Following the Cold War and with the rise of new forms of mass media, the United States was equipped with a new weapon: soft power. The US used various forms of soft power as a justificatory tool to legitimize the wars and foreign intervention it engaged in. This is most notably the case in the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, in which the industrial-military-media complex shaped a stereotypical image of Muslim society. To shape such a narrative, the United States painted the now-famous archetype of the oppressed Muslim woman, who is chained by her country’s backwards, oppressive patriarchal system. Thus, one may argue that the United States justifies the War on Terror through an imperialist gender rhetoric by constructing the trope of the oppressed Muslim woman; and contrasting it with the “liberated” Western woman, with the latter’s narrative shaped under a martial post-feminist lens. The construction of this justificatory narrative is not limited to the Bush Administration’s public discursive strategies but also encompasses narratives presented by Hollywood, human right’s discourses, and the rest of the state-influenced US media complex. This one-sided portrayal of Muslim society helped engrain an image of Western liberationism in mass media, drawing eyes away from the objective US-Muslim violence at play. Hence, it is essential to examine how such a narrative emerged, its role in the grander scheme of the patriarchal status quo, and its function in justifying the War on Terror.
To comprehend the mechanics of the United States’ gender rhetoric, one must preliminarily examine the more abstract interaction between gendered narratives and war, which is observed by analyzing the impact of the image. Given the military superiority of the United States and the major Arab civilian casualties suffered in the War on Terror, the Bush Administration had to foster a pro-war sentiment within the country. In tandem with the post-9/11 First Worldist rationale of avenging US lives, other more gendered narratives were introduced. These narratives were portrayed not only as conditions but also as causes for the War, going by Judith Butler’s delineation between the two, defining causes as “active” reasons; this produces the implication that they were one of the United States’ primary objectives when going to war, as opposed to secondary justificatory tools (11). Thus, with such active causes triggering the US to go to war, the prevalence of these narratives in the media was heightened, breeding stereotypes and societal images to arise. From this, the US military-industrial-media complex framed Arab society through a gendered lens, depicting the bearded, dangerously masculine Muslim man and his binary opposite, the oppressed, veiled Muslim woman. In turn, this image can be witnessed in numerous areas: public opinion, popular culture, state-influenced media such as Hollywood, human rights discourses, and even reaching erotic films. As such, images and films play a major role in maintaining this narrative, taking from Wendy Hesford’s critique of Amnesty International’s “Imagine” campaign which constructs an archetypal image of the suffering Muslim woman, saying:
The neutral background and closely cropped portrait aid the image’s iconic function by isolating the girl from her material circumstances and constructing her (part for whole) as the archetypal Afghan refugee (Hesford 1).
This construction goes hand-in-hand with the isolationist nature of the image, as this archetype first emerges in what Susan Sontag terms the “image-world,” then the image lives on perpetually since “in the image-world, it has happened, and it will forever happen that way” (Sontag 131). Thus, this grants the US media complex the power to cement its gendered narrative in such perpetuity as to justify the war in its whole.
Digging more concretely, one must also examine the symbols and spectacles used to reinforce this trope of the oppressed, veiled Muslim woman. By constantly portraying veiled women in images and scenes where they are disadvantaged and suffering, the veil is established as a symbol of oppression; it becomes seen as the cause of their suffering. Consequentially, this depersonalizes the Muslim woman, who is regarded by the Western public as only what Bush terms “women of cover” (Stabile and Kumar 1). This archetypal frame of the Muslim woman who is oppressed by her veil not only shapes popular culture but spectacularly occupies public discourse by storm – as seen in TIME’s December 2001 issue, which features a hijab-donning woman with the bold, yellow tagline reading “Lifting the Veil” (TIME). An elaborate example that features the veil as a symbol of oppression and restraint is the famous 2012 American novel, A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, which was adapted into an award-winning movie featuring Tom Hanks. Within the novel, Eggers builds Alan, a run-of-the-mill American businessman who is attempting to settle a monumental business deal in Saudi Arabia. Through his journey, Alan encounters Zahra, his doctor, and Alan’s first observation fixated on her veil, saying, “her hijab was worn tight, obscuring her hair but for one strand that had escaped and was flowing recklessly down her cheek” (Eggers 150). This immediate focus on Zahra’s hijab highlights the Western depersonalization of the Muslim woman. To add to this, Zahra’s “tight” hijab seems to loosen as the story continues and the two characters’ relationship evolves. When the two meet together in secret, away from the oppressive structures that prevent her from being alone with Alan, she “[wears] a loose scarf over her neck” (285). Thus, Zahra’s hijab throughout the novel loosens along with what Dr. Selena Rathwell describes as the “loosening of [Zahra’s] morals” (Rathwell). Ultimately, this work of popular culture illustrates the Western image of the Muslim veil, portraying it as a tool of oppressing women, while the woman donning it has no agency over her tribal, patriarchal society’s bidding. Not only does this villainize Muslim society, but it also strips the woman of her complex character traits, which, in Zahra’s case, were only revealed in the novel after her unveiling.
