The Politics of Masculinity in the Afghan war

In the discussions on the question of anti-imperialism versus the necessity of intervention in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’, the gender dimension has been a much undertheorized one. While I am by no means a scholar of gender studies and barely qualified to speak at length on the topic, it has struck me that in the political dynamic around the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan this dynamic presents itself at least in part in the form of a politics of masculinity. This is true, it seems to me, of many of the major participants in the political and military conflict regardless of which ‘side’ they were on, and with an underlying drive not as dissimilar as has often been suggested. I can do no more than to vaguely sketch out my impression of this politics of masculinity, in the hope that some greater specialist can perhaps correct or elaborate upon this hunch. Nonetheless, I think it is a point worth making, because the interaction between gender and the ideology of politics is a potent one and has been throughout history, and it may serve to deflate somewhat the arrogance and pretensions of the different parties concerned with regard to their own significance and motives.

I would like to suggest that there seems to be an intriguing similarity of motive forces between the proponents and apologians for the war in Afghanistan and the oppositional forces in that country. The neo-Taliban are both in practice and in their representations in the Western eye defined by nothing so much as their ultra-reactionary attitude towards women and the politics of gender. Both when the Taliban forces were in power in Afghanistan altogether and since they have been driven into a militant oppositional role, their defining activity has been the repression of women in all aspects of the public sphere. The most militantly religious forces in the country, not just the Taliban but also the likes of Ismail Khan, create their own sphere of power by the total exclusion of women from any kind of access to the public sphere, from education to politics or even healthcare. For many of the ideological militants of the (neo-)Taliban (as opposed to those simply bribed or cajoled into their cause), their defining experience has been the life in an almost entirely all-male environment of religious formation in Pakistan and the borderlands during their youngest years; all their peers are men, their movement is a movement of young men (as the name indicates) and their leaders and figures of religious and historical inspiration are all men. But there is more to it than that: their quasi-millennarian movement, a response to the decades of civil war and destruction in Afghanistan itself, has a logic of purity and purification that is based not on some transhistorical eternal essence of the ‘traditional true Islam’ (which of course has never existed), but is based in practice on the motive force of warriorhood in the cause of the faith.

What this means is that while in the immediately political practice the Taliban is a creature conjured up and barely controlled by the forces of the Pakistani right in the ISI and the clericalist power there, and it presents itself as a populist force in opposition to warlordism, foreign occupation, and the power of the small cliques of extortionate landlords and bureaucrats in Afghanistan, this is lent much of its organizational strength by a more ideological element. In the Western media the focus has generally been on seeing it as a kind of attempt to return to the true Islam, and of course this is the rhetoric used by the Taliban itself; but what I want to suggest is that this notion itself is the product of the masculine isolation and the sense of a loss of patriarchal dignity on the part of the many (largely Pashtun) young men of the refugee sites and the borderlands, and of those victimized by generations of foreign occupation and warfare. In other words, the motive force of the Taliban reveals itself as an excess masculinity of the most patriarchal kind, a tremendous drive for warriorhood which would rehabilitate the power to act and to control events in their society on the part of these many parochial, illiterate young men.

This is not just an arbitrary determination: not just is this supported by the centrality of the warrior status among the Taliban, leavened only by a regard for charismatic but ‘unofficial’ clerical figures, and the unity of this status with the repression and exclusion of women, but also by the fact that everywhere in modern history the defining force for people faced with unrelenting repression but robbed of a clear emancipatory political idea or unity is the need for power in the form of commanding activity. In patriarchal societies and cultures, this takes an explicitly masculine form, and often this drive for a counter-political empowerment takes on the form of explicitly masculine destruction. The religious warriorhood of the Taliban is the incarnation under the peculiar circumstances of the most backward areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan of this general phenomenon, this masculine excess of unrealized potency leading to a politics of masculinity and destruction as rehabilitation, a patriarchal nihilism. I believe it is only possible to understand actions such as the Taliban’s destruction of the world-historical Buddha statues at Bamiyan in this light, as well as their unrelenting hostility not just to any presence of the woman in the public sphere, i.e. any sphere in which action is undertaken and potency realized, but also the often remarked upon refusal of many of the militant Taliban forces (then and now) to ‘settle down’ and create a ‘normal’ civilian order. I will clarify further what I mean by this masculine excess and its patriarchal nihilism by looking at the counterparts of these Afghan fighters, namely the Western interventionists.

Of course the war on Afghanistan was in the first instance a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and I do not wish to deny or downplay all the different political, economic, and strategic considerations that went into the NATO invasion of Afghanistan. These have been analyzed very thoroughly by many commentators, and there is no reason to repeat all of these. I want to focus attention on one specific aspect of the style of justification for the war, both on the right and on the ‘pro-interventionist left’ (soi-disant), namely their politics of masculinity in turn. What is striking to me about the rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’, the arguments for interventionism, the Project for a New American Century and so forth is not just the strident chauvinism and imperialism of these arguments, but also that the ‘opportunity’ presented by 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ seemed to come to the actors involved almost as a relief. That is to say, not the death of thousands of Americans and others, but the chance to reconstruct the raison d’être of the Bush administration into something it had not originally been.

