the “boundaries of bodies”, disobeys conventions of “appropriate body practices and gender”, and is therefore “illegible to state practices of surveillance, control, banishment, and extermination” (221).

I admire Puar for discussing the female suicide bomber only after suspending the need to condemn her. Puar acknowledges the “political risk” one takes in not morally condemning the actions of the suicide bomber, but says that it is necessary to avoid the morality of the act in order to fully examine the forces of affect at play.

In his review of “Terrorist Assemblages”, Rutgers blogger James Carroll completely misses Puar’s point. He mistakes Puar’s reverence for the bomber’s newly “becoming body” (“It is both execution and mourning…there are no sides…suicide bombers are a sign of life emanating from the violent conditions of life’s impossibility…” (218) as approval of the act of bombing innocent people. Carroll also dismisses Puar’s careful examination of the “pinkwashing” of US military aggression as a “sweeping polemic about the racist, traitorous, and collaborationalist nature of the ‘homonationalists’, or the gay and lesbian citizens of the U.S.”

If anything, Carroll’s review illustrates Puar’s research perfectly: he presents an uncritical, reductive, and seemingly uninformed view about Islam and “terror”. In addition, he jumps on her for “disregarding human rights” of “gays and lesbians” but fails to explore the double standard the US sets for itself and Arab countries in regard to misogyny and the treatment of women and transgender citizens. He touches on it with an incredulous “she actually just compared the American treatment of women to the Taliban’s!”, and that’s the end of the “gender” discussion.

Caveat Emptor!

Before attempting this book, I recommend having a basic understanding of thinkers and the concepts and theories they are famous for: Hegel and dialectic, Deleuze and assemblages, Foucault and biopower, Edward Said and orientalism. I had to literally stop reading and grab a book on each of these men, then slowly (so very slowly) read them to understand what Puar was saying. Then I read them again. Then I wrote down the basic concepts they each developed in the hopes of being able to repeat the stuff when it came time to write critically about it for this project. I have never taken a philosophy course, and this project is my first experience with gender theory. For example: Puar builds on the Foucaultian concept of biopower to create an intersectional analysis of what she terms “homonationalism”. It takes Puar the entire book to fully develop and explain the concept of “homonationalism”, and she doesn’t waste time explaining basic concepts like “bipower” on the way. Because of this, it was an extremely arduous read and will be for those who have little experience with gender and political theory.

The language is definitely dense, academic, and not very accessible. But this book forced me to do more than simply read it from beginning to end: I really had to engage with the text, intend toward it while I wasn’t reading it, and apply it to things in my life. In this way I was able not only to understand these incredibly abstract ideas but also relate them back in my work. This work, though difficult, was immensely satisfying. I have benefited from this project, and from my interaction with this text, immeasurably.

Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Book.

An Interview with Egyptian Radical Feminist Nawal el-Saadawi

Nawal el-Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist author, doctor, and activist. Often referred to as the “Egyptian Simone de Beauvoir”, Saadawi has seen British colonization, was imprisoned by Sadat, and was exiled by Mubarak. (It should be noted that while she was in prison, Saadawi wrote her memoirs on a roll of toilet paper… with an eyeliner pen.) Saadawi writes about patriarchal, class, and imperialist oppression as well as cultural and religious issues affecting women. At 80 years old, Saadawi participated in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, camping day and night in Tahrir Square.

I first heard Saadawi speak on the University of Kansas campus in Fall 2011, after having read her short novel “Woman at Point Zero”. The lecture she gave was on creativity and dissidence: she was clever, frank, and critical. It was the first time I’d thought critically about things like “feminism” and “colonialism” and phrases like “Middle East”, which Saadawi used as an example of lingering colonialism through “innocent” words and names.

Although our ideas and politics do not always align, her lecture stuck with me throughout the fall semester. Two years later as I started this research project, I remembered her lecture as my first experience thinking critically about “feminist” ideas. As I began approaching academics and feminist authors for an interview, I remembered something Saadawi said in her lecture: “You don’t need a PhD to rebel against any type of injustice.”

