Thursday, May 20, 2004

Questions for Feminism: Ehrenreich on Abu Ghraib

I've been an admirer of Barbara Ehrenreigh for her book Nickled and Dimed. Today, from Political Theory Daily, I came across a short essay by her in Common Dreams.

Ehrenreich is critical of what she calls naive feminism, which assumes that simply by joining male-dominated institutions, women will be able to humanize them. Her examples here are of course Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman, the women whose faces show up in the Abu Ghraib photos. Some bloggers have argued for a degree of sympathy for Lynndie England, for instance, who is from a working-class background and whose personal culpability in what transpired in Abu Ghraib is probably less than that of her superiors. Ehrenreich is sensitive to England's background, but she doesn't try and dismiss England's responsibility for what happened:

In all likelihood, Ambuhl, England and Harman are not congenitally evil people. They are working-class women who wanted an education and knew that the military could be a steppingstone in that direction. Once they had joined, they wanted to fit in.

And I also shouldn't be surprised because I never believed that women were innately gentler and less aggressive than men. Like most feminists, I have supported full opportunity for women within the military — 1) because I knew women could fight, and 2) because the military is one of the few options around for low-income young people.

Although I opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, I was proud of our servicewomen and delighted that their presence irked their Saudi hosts. Secretly, I hoped that the presence of women would over time change the military, making it more respectful of other people and cultures, more capable of genuine peacekeeping. That's what I thought, but I don't think that anymore.

A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib. It was a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice. Rape has repeatedly been an instrument of war and, to some feminists, it was beginning to look as if war was an extension of rape. There seemed to be at least some evidence that male sexual sadism was connected to our species' tragic propensity for violence. That was before we had seen female sexual sadism in action.

I'm in agreement with Ehrenreich's turn in the last paragraph quoted above. I think it's important for movements for social justice to remain clear-eyed and specific in their claims, and to question sweeping generalities (like "war is an extension of rape"), even as they challenge injustices (rapes committed in war need to be aggressively investigated and prosecuted). Sweeping generalities sound nice, but they rarely result in achievable goals. More importantly in this case, the presumption of the saintliness of women is false.

As Ehrenreich points out, it's not just women at the low levels that are in some way culpable for what happened. In fact, there are now women at every level of command:

You can't even argue, in the case of Abu Ghraib, that the problem was that there just weren't enough women in the military hierarchy to stop the abuses. The prison was directed by a woman, Gen. Janis Karpinski. The top U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, who also was responsible for reviewing the status of detainees before their release, was Major Gen. Barbara Fast. And the U.S. official ultimately responsible for managing the occupation of Iraq since October was Condoleezza Rice. Like Donald H. Rumsfeld, she ignored repeated reports of abuse and torture until the undeniable photographic evidence emerged.

Yes: it's not just men in suits barking commands, not just men with guns. In this war (though I suspect the chain of command Ehrenreich points to here is somewhat of an anomaly) women also wear suits, and carry guns.

I have two questions for comment and debate: 1) is this really an appropriate time to rethink the common-sense assumptions of feminism? Isn't war still an overwhelmingly male institution? 2) Would Ehrenreich advocate 'throwing the book' at people like England and Harmon? In her essay, she doesn't say. The Pinocchio Theory piece (linked above) suggests that harsh punishment should go to the people most responsible, the people calling the shots. Is England less culpable because she was 'only taking orders'?


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