The archetypal frame of Muslim women is only one side of the United States’ gendered narrative, for the veiled woman is portrayed vis-à-vis the “emancipated” Western woman. This contrast was pursued by the military-industrial-media complex to paint the West’s superiority on gender issues, providing a cause for the US invasions to take place during the War on Terror. As such, the construction of this narrative had two sides: US gender inclusivity and the supposed inessentiality of Western feminism. First, the United States shapes itself to be what Bonnie Man describes as “bastions of tolerance when it comes to gender” (9). This sets the premise for the United States’ progressivist projection, which goes even further by not only displaying public tolerance, but also engaging the military in gender non-conforming acts. In an inexplicable deployment of soft power, American male soldiers engaged in feminized and, at times, eroticized viral dances that concealed the inherent patriarchy (Pramaggiore 93). A contrasting example of such gender non-conformity within the US military are the torture scandals involving female soldiers such as Lyndie England’s involvement in the Abu Ghraib torture violations, placing females in a place of masculine violence (Howard III and Prividera 292). In addition to the gender-inclusive image that the US displays, the Bush Administration constructs a post-feminist narrative, in an attempt to further differentiate its society from that of the Muslim countries it is invading. As opposed to rejecting feminism and adopting a purely “anti-feminist” stance, the United States appears to embrace and publicize the successes of first-wave and second-wave feminism – all while simultaneously casting out third-wave feminist critiques of the war (Vavrus 14). In turn, these post-feminist discourses ostracize current feminists and “depoliticize the subjects and subject matters they construct,” in an attempt to project the United States’ image as a society that has already “achieved” gender equality (Vavrus 14). Furthermore, this discourse roots the “achievement” of equality to the United States’ military power, birthing the archetypal army wives that occupied much of the early 21st century American popular culture scene (Vavrus 30). Subsequentially, this brings rise to martial post-feminist discourse – termed by Mary Douglas Vavrus – which rejects critiques of the US military power, as portrayed by the Security Mom characterization (Vavrus 68). Much like how the martial post-feminist Security Mom casts out feminist discourse in trust of the military, the United States projects an image of US society where feminism is no longer necessary, juxtaposing with the image of a barbaric patriarchal Muslim society.
Within this vivid contrast posed by the US media complex, one may explore how it interacts with the notion of gender, particularly given the connotations associated with the veil. A strong binarism can be noted between the Muslim woman and the Western woman, causing further archetypal characterization of the female gender. Between the two stereotypes stands the veil as a symbol of the oppression that the Muslim woman is faced with. With the woman stripped of all agency, the veil becomes an object whose removal is a “project of imagining [the] girl with rights and dignity” (Hesford 3). This binarism between the emancipated Western woman and the veiled Muslim woman can be witnessed in many Hollywood movies, most notably of which is Sex and the City 2. In Sex and the City 2, American women travel to “Abu Dhabi” (filmed in Morocco) and are threatened by dangerous bearded Arab men for not wearing the Niqab. Subsequently, they go into hiding and are faced with menacing, veiled ladies. However, the terror washes away from the Western women’s faces once the Niqabis unveil, revealing their obsession with New York and the United States. The premise of the scene implies that their Niqab is but a façade that is enforced upon them by society. Hence, this reinforces the archetypal construct of the veiled woman only covering herself out of oppression, in fear of the barbarically masculine males. Additionally, the Muslim women in the movie appear to be secretly liberated by the foreign fashion brought by New York, casting the West once more as the savior – with the American women standing heroically in contrast to their flatterers. In fact, this scene in the movie is a perfect manifestation of the US gender rhetoric, where unveiling is a spectacle of gratitude towards Western liberationism. Maria Pramaggiore ideally summarizes the polarity described above, stating:
… a starkly drawn dualism pitting a secular, enlightened, and egalitarian West against a patriarchal Islam whose oppressed women are in desperate need of rescue (Pramaggiore 95).
As such, this dichotomy contrasts with the more complex reality of Islamic life while simultaneously whitewashing the oppression that women and minorities face within the United States. Ultimately, this symbolization of the veil not only makes the act of unveiling a spectacle, but through that, it also dehumanizes the veiled woman into only a shadow of the Western woman.
