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Waging war in the name of women

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Our rulers often push racism to aid their war drives, while telling us they are defending women. Sadie Robinson demolishes their lies—and says liberation can only come from below
Issue 2488
Women leading a protest against war in Syria last month
Women leading a protest against war in Syria last month (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Tory David Cameron apparently wants to protect women and extend their rights, especially if they are Muslim.

He declared last week that Muslim women migrants who don’t learn English could be deported. This will stop them being isolated, he claimed, by encouraging them to “integrate”. Cameron has also pointed to Isis attacks on women to justify bombing Syria.

Those at the top have long claimed that their wars help women—and used anti-Muslim racism to put their case. Examples of this go back hundreds of years.

The Crusades, which began in the late 11th century, saw armies of Christians from western Europe wage war on Muslims. Pope Urban II appealed for

support for these wars by claiming that Muslims had “violated women” and carried out “unspeakable torture before killing them”.

The Crusades turned out to be neither civilising nor liberating. When Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, rotting corpses of Muslim and Jewish inhabitants filled the streets.

People from various classes joined Crusades for different reasons. But those at the top were driven by a desire to seize new land and strengthen western Europe against the Byzantine and Islamic Empires.

At other times the ruling class has rolled out “pro-woman” propaganda when it has felt under threat. During the Irish rebellion against British rule in 1641, reports spread that Irish rebels had ripped open pregnant women and pulled out the foetuses. This helped justify the slaughter of the rebels.

Britain’s press regularly carried stories claiming that Irish Catholics had raped English Protestants throughout the 17th century.

The propaganda depicted Irish men as animalistic and savage. This contrasted to another of Britain’s colonies—India—where men were seen as effeminate and inferior. But both groups were portrayed as a danger to women.


A mutiny of sepoys, Indian soldiers, began the Sepoy Rebellion against British rule in India in 1857. Britain’s rulers feared the rebellion may encourage revolts in other colonies and damage the empire’s reputation.

They needed to boost support for their attempt to put down the mutiny and reassert their control. The British and colonial press began to run stories about the rape of European women. An official inquiry later found no evidence for the claims.

The propaganda rested on the idea that women living in “backward” cultures—often Islamic ones—need enlightened, progressive men—white and Western—to rescue them.

In the Victorian period the ruling class claimed the British Empire was “civilising” countries that didn’t share their morals.

Lord Cromer led the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. Cromer claimed that women’s oppression was at the heart of Islam’s “backwardness” and that the veil was an obstacle to “civilising” Muslim societies.

Yet the British in Egypt blocked access to higher education and increased primary education fees, disproportionately hitting women.

Cromer opposed the training of female doctors because he felt that a woman’s place was in the home. On his return to Britain he founded the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.

Our rulers are prepared to invent atrocities to whip up support for their bloodiest actions.

British propaganda during the First World War claimed that German forces were raping Belgian women and cutting off their breasts. An official document, the Bryce report, backed up many of these claims.

Later investigations found no evidence for them.

Muslim women protesting against war in Afghanistan in 2010

Muslim women protesting against war in Afghanistan in 2010 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Warmongers hoped that a number of highly publicised atrocities, apparently committed by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, would boost support for war in Libya in 2011.

Gaddafi’s forces were said to have been given Viagra and to be using rape as a weapon of war. US intelligence later admitted that this wasn’t true—but by then war had been waged.

In the run-up to the US-led war on Iraq in 1991, a 15 year old Kuwaiti girl gave evidence to a Congressional Human Rights Caucus. “Nayirah” was said to be a volunteer nursing assistant.


She said, “I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

Then US president George Bush repeated this story at least ten times in the following weeks. It helped swing public opinion behind the war drive. The US began its war on Iraq in January 1991.

In 1992 it emerged that the girl was the daughter of a member of Kuwait’s royal family. Her fake testimony was organised by a public relations campaign, Citizens for a Free Kuwait.

The idea that men from some cultures pose a specific threat to women appears during peacetime, too.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 thousands of people affected—mostly poor, black people—were kept in the Superdrome sports stadium. Reports of women being raped soon emerged and were widely circulated.

One white woman who was in the Superdrome recalled her experience. “An Australian guy tells us it’s not safe to be alone. A soldier says the generator is about to fail, and a riot may break out.

“The soldiers are looking more anxious. ‘People will go crazy and attack you!’ they say.”

The woman wasn’t attacked. But the message from officials and the media was clear—you aren’t safe with black men. This demonising of black men as savage and dangerous helped to justify the appalling way the state treated them in the wake of the hurricane.

A similar process took place in the wake of sexual assaults that took place in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve last year. Right wingers seized on the assaults to demonise all refugees as a threat—and therefore undeserving of help.

Of course women do suffer assaults and many people are rightly sickened by them. But scapegoating men from particular races or backgrounds as more dangerous than others doesn’t keep women safe.

In truth those at the top of society have no interest in liberating women. David Cameron has nothing but contempt for women who speak out themselves. He was the one who told Labour MP Angela Eagle to “calm down dear” for arguing with him in a House of Commons debate.

And our rulers would rather ignore the Muslim women who take leading roles on Stop the War or Palestine solidarity protests. But they do send arms and aid to regimes with terrible records on women’s rights, such as that in Saudi Arabia.

They refuse to take action that could really improve women’s lives. And their wars make things worse.


Tony Blair and George Bush said their war in Afghanistan in 2001 would liberate women from the Taliban. Over a decade later, violence against women is rising.

Research published last year estimated that 90 percent of Afghan women suffered physical, sexual or psychological violence, or were forced into marriage.

Over a third of the country’s population live below the poverty line. More than two thirds of rural households have no access to electricity, and 81 percent have no access to safe water.

Our rulers’ propaganda about liberation assumes women can’t make gains for themselves, or even make their own choices. For instance, women who wear the veil are seen as following orders from a male relative.

Women’s liberation can’t be imposed. And women are capable of fighting for their own rights.

Women have won gains when they have organised as part of wider movements. They have won the right to vote, abortion rights, equal pay legislation, the right to divorce and much more.

In Western democracies women remain oppressed.

Women in Britain, for example, still earn less than men on average for doing the same work. They still carry the biggest burden of childcare and housework.

They do not have the right to abortion on demand. Police dismiss women suffering violence and abuse. And disgusting attitudes towards women are entrenched at the very top of society.

The idea that women in the West are liberated while those in Muslim countries are oppressed is a myth used to justify imperialism, war and racism. Ordinary women do not benefit from this.

Those at the top may at times use the language of women’s rights. But their aim is to shore up a system that has women’s oppression at its heart.

Read more

  • Marxism and Women’s Liberation by Judith Orr, £9.99
  • Isis, Imperialism and the war in Syria. International Socialism Journal article by Anne Alexander

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