Monday, February 4, 2008

Kelly Oliver's "Women as Weapons of War"

Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Chair of Philosophy and Professor of Women's Studies at Vanderbilt University.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her latest book, Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex, and the Media, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media:

The real tragedy [of 9/11/2001] was compounded by media hysteria that included the infamous CNN advisory for New Yorkers to use plastic and duct-tape to seal themselves inside their apartments to prevent the effects of chemical weapons. In addition to the real horror of the attacks of September 11th, was the imagined horror of media speculations on what could happen if terrorists attacked nuclear power plants, or released bio-pathogens into drinking water, or detonated chemical weapons in subways. Along with the governments various red, orange, and yellow alerts, the fantasies of disaster were as terrifying as the real thing. Even now, years after the attack, the media and government keep reminding us of the danger, the threat, the urgency. Years later, the state of emergency continues. The rhetoric of emergency, crisis, exceptional circumstances is used to justified military action and making exceptions to national and international law. In this indeterminate time/space created by the perpetual present of emergency, prisoners are detained indefinitely. Our national identity becomes linked to the time of emergency such that we are “a nation at war”; and it is this state of emergency that gives us a sense of nationalism and patriotism…The nation at war operates within the time of crisis or emergency that extracts the present moment from its historical context, from any relation to past or future, and suspends its relation to narratives about that history. By declaring a state of emergency, we become justified in suspending law, particularly international law, in the name of national crisis. The time of emergency makes the present moment exceptional and therefore not bound to law…this state of emergency is indefinite and thereby justifies indefinite detention of prisoners (now called “detainees”) and “war without end.”

Commentary on Page 99 by the author:

The language of exception is fundamental to the war against terror. The prisoners held in Iraq and Cuba are not called prisoners, but are called “detainees” because, as we are told, these are exceptional times that require exceptional measures for exceptionally bad enemies. And, abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prisons were said to be the result of exceptional individuals, the few bad apples. But, the young soldiers who committed the abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib were just normal kids from the rural U.S.. What is particularly striking about these photographs, and about reports of interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay prison, is the involvement of -- perhaps even use of -- women as part of an attempt to “soften-up” Muslim men detained in the war against terror.

In my book, I argue that these “shocking” images are not only familiar to us from a history of colonial violence, but also from a history of associations between women, sex and weapons. The very idea that women can be interrogation tools plays on age-old fears of women and the fantasy of female sexuality as threatening. From mythological characters such as Medusa and Jocasta, to Biblical figures such as Eve, Salome, or Delilah, to Hollywood femme fatales, women’s sexuality has been imagined as dangerous. Perhaps the most extreme example of this fantasy as it appears in recent military engagement is the intentional use of female sexuality as a top-secret “classified” interrogation technique in Guantanámo Bay prison, where women interrogators stripped off their uniforms, rubbed up against prisoners, and threatened them with fake menstrual blood. When these methods were revealed, military officials claimed they were “classified,” suggesting that menstrual blood has become a top-secret interrogation technique. In my book, I show how news media repeatedly describes women soldiers as “weapons.” Women warriors are not referred to as women with weapons or women carrying bombs, but their very bodies are imagined as dangerous.
Read an excerpt from Women as Weapons of War and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit Kelly Oliver's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue