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Gender Trouble at Abu Ghraib?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 March 2006

Timothy Kaufman-Osborn
Whitman College


This essay explores the controversy spawned by the release, in April, 2004, of the photographs taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Its particular concern is with photographs that depict American servicewomen engaged in various forms of abusive conduct against Iraqi prisoners. In its opening half, the essay examines and criticizes the responses to these photographs offered, first, by right-wing commentators and, second, by American feminists, most notably Barbara Ehrenreich. All read these photographs as a referendum on feminism and, more particularly, its commitment to the cause of gender equality; and all do so, I argue, on the basis of a naive understanding of gender. In its latter half, accordingly, the essay offers a more adequate understanding of gender, one loosely grounded in the work of Judith Butler and the concept of performativity. Referencing various official interrogation manuals, as well as the investigative reports released in the wake of this scandal, the essay employs this concept in offering a more adequate account of the gendered import of the deeds depicted in the Abu Ghraib photographs. It concludes by arguing that what is important about these photographs is neither whether the perpetrators of the exploitation they depict are male or female, nor whether the deeds they portray somehow compromise the feminist quest for gender equality. Rather, what is important are the multiple ways in which specifically gendered practices, which can be detached from the bodies they conventionally regulate, are deployed as elements within a more comprehensive network of technologies aimed at disciplining prisoners and so confirming their status as abject subjects of U.S. military power.This essay has its origins in a roundtable titled “Gender Relations in the Age of Neo-Liberalism,” which was conducted in conjunction with the 2005 meeting of the Western Political Science Association. I wish to thank the other participations on that roundtable, Jane Bayes, Mary Hawkesworth, and Judith Hicks Stiehm, as well as Paul Apostolidis, Renee Heberle, Jinee Lokaneeta, Jeannie Morefield, Aaron Perrine, Kari Tupper, and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of the essay.

Research Article
© 2005 The Women and Politics Research Section of the American Political Science Association

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