It was one thing, at least, we agreed upon. I decided to take a shot at contacting her, which I did through her website. The following are the answers she graciously provided to my questions.

What role did women play in the Egyptian Revolution and the historic events of Tahrir Square in 2011?

Egyptian women were part of all revolutions in Egypt since 25 January till today: they were killed and exposed to all types of aggression from external and internal powers, local government agencies, fanatic religious groups, and other male dominated powers.  The struggle of Egypt’s women and progressive men goes on, and their effect will be felt in the near future.

Women are oppressed in all countries by this system and by all religions: not only Arab Muslim women. But the degree of oppression differs from one country to the other and from one class to the other according to the level of education and socioeconomic status. Nobody in the West or East can rescue oppressed women except themselves.

Do you think that feminists can be nationalists? Is there a contradiction between feminism and nationalism as political projects?

Women are half of the society, and women cannot be free in a country that is not free. So feminism and nationalism do not contradict each other if we understand them well. Women’s problems are political as well as national problems.

Why, despite the different meanings of gender around the world, as well as the changing nature of war, is war still primarily a masculine pursuit?

Media in the US and Europe portray Arab women as oppressed veiled things in need of rescuing by the West. This is part of the media war against the Arab countries, or the so called “Middle East”. This media war is part of the military and economic wars against this region perpetuated by the global- local colonial capitalist imperialist patriarchal system.

The wars have no gender or religion: they are colonial, economic, and political wars hidden under the mask of religion and perpetuated by the patriarchy.

Nawal El-Saadawi
28 Nov. 2013
Cairo, Egypt

Observation Activity: Berkeley Women in Black

About the
Women in Black
The international movement which is the Women in Black began in Israel, 20 years into the occupation of Palestine, as a show of solidarity and support between Israeli women and the beginning Palestinian Intifada. 

Groups of women, dressed in black, would stand in silent vigil protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The movement spread quickly to countries across the globe.

I decided to include the Women in Black in my research project, because the official website of the movement makes some uncritical claims about feminism and war which I wanted to examine.

From the website (emphasis mine): “We are Jews and allies in the United States who stand against militaristic and fundamentalist leadership in all countries, including our own. We are committed to nonviolent resistance against injustice, believing that all people have the right to security, home, education, justice and freedom…Feminist actions dressed in black convert women’s traditional passive mourning for the dead in war into a powerful refusal of the logic of war.”

The claim that women have traditionally played a passive role in the violence of war is is simply not true. It is ahistorical and unspecific. In the pre-Islamic Maghrib, 1500 years before the Women in Black, women traditionally played many roles in the call to war between tribes. Marle Hammond describes in her book “Beyond Elegy” the role of tribal women as not only keepers of history, not only “passive mourners” of fallen heroes, but of warriors and demagogues in their own right:

“Within this system women in particular were charged with lamentation of the dead, as well as incitement to war and to blood vengeance. Their poems tended to be elegies that included elements of fakhr (boasting), hija (invective), tahmis (incitement to war), and tahrid (incitement to blood vengeance).”

This is not to say that women today play the same roles as men in perpetuating war, and it is not to discount the fact that women and children often suffer the most from occupation and imperialism. But by stating that woman’s traditional role in war is passive comes dangerously close to calling all women the “caregivers” of all societies. Statements like this made me want to investigate further.

A feminist view sees masculine cultures as specially prone to violence, and so feminist women tend to have a particular perspective on security and something unique to say about war.”

This statement made my forehead wrinkle, too: feminism, as I am beginning to understand it, is not one monolithic view or ideology. It is an umbrella term for the many movements, ideologies, and theories which study and advocate the equality and “rights” of women. (For those not interested in a semester-long research project involving the extremely dense and arduous books and academic articles I read to understand gender theory, a basic understanding of feminism can be gleaned from a two minute scan of the Wikipedia article on “feminism”. YOU’RE WELCOME.)

To say that all “feminists” view men’s culture as more violent seems problematic to me; a generalization. Perhaps it is asking too much for a movement (not even an official organization) to have a blanket mission statement, but when you claim to represent “feminism” I believe it is important to define the term. I also can’t help but wonder what is meant by “masculine cultures”. Are they referring to places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women are ordered to veil? Does this make a culture more masculine than that of the US, where bare female flesh is such a hot commodity? If the latter is a more “feminist” culture… why do we make so many wars?