Nevertheless, unveiling does not only take the form of a transformative spectacle, but it is taken even further through the media’s fetishization of the veil. The rise of veil fetishism was led by the controversial popular icon, Mia Khalifa, driving hijab scenes from a fringe interest to an entire pornographic subcategory “within a matter of months” (Gareth 4). Though this peculiar acceleration in the Hijab as an object of sexual interest can be attributed to the hypersexualization of women in the internet age, it also perfectly captures the Western fantasy of unveiling Muslim women. With the act of unveiling pornographically played out, this Western fantasy is escalated. While the cross-cultural interaction in the pornographic scenes may imply racial open-mindedness, the performative nature of sexual acts displays the veiled woman in a position of vulnerability and the Western male in a position of control. Thus, this bears a stark similarity to the narrative promoted by the US media complex, only further escalated, as the act of assertive sexual intercourse itself bears a power dynamic: penetration being an act of asserting masculinity, as opposed to the feminization and humiliation of being at the receiving end. Hence, with unveiling becoming an act of asserting dominance, the veil is depicted as a symbol of passive submissiveness. This scenario of Muslim women becoming sexually active with white men following their unveiling is found in the mainstream as well. Tracing back to the example of Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, Zahra’s unveiling is soon followed by descriptions of her sexual promiscuity, with her unveiling being climactically equivalent to the act of sexual intercourse (Eggers 293). This ultimately feeds into the trope of veiled women being helpless due to their tribal society and displays the extent to which the Western fantasy of unveiling the Muslim woman is prevalent.
With the trope of the veiled woman established, its extents discussed, and its binary opposite – the Western woman – identified, one must deduce how this narrative plays on the dynamics of the War on Terror and fosters a pro-war sentiment. When the veiled woman is depicted as oppressed and in need of rescue, a form of – what Slavoj Zizek describes as – subjective violence is established, drawing eyes away from the objective violence at play; one must concretely identify both the subjective and objective violence shaping the narrative. With the martial post-feminist discourse depicting the Western woman as safe in her home, the imaginary, veiled, Muslim woman becomes a public object of suffering in need of rescue. This narrative is enabled by the striking images that are employed by human rights discourses. Suddenly fixating on Afghan women, the US military-industrial-media complex displays them as figures of no agency, stripped of all human rights (Stabile and Kumar 769). However, this liberationist plead for women’s rights is but a facade to justify the United States’ invasion, casting the US military as an exemplary hero and playing on the white savior complex that is predominant in the West. The US employment of post-political bio-politics presents a “depoliticized, socially objective” justification to the War on Terror, detracting from the underlying objective violence (Zizek 40). Ironically, the objective violence is the power of the US military-industrial-media complex and its ability to disseminate such images for the sake of military objectives. The US Department of State that now publicly condemns the Taliban’s abuses of women was once a primary support for the Islamic Fundamentalist group (Stabil and Kumar 767). The military’s liberationist bio-political façade is, in turn, enabled by the media complex, whose ownership is in the hands of the transnational conglomerates, establishing an evident influence and cooperation with US military agencies such as the CIA and The Pentagon (Castonguay 103). This media functions, by all means, as propaganda, generating the archetypes of the army wives, security wives, and other military-tied forms of citizenship. In particular, the role of the Security Mom is prevalent in this dynamic, as their objection towards any critique of the military prevents intersectional feminist solidarity, making the Muslim losses endured in the war “become unthinkable and ungrievable” (Butler XIV). Thus, the compassion to grieve Muslim suffering is lost due to the American public’s perception of Muslim society as radical and oppressive, in spite of the objective violence that initially brought rise to such oppression.
In conclusion, by examining the imaginary archetypal construct of the oppressed, veiled Muslim woman, one understands the psychological operations that swayed public opinion on the War on Terror. In On Photography, Susan Sontag says, “reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras” (Sontag 126). Thus, the images generated by popular culture and human rights discourses have come to realize the imaginary stereotypical gender tropes. By integrating the veil as a symbol of oppression into various Western mediums of expression – from novels and Hollywood movies to pornographic films – the spectacle of unveiling is perceived as a fantasy of liberation. The extreme connotations associated with the veil binarily contrast with the picture-perfect image of the liberated Western woman, who’s supposed post-feminist society renders her in a state of complete equality. In turn, this leads to the condemnation of Muslim society as a whole and its perception as a backwards patriarchal society, with its women in need of rescue. Hence, because of the bio-political nature of the 21st century, such an image of barbarism is enough to provide a justificatory tool for the United States’ invasion, becoming a function of the US soft power. The military-industrial-media complex wraps this narrative in a martial postfeminist lens, posing the US military as the core reason behind the Western woman’s privilege over the lesser, Muslim woman. With this ingrained, there is no space for a feminist critique of the military institutions and their influence over all aspects of the media. Thus, one finds that Muslim woman-fixated human rights discourses in the early 21st century are the same as the victimizing gender rhetoric that renders the veiled Muslim woman helpless, in need of rescue – all enabled by martial post-feminism and ultimately villainizing Muslim societies and justifying the War on Terror, to the advantage of the Bush Administration.
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