Many have noted how Bush originally campaigned on a criticism of Bill Clinton’s ‘nation-building’ efforts, and saw his conversion to this cause as a commonplace case of imperialist opportunism. But I think that underlying this was a sense of the decline of the United States, and perhaps the West altogether, and a craving for action, decisive, shaping action, that would be able to force open history and reverse this trend. It is difficult to prove, but in reading the terms in which the War on Terror was stated, the emphasis on the new challenge for the West as a political but also ideological construct after the end of the Cold War, the new faith in the future that caused even Fukuyama to recant his idea of the end of history as the banal administration of neoliberal societies: all these things seem to indicate a desire to shore up the flagging purpose and morale of the West by reviving its traditional imperial self-perception as a masculine, forceful shaper of events. This is the rhetoric in which British and American imperialism traditionally clothed themselves in the age of colonialism, and in the French case not much less so (though more mixed with republican rhetoric), and this has now been extended to all the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (note the name). Those who are not with ‘us’ are against ‘us’; the new reality is created in Washington and London, and the ‘reality-based community’ can merely follow its moulding of history with shock and awe.

Some examples of the same phenomenon can also be found on the ‘pro-interventionist left’, in particular in the writings of the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was never known for his enlightened views on gender issues, but what is more remarkable is the way in which his political trajectory moved from a rather usual kind of Trotskyism to his later ‘left’ appreciation of the Western political order, the United States in particular, and its imperialist potential. Although in his memoirs and debating arguments he presents this largely in terms of the evils of the various tyrannies abroad, such as the well-documented barbarism of the Taliban and the vile repression and mass-murdering habits of the late Saddam Hussein, in reading his essays and the autobiography Hitch-22 one does not really get the impression that this was his underlying motive. It is always a risky and dubious thing to psychologize political views, and I do not intend to go down that road, but I do want to note a certain similarity of motive force here. For Hitchens, what became over time the most annoying and repellent part of the left as he saw it was its perpetual oppositionism, its willingness to oppose and denounce the activities of capitalist states and actors without a corresponding willingness to act, to shape, to intervene.

In his discussion of his structural change in outlook, about which Hitchens wrote with considerable reflection, he notes how often people experience these changes as being brought about by a sudden flash of insight when in fact it is often a slow unconscious process of disaffection coming to the fore in this way. In this context, it is interesting how he argues about his initial decision to consider himself a socialist:

Brian Lamb, the host of C-Span cable television, bears some of the responsibility for this. Having got me to proudly announce my socialism once, on the air, he never again had me as a guest without asking me to reaffirm the statement. It became the moral equivalent
of a test of masculinity: I wouldn’t give him or his audience the satisfaction of a denial.

While here Hitchens is still in some way talking about his old identity, as it were, Hitchens’ amalgamation of moral posture, the strength of actively intervening in the public sphere and then sticking to it, and masculinity is an intriguing one. While in his memoirs he talks considerably more about Iraq than about Afghanistan, in both cases the terminology is all about the “conformism” of the anti-war movement versus his own position, which is that of a “pro-government dissident” who can “see things the point of view of the governors”.(2)

This nonconformism, the ‘contrarianism’ to which he was so attached that he wrote a book Letters to a Young Contrarian, seems throughout his essays and throughout his memoirs to be one of action. He is constantly and vituperatively scolding the weakness, the pusillanimity, the failure to intervene of the left as he saw it. It is telling that in his memoirs, although he mentions the women of Afghanistan as heroes just once, the entirety of its political core consists of his own actions in and around battlefields and the significance of soldiers and politicians in the US and elsewhere being willing to fight, as long as the opposition is evil enough to warrant fighting. For Hitchens then, too, warriorhood and a sense of the right politics being one where the first and foremost criterion is the ability to dominate the public sphere with decisive action go together. His politics is a patriarchal politics of masculine excess, of the frustration of one raised in a military family and who wishes the left he associates with were more literally ‘warriors for the cause’ than they are; and this more than anything seems the motive for his decision to support the nation-builders of the right, simply because they are recreating the worldwide public sphere with military integrity in a way that the left is not. This fits of course wonderfully well, as mentioned above, with the ideological impulses of many of the brains behind the new interventionism in the United States; hence his hagiographical treatment of for example Paul Wolfowitz.

Overall then, the argument I want to make is that on both sides of the fight over Afghanistan, and probably Iraq too, the conflict is cast in a particular politics of masculinity. On both sides, the participants see themselves as having integrity in and through their status as warriors and their ability as warrior figures to dominate and reshape the public sphere of the country. In both cases, the leading figures as well as many of the followers have been driven by a sense of frustration owing to a lack of opportunity to prove their masculinity and to destroy the corruption in the establishment by means of the purification of action – the ‘constructive destruction’ so characteristic of all politics in the modern era. The war over what Afghanistan should look like, then, is a war for patriarchy by patriarchy, regardless of who wins.