“As always in women’s movements, and especially perhaps in groups opposing violence, there are many lesbians active in Women in Black. It has been productive to make connections between violence in war and in everyday life, including the violence of homophobia, misogyny and racism.”

Equating the violence of homophobia and misogyny to the violence of war and occupation is one part of this research project which I have especially been interested in. But it is worth noting that the Women and Black discuss the inclusion of lesbians in the movement because it is a “normal” relationship, but fail to mention transwomen, “queer” people, and people who do not fit into gender binaries as citizens who also suffer violence for the same reasons.  Shane Phelan, in his book “Sexual Strangers”, discusses this in depth:

“Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in the United States are strangers… neither us nor clearly them, not friend and not enemy, but a figure of ambivalence who troubles the border between us and them. The enemy is the clear opposite of the citizen, but the stranger is more fraught with anxiety.”

Is there no place for the “other” in this “feminist” movement? What makes a “woman” in black?

Berkeley Women in Black: University of California, Berkeley Vigil
I met up with the Berkeley Women in Black at their weekly vigil on Sproul Plaza. It was a beautiful but very windy day, and we had a difficult time setting up the literature table and banner.

After introducing myself and explaining my outfit (the only black clothing I owned was a little black dress… which I was told “added sex appeal”. Okay.) the women gave me a bit of background on the Berkeley branch of the Women in Black.

I was informed that the BWiB had been demonstrating at Cal for 25 years: over the past three years, she said, “Zionist” counter-demonstrators had begun to show up waving Israeli flags and handing out pro-Israel literature, sometimes dressed in black (“so as to confuse people”).

Although one participant told me that she had been spit on twice, and that the counter-demonstrators tended to be very aggressive, for the most part people were very respectful that Friday: occasionally a student who didn’t look up from their cell phone while walking would walk straight into us. For the most part, students seemed to be unmoved by the group, but occasionally a student would thank us for the work we were doing.

I was told that I could bring my daughter to future demonstrations (“it’s what they did in the sixties!”) as long as I was mindful that the environment could sometimes be tense and confrontational. It is important to note that all of the participants were over 50, and that there were two men present.

The Women in Black are “committed to nonviolent resistance against injustice, believing that all people have the right to security, home, education, justice and freedom”. Although I agree with this stance, I didn’t see the Berkeley branch’s weekly vigil on Sproul as being effective.  It didn’t seem to interest any of the students, who were too absorbed in their smart phones to look up and see the facts about the occupation. And the demonstrating ladies seemed to be too absorbed in their own conversations to notice that the young people in front of them processed information in ways that didn’t involve facts on postcards.

Perhaps it is because the group is too passive, and perhaps it is because no one there would discuss, critically, the issues of either feminism or Israel. But leaving there, I felt that an opportunity had been wasted and none of my questions had been answered.

Analyzing Arguments: Woman as Weapon

In a world where the definitions of both war and gender differ vastly not only from place to place but also over time, how do we come to understand the role gender plays in armed conflict? The United States are presumably global champions of women’s rights, tolerance, and gender equality: to the extent that we will fight decade long wars to defend them. In beginning to examine these issues and how they came to be, it is important to turn first to the mainstream media for a clear look at the information and ideas being disseminated to the population. In some cases, articles focus on the historical significance of female diplomats calling for war instead of political compromise, and the importance of women participating in armed combat. In others, the focus is on “oppressed” women in need of rescue: typically veiled women of Middle Eastern countries, these women and their lack of “equal rights” are used as justification for war. In both cases, it is assumed that the wars we wage are just and that gender equality is at stake in the waging of said wars. I have chosen two articles from contemporary news outlets to illustrate how portrayal by mainstream media of women as either a defensive or offensive weapon of war is problematic and not consistent with the idea of “gender equality”.

