US – Iran: Patriarchs and the Fragility of Hegemonic Power. A feminist overview of US – Iran tensions.
US – Iran: Patriarchs and the Fragility of Hegemonic Power
A feminist overview of US – Iran tensions
By Natalia Bonilla
After the recent murder of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the latest US military operation against male political and insurgent leaders in the Middle East (including Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi), the Trump Administration unveiled Wednesday a clear agenda to “terminate” bad behaved men.
All these main figures and countless of others were perceived as a threat for opposing with their words, behaviors and actions the ideals and interests of the American nation.
When looking through the lenses of feminist theory in IR, it is easy to fall into the trap of asking the obvious and yet important question: Where are the women?
The Iranian, the Iraqi, the American and any ethnic minorities living in these countries women?
Under Johan Galtung’s conflict journalism paradigm, international mainstream media has failed to cover women’s needs, way of thinking, voices and initiatives.
Needlessly to say, at this delicate point in the conflict the press has to cover official sources and they so happen to be, mostly male.
Apparently, there is no time to wonder whether gender violence at the structural, cultural and direct level had anything to do with that reality…
Even if, international analysts are debating whether or not the US-Iran conflict started with the nuclear deal, with the 1979 Revolution or the 1953 coup because of course, dates are important.
And so are men and so are numbers.
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump unveiled a clear government agenda to get rid of opposing patriarchs.
The previous military, terrorist and political leaders as well as the current Heads of State in Iran (political leader Hassan Rouhani and religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini), Iraq (Barham Salih) and the United States (Trump), are considered to be the patriarchs of nations.
A patriarch is a leading figure of a family, tribe, town or by extension, nation.
Nations, on the other hand, may have feminine or masculine cultures depending on the stereotypical gender qualities by which they identify or value the most (by constitution, laws, customs or social dynamics allowed in an informal way).
While “nations” are different from the concept of “States”, it is important to recognize that Iran, the United States and Iraq meet the characteristics of manly states. (Charlotte Hooper, 2001)
In this recent escalation of the conflict we can observe how the United States perceives and is failing to address a growing threat to its hegemonic power or shall we say… hegemonic masculinity?
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, US foreign policy sought to position the State as a hegemonic superpower.
The concept “hegemony” is the hyperbole of the concept “power.”
The term power was conceived since Ancient Greece relating “masculinity“ with “strength” and the “control”.
According to IR feminist theory, the vision of a hegemonic masculinity supports patriarchy, a system of oppressive political and social order against women (and men).
By delegitimizing other expressions of masculinity and suppressing expressions of stereotypical femininity, a State operates a structure that divides the norms, behaviors and identities of itself, its institutions and its citizens in two sides: correct or incorrect, masculine or feminine, etc.
It wasn’t always that way.
It is important to note that under the Bill Clinton Administration (1992-2000) the US shifted the gender norm of hegemony by fully embracing “soft power”.
This meant that the state was not relying its foreign policy to “hard power” in the form of military and economic means but also actively employed diplomacy and cooperation, two terms stereotypically related to feminine leadership qualities to pursue their interests abroad.
Then, 9/11 happened and the consequent Global War on Terror plunged the US into two wars and invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq in what could be read an overwhelming use of force to punish local leaders and authorities for breaking the “bro code”, the “male bonding” between nations or “camaraderie”.
The “women’s rights” issue as a “human rights” issue was brought by the Bush Administration particularly in Afghanistan.
It was secondary “backup” justification for war in this country.
Recognizing that both Middle Eastern states were facing institutional fragility, the first under Taliban control and the second under Hussein’s tyranny (approved in occasions by the US depending on who was in power), after the first couple of years US military force fell short.
Invading Afghanistan and Iraq were not enough “deterrence” to stop jihad, terrorist groups neither to give a quick “victory” to the American nation.
