Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

The Lie of WomenandChildren

The Lie of “Womenandchildren”  at Al Jazeera, October 2, 2013

Zillah Eisenstein

September 15, 2013


Even though the US and Russia have agreed to a Syrian Chemical Weapons deal, the war continues in Syria. It is more imperative than ever that anti-war sentiment remains mobilized in the US.  Here is my offering towards that end.


The repetitive mantras and gestures used in making war always need interrogation.  Their repetitiveness alone should make us quite weary/wary. For us in the US the use of the phrase “womenandchildren” to mobilize for war in Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently Syria, needs a new full skepticism.  Maybe Obama agrees in part, because he started his Syria war campaign mobilizing to protect “womenandchildren” from poison gas and by time he made his Monday night address to the nation on Syria it was all about “the children”, with not one mention of women by their side.  More on this later.


Gender is always being made and produced.  Sometimes its patriarchal toxicity to supposedly “secure the nation” operates productively and other times unwittingly.  Each form of nationalist rhetoric seeks to discipline and also punish.  If the use of chemical warfare is inhumane, it is inhumane for each and every human body. Age and gender need not be specified.  Yet the patriarchal nationalist narrative specifies for its own purposes of distinguishing women and children from the rest.


As well, by naming poison gas as unacceptable and crossing the “red-line” other forms of warfare get inadvertently sanitized and neutralized.  And most keenly, some forms of warfare become cleansed as almost humane. No one, let alone “womenandchildren” can be saved when war, which is a death plan, continues relentlessly across this globe. The punishing lies of US exceptionalism, and imperial nationalism will doom us all.


On “WomenandChildren”


Ant-militarist Cynthia Enloe famously coined the one word phrase “womenandchildren” in its early use to mobilize for the Gulf wars.  It was a rallying cry then, as it was/is now in Syria.  The US needed to protect the “womenandchildren” from the bombs of injustices of war.  Then and now—there is no justice in war.  There are no innocents either.  Combat exists everywhere on the ground and this truth has only become more prevalent with the new machineries and technologies of war.


Obama’s earliest speeches that attempted to rally the American public for his limited strikes against Assad used the phrase “womenandchildren” repeatedly.  Yet, it is telling that in Obama’s address to the nation he repeatedly spoke of children without explicitly mentioning women. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/10/obama-syria-speech-live_n_3902294.html  I assume that even he realized that the mention of women in this way, in 2013, was a bit too outdated to work even phantasmatically.  And, besides, when there are children, women are not usually very far away in the minds of others.


My first query: Why use the phrase “womenandchildren” when trying to indict the use of chemical weapons by Assad?  Chemical weapons cross a line of human decency although one might argue that all weapons—bullets, drones, agent orange in Vietnam, and so on—do so as well.  The protection of “womenandchildren” allows for the rhetoric of national security if you suppose that women and children must be protected for the nation to be secure.


My point: this just does not make easy sense unless you are already working from a naturalized/normalized patriarchal stance that women are not equal participants with men and a deep part of our common humanity. Misogyny, always heteronormatively separates women from men as different, lesser than, and in need of protection.


But women are part of the forces that actually attempt to secure the nation.  And it is also true that some women may need protection from domestic violence that also creates insecurity.  And, that children in Afghanistan, and Detroit, and Iraq and Syria and Chicago need protection from assault weapons and poverty.  So what gives here?  Why protection now? Why in this particular instance?


It is often argued that killing children is more heinous because they are innocent victims.  But these Syrian children know nothing of innocence.  They are instead deeply embroiled and affected by the war. They already know the death of loved ones.  They know the sound and destruction of bombs.  They know the anguishing pain of wounds.  They know the hunger and displacement that goes with their war-weary country.  It is unconscionable to think that we are saving them from much. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23803308


My next query is: why is it worse to gas “womenandchildren” than men and their children? If the use of chemical weapons violates the notion of a “common humanity” as Obama says, why single out a particular part of humanity for special protection? What are we assuming here?  That women and children are more human? Humane? Deserving of a life? Or, that they need protection by men?  The very same men that often violate them?  But maybe even worse is that this kind of manipulative rhetoric continues the myth that women in war can actually be saved.


Everyone’s life in war is in danger and at risk, similar but differently so.  Life is precarious to begin with, and is almost impossibly dangerous in war.  We all live anxiously with the possibility of death. If this fear can be contained to war maybe it appears controllable. Every day life—with its illnesses, and accidents, and crushing poverty, and randomness can all too easily remind us of the fear of war.


Instead of making this wrong-headed paternalist and imperial directive singling out “womenandchildren” why not argue for a full end to war, food supplies to the 2 million refugees, funding for schools in the refugee camps, and so forth.




Misogynist Nation Building


It is time to dislodge the fiction of universal humanism of the US nation and move beyond the psychic fantasies of racial purity and misogynist fraternities. The machines of war continue to grind out nationalisms of all sorts—old and new—and with it the misogyny of patriarchal gender. Our nations are as mythic as they are real while national identities and geographies shift and change along with sex and gender and racial meanings.  Imperial nations seek to constitute themselves as families—putting aside differences to stand united, even if it is a make-believe unity.


Nations are in crisis—just look anywhere on the globe—yet their fictive meaning of belongingness and connectedness rivet us to notions of motherland.  Patriotism stands in for exclusivity of citizenship. Nations are depicted as mothers (reproducers) of the nation and are neutralized and naturalized as such.


The female/maternalized body becomes the site for viewing the nation.  It is an imagined/imaginary site that is wholly naturalized through the symbolization of the female body.  All nations are gendered and raced, but silently so.  Women are a metaphor of fantasy and are more prescient for what they symbolize rather then the myriad of things that they actually are.


No matter that 100’s of thousands of US women are in our armed forces; or that Afghan women have been active fighters against US forces; or Syrian women are among the rebels and also supporters of Assad.   As mother of the nation woman is invisibly visible as a symbolic fantasy; she is at once present and not seen. And the different layers of invisibility are accorded along racial, class and sexual lines.


Nations must stop using misogynist and nationalist rhetoric that displaces the real agenda needed.  Rather than protecting “womenandchildren” from chemical warfare, or calling for their early exit from a fire, or entry on to a life-boat we should create equitable and sustainable human communities free of all weaponry. If this seems too idealistic for most, at the very least, outdated and misleading rhetoric should be put in the dustbin of patriarchal history.




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