The lie of ‘women and children’

Arguments made by US leaders in support of intervening in Syria are patriarchal and misogynist.

Protecting women and children is often given as a reason for military intervention, writes Eisenstein [Reuters]

Although the US and Russia have agreed to a deal in which Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would hand over his regime’s chemical weapons, civil war continues to rage throughout the country and millions remain homeless as refugees. It is more imperative now than ever that anti-war sentiment remains mobilised in the US.

The repetitive mantras political leaders cite in support of war should be thoroughly interrogated. Among the most problematic of these mantras is the phrase “women and children”. US wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – and, most recently, a possible attack on Syria – have been justified by calling for the protection of “women and children”.

US President Barack Obama, for instance, defended his proposal to attack Syria by citing the danger of chemical weapons to “women and children” – and US Secretary of State John Kerry has used the same phrase.

Patriarchal gender distinctions are often invoked to supposedly protect one’s nation – but this form of nationalist rhetoric in fact seeks to discipline and punish.  If the use of chemical warfare is inhumane, it is inhumane for each and every human body, not just for women and children. Age and gender need not be specified.  Yet the patriarchal, nationalist narrative insists on distinguishing women and children from the rest.

Furthermore, by declaring that poison gas is unacceptable and crosses the “red line” drawn by President Obama, other forms of warfare are thereby sanitised and neutralised in comparison.  Yet no one, let alone “women and children”, can be saved as long as war continues.

On ‘womenandchildren’

Before the first Gulf War, anti-militarist academic Cynthia Enloe coined the one-word phrase “womenandchildren”, which was a rallying cry at the time for US involvement in Iraq – and is now so again in Syria.

My first question: Why invoke “womenandchildren” when condemning the use of chemical weapons by Assad?  Chemical weapons cross a line of human decency – although one might argue that all weapons do so. Calling for the protection of “womenandchildren” allows leaders to frame wars as matters of national security, under the assumption that women and children must be protected for nations to be secure. 

But this does not make sense, unless you have adopted a patriarchal stance that women are not equal participants with men and a deep part of our common humanity. Misogyny separates women from men as different, lesser than, and in need of protection.

True, some women may need protection from domestic violence, and children in places as far apart as Afghanistan and Detroit need safety from assault weapons and poverty. So what gives here? Why invoke protection now, in this particular instance?

My next question is: Why is it worse to gas “womenandchildren” than men? 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?

But perhaps 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 to varying degrees. Life is precarious to begin with, and becomes almost impossibly dangerous in war.

So instead of making wrong-headed paternalist directives singling out “womenandchildren”, why not argue for a full end to war, food supplies for Syria’s two million refugees, funding for schools in the refugee camps, and so forth.

Misogynist nation-building

Meanwhile, many politicians and leaders persist in referring to their nations as “motherlands”. The countries are depicted as mothers, or reproducers, of the nation and are neutralised and naturalised as such. 

This female, maternal body becomes the lens through which the nation is viewed: an imagined and imaginary site.  All nations are gendered and raced, but silently so. Women are a metaphor of fantasy: more prescient for what they symbolise than the things they actually are. 

No matter that hundreds of thousands of US women serve in the armed forces, or that Afghan women have been active fighters against US forces, or that Syrian women have fought on both sides of that country’s civil war.

When cast as a “mother of the nation”, woman is a symbolic fantasy; she is, paradoxically, both invisible and visible. Nations must stop using this misogynist and nationalist rhetoric to avoid the real agenda. Rather than protecting “womenandchildren” from chemical warfare, or calling for their early exit from a fire, or entry on 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, this sort of outdated and misleading rhetoric should be put in the dustbin of patriarchal history.

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past thirty years. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.