Almost 20 years have gone by and the US continues to struggle in a region where it simply refuges to “lose”, “recognize defeat” for the fear of public humiliation for not reaching “the hunting prize” (oil, pride, territorial control, you name it).
When Trump came into power in 2017, his Administration sought to restore the perception of hegemonic power by imposing harsh economic sanctions to Iran and focusing on “winning” small “trophies” with the list of patriarchs.
Of course, this may sound too wicked to comprehend but this is only a glimpse of what feminist theory encourages us to question: the unequal relationship between states and how that inequality is gendered and affects the way we study and think about the world.
Analyzing Iran’s position is another topic of analysis since the religious factor greatly influences its domestic and foreign policy.
This would lead to study the assumptions of Samuel P. Huntington on his book The Clash of Civilizations and the question of whether this ideological war between the West and the Middle East (and the Far East as well) responds to a double edged sword: the universalization of a less “masculine” and more “feminine” concept of “power” as long as it is adopted and controlled by a “hegemonic” state actor (and if it is doing so willingly and not because of a progressive trend ie. Feminist Foreign Policy models).
One question remains and that is to see how “feminine” or “soft” the concept of hegemony can be, which academic Mimi Schippers sought to solve in her article Recovering the Feminine Other: Masculinity, Femininity, and Gender Hegemony (2007).
At the beginning of this article, the “issue” of “women” was raised.
It should not be treated lightly.
Partly hidden because of media’s and institutional narratives and partly promoted if it fits certain interests in the topic of hegemony, patriarchs and the US-Iran realpolitik somewhere along the way the vulnerability of the lives of an “Other” and the highest value over “Our Own” as well as the silence of women and the rhetoric of leading males have been missed.
International mass media coverage of the Iran – US case has privileged the use of the war journalism and ruled out the peace journalism angle, a methodology created by Galtung.
It is in this bombardment of convenient and plural rhetorics in extension (polarity of support for Trump in the US media; victimization and redemption of Iran in the Arab and some European media; and the disapproval and even demonization of the US in the Russian, Chinese and some European state and privately-owned media) that a notion of “truth” or “absolutism” is lost.
Any international analysis on this situation will fail to understand what really happens, which personal, ideological, commercial and government interests defend these media companies and what kind of images and narratives they are reinforcing on us, depending on where we live, with their daily coverage in the process.
The quantification of bodies, the prayers for some populations (pray for our troops in the US, pray for Americans to pay or leave our region, pray for the US or Iran to change their rhetoric, pray for world peace ) and the feeding of hatreds of others (threat, revenge, destruction, annihilation), are fertile ground to study the unequal and superior/inferior relations between states, nations and people.
Finally, the “silence” of women, people of other gender identities, children and other vulnerable populations and their role in this conflict is an even more challenging topic because the legitimization of some voices and the invisibility of others lead us to question how profound, how deep are the wounds of gender violence in each of the States in this case study that, in turn, explain the absences of these figures in the “image” created of this conflict.
To do this, it would be necessary to explore whether or not to apply criticism to the assumptions of the Copenhagen school (international security) made by Academic Lene Hansen (2000) in her article The Little Mermaid’s Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School or if, on the contrary, there is a benefit and a convenient winning card to silence, a proposal by Xavier Guillaume (2018) in his article How to do things with silence: Rethinking the centrality of speech to the securitization framework.
According to Guillaume’s hypothesis, “silence” can be seen as an invisibility yes but also, it can be interpreted as a way these patriarchs or stereotypically masculine authorities are protecting the “defenseless”, the “soft”, the “weak” and the “preciously” “feminine” population of “women”.
Natalia Bonilla is an international female leadership & business strategy coach, conflict journalist and news producer with more than 10 years of experience in 12 countries. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Puerto Rico, a M.A. in International Relations from the University of York, a Pg.Dp. in Peace and Conflict Journalism from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
You can follow her on Facebook @nataliabonillaprojects, Instagram @nataliabonillainc and @luminainc.
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