It is telling that in this ideological battle women play a central role as the instruments of the achievement of both parties’ aims: but not as agents or actors in their own right, but in their moral significance as passively receiving the dispensation on their behalf meted out by the politics of masculine excess. That is to say, for the ‘humanitarian interventionists’ the morality of the war is much justified (often after the fact) by the Taliban’s extremely repressive treatment of women, and for the Taliban the presence of women in the public sphere is itself so intolerable that anything is permitted to destroy it, and efforts to do so play a central role in its tactics. This is not to suggest that the Hitchensian wish to emancipate women by force and wishing to repress them by force are morally equivalent things, but it is to suggest that their underlying commonality is a patriarchal one.

The figure of Malala Yousafzai is typical here: narrowly surviving an assassination attempt by militant reactionaries associated with the Taliban, who targeted her because of her open claims to agency as a young Pakistani girl and her political activism, she is then used by the interventionists in the West as proof of the barbarism of the opposition and thereby justifying continued warfare and occupation in and around Afghanistan. However, the women of Afghanistan are equally victimized by NATO bombing as by Taliban attacks, and in fact the continuation of the war means a reproduction of new Taliban figures, men who have to reclaim their patriarchal dignity after their family has been hit as ‘collateral damage’. The women figure in the story as victims, not as actors – the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan gets virtually no attention in the West, Afghan women suffer as much opposition in political action from pro-Western Afghan leaders as from anti-Western ones, and it is Yousafzai’s father who gets a position as UN special advisor on education.(3)

While women in Afghanistan when polled indicate they see their position as slowly improving, and there is considerable potential among the Afghan population for gender equality(4), my analysis would suggest that as long as the conflict in Afghanistan remains one between Taliban and NATO forces, the politics of masculinity involved in the conflict between the interventionism in the greater MENA region and its largely Islamist opposition will ensure largely destructive outcomes that will do little to improve women’s emancipation or their effective agency in the public sphere. While all this is just a sketch of some of the patriarchal motive forces underlying both sides of the Western interventionism/anti-Western resistance dichotomy, it is clear that it is a false dichotomy and neither side is likely to play an emancipatory role.

1) Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (New York, NY 2010), p. 445 (PDF).
2) Ibid., p. 338.


“It is telling that in this ideological battle women play a central role as the instruments of the achievement of both parties’ aims: but not as agents or actors in their own right, but in their moral significance as passively receiving the dispensation on their behalf meted out by the politics of masculine excess.”

I’m reminded of the words that sit in the front of my brain during these discussions: “a photograph of an unveiled woman was not much different from one of a tractor, an industrial complex, or a new railroad; it still merely symbolised yet another one of men’s achievements. Once again reduced to mere objects, women were, in these images, at the service of a political discourse conducted by men and for men.” [Schick, Irvin Cemil. (1990) “Representing Middle Eastern Women: Feminism and Colonial Discourse.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2., pp. 369.] This was in reference to secular-ish nationalist projects from within, but the idea applies more broadly as long as women are considered the primary beasts of burden for carrying cultural identity. We’ll save you from your own backward culture, we’ll save you from the invasive foreign culture, whatever. The message is clear that women are basically results to be achieved in such masculinity contests.

It has been A Thing in the history of U.S./European representations of The Orient to feminize Asian men as part of the justification for fearing them, killing them, and taking control of their countries. By feminize, I particularly mean portraying them as emotional, irrational, superstitious, deceptive, petty, inept at organizing and running a country–these things and more that are so charmingly considered feminine and simultaneously child-like but sinister. The sort of people who clearly need Global North hegemonic masculinity to step in and sort things out. There is also the sexualized violence that guards commit on prisoners: “The images of Arab men being broken, subdued, shamed and disciplined by a white woman allow for the realization of the ‘American dream’ of the total demasculinization and humiliation of Arab men.” (I think the author of this quote is Victoria Brittain, but I can’t see the full citation of it or get a clear google, so I’m pulling it from [Sjoberg, Laura & Via, Sandra. (2010) Gender, War, and Militarism: Feminist Perspectives, pp. 26].) A man is feminized even if–rather, especially when–the perpetrator is not a cis* man. Oh, and by there being a history of this feminization, I mean since at least early modern colonialism.

(Those of us who support revolutionary war in theory or in practice are stuck in a bind: violent revolution may be the only solution to a particular oppression, but until patriarchy is eradicated, women will go through a sort of double-suffering during the fighting and in its aftermath. Like men, they are victims of injury, abuse, displacement, bereavement, etc., but with the addition of female-specific sexual violence from both sides, the bulk of the cleaning up and caring for survivors, and the long-term ramifications of a new patriarchal order that looks much the same as the old order. There’s also the question of how to emasculate revolutionary violence, in a sense–to remove machismo from war. I realize that that isn’t completely on topic, but it’s a reality that people with influence have to recognize when talking about any sort of radical or so-called ‘progressive’ war.)

Well I basically just wrote a comment longer than your post, so I’m done now.

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