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The Sexual Politics of Abu Ghraib

Hegemony, Spectacle, and the Global War on Terror

Authored by: Mary Ann T├ętreault

Categories: Human Rights, Violent Conflict
Sub-Categories: Access to Justice and Rule of Law, Countering Violent Extremism, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), Violent Extremism
Region: Middle East and North Africa
Year: 2006
Citation: T├ętreault, Mary Ann. "The Sexual Politics of Abu Ghraib: Hegemony, Spectacle, and the Global War on Terror." NWSA Journal 18, no. 3 (2006): 33-50.

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Abstract

Revelations of the torture, murder, and maltreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came with sensational photographs of U.S. military personnel torturing Iraqi prisoners and forcing them to perform sexualized acts. Evidence of gross violations of international law, the photographs have been used by U.S. elites to construct a discourse not about war crimes but “prisoner abuse, ” some referring to the activities recorded as analogous to fraternity hazing. In this essay, I argue that the photos reflect complex reactions to the attacks of September 11, 2001, including a need to assert U.S. global dominance by punishing those who are, in American eyes, an inferior oriental enemy. The photographs are analyzed in the context of orientalism in the U.S. chain of command, a phenomenon linked to what feminists call “the politics of the gaze” – the vulnerability of women and other subalterns to virtual as well as actual violation by those in positions of domination. They are compared to evidence of other rituals of violence, such as lynching, orchestrated by elites and imitated by popular-culture entrepreneurs. The sexual politics of Abu Ghraib includes the deployment of female figures to brand, scapegoat, and repair the damage from discovery of the photographs, thereby trivializing the policies and behaviors of U.S. officials and eliding the American public’s responsibility for the continued U.S. failure to condemn, much less to halt, the torture carried out in their name.