First, the media’s assertion that female politicians and their “unique” role in the call for war is problematic and implies that the skills and tactics used by female politicians are somehow different than those of their male counterparts. In his article “Libya Airstrikes: The Women Who Called for War”, John Avlon takes a look at the diplomatic team which led the call for military action in Benghazi in 2011. Avlon focuses on the gender of the team’s members (female) and posits that their gender is not only “historically significant” as the first female led coalition advocating military action, but also evidence of the United States’ “constant evolution to a more perfect union”. He then credits the success of the coalition of women to the triumph of their moral arguments, “branded ‘emotional’ or not”, over “the cold language of interests.” Avlon, without citing specifics, assumes that the arguments which led to a military strike were somehow a victory of a team of women fighting an emotional battle on the side of what was morally wrong. His emphasis on the revolutionary new nature of these “moral” arguments, made by women, implies that women have a softer, more emotional approach to negotiations and foreign policy. This, in fact, undermines the main point of his article: that women ordering military action is an example of revolutionary new levels of gender equality. How can he claim evidence of gender equality while celebrating the mystical, motherly, morality of women? Simply put, it once again relegates women to the role of “other”.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the media’s obsession with the rescue of “subjugated” women in countries we hope to invade. It is in this way that women are made into another weapon of war, albeit a defensive one. In a Seattle Times editorial  published soon after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, we read of oppressed Afghani women “coming out from behind traditional burqas”, luxuriating in their “moments of freedom and reawakening”, and reaping the many obvious (and universally appreciated) benefits of US invasion and occupation. “Once again,” the editorial reads, “they can live and feel like people.” The first assumption the editorial makes is that all Afghani women wore the burqa not by choice, but by force. This implies that Afghani women are not only helpless, but lack agency. The second assumption is that the freedom and opportunity felt by Afghani women is a direct result of US occupation. This is a dangerous assumption to make, especially considering the reports of increased violence and sexual assault in the years following the invasion of their country. Finally, and perhaps most dangerously, the editorial makes the assumption that before they were forcibly invaded and unveiled by US troops, Afghani women did not live like people. The implication follows that these women had to be saved from their backwards culture and from themselves. Using women in this way to justify the invasion and occupation of a foreign country also negates the main point of the editorial: women have no agency. The editorial would have us believe that they are lesser and weaker people and often times don’t know what is best for them. This does not champion the cause of gender equality. It harms it immeasurably.

In conclusion, the sensationalist articles found in the mainstream media don’t often fully address the complex issues of gender, equality, and armed conflict. Whether the focus is on the unique, contemporary woman and her “hawk-like” role as aggressor in the theatre of war, or rather on the subjugated and oppressed woman and her need of a great white savior, the idea of women as unique weapons of war is a disturbing one.

Image Analysis: Joan of Arc


I chose this image to analyze for several reasons. First and foremost, it is an excellent piece of propaganda from World War I, and I’ve always enjoyed how forthright these posters could be about equating consumerism with patriotism in a time of war. This particular poster is not different in that regard: it tells me that, as a woman, my role in this war is to buy things.

Next, the image is an interesting conflation of traditional gender roles and nationalism. Not only does it tell the women of America what their role in the conflict is, it makes this role special and unique to women.

Finally, Joan of Arc is such an apt image to use for my research project. Joan of Arc, in a religious ecstasy, led the armies of France to victory in many important battles of the Hundred Years’ War. Furthermore, she was a skilled military tactician and held influence over political matters. That she played such an active role in France’s conflict makes her an important figure: that she did so as a woman dressing as a man makes her one of the figures I look to for inspiration in this project.

That this piece of propaganda uses Joan of Arc’s image to push traditional American gender roles is problematic to say the least. Joan of Arc is not the image of a woman who canned tomatoes in her pinafore and bought war bonds on the homefront: she fought openly as a woman, dressed as a man even when the battles were ended, and was burned alive for it. She was not the plucked, delicate, and rouged figure we see here. She was soldier, a leader of armies. And she is one who modern historians say may have been transgender.

Whether she was or not, she exemplifies the questions I hope to answer and the ideas I would like to explore. Her gender was and is relevant to her role in the wars, and I want to find out why. I have pinned this photo above my desk, and I look to her for inspiration.