Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

Disciplining Bodies in an Era of Militarism

What does the recent death of Renisha McBride, a 19 year old black girl shot when she approached a stranger’s house (in a white neighbourhood in Detroit) for help, or the incarceration of Marissa Alexander, sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot (at a wall) in self-defence against her (historically) abusive husband, have in common with say… rape victims during war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or sex worker industries servicing military bases? The answer goes beyond the glaring commonality of violence and enters the more complex and unsettling domain of militarism.

For the most part, when we begin to talk about violence against women in relation to militarism, our immediate reactions conjure up brutal scenes of war and the exceptionalism or ‘irrational’ lawlessness that accompanies it. What most likely comes to mind is the Taliban against the Malalas of the world or the statistics of hundreds of thousands rape cases in the DRC, and even perhaps the ‘odd’ atrocity committed by the ‘odd’ bad egg in the US army in Iraq. However militarism in our neo-liberal conservative era is about much more than a bid for territorial control or even one of political economy, it is part and parcel of a broader project of dominance and domination.

In many ways, contemporary militarism is a continuation of an imperial and colonial history, one that saw the production of nation-states through the reliance of colonial expansion. This expansion necessitated the securing of particular systems and structures of power and domination at home and abroad: capitalism, white supremacy, and a particular heteronormative patriarchy. In implementing this and attempting to enforce what was deemed a ‘civilising’ order upon an ‘inferior’ global majority, large scales of violence were employed and, of course, with this exacerbated levels of systemic violence against women. 

Whilst often deemed separate, the frontiers between domestic and international have always been deeply dependent on one another. The centrality of violence in this project, however, signifies something more prolific than violence in itself. It is as much about human order and institutionalising certain types of human life and value as it is about military or economic policies and expansion.

Perhaps the US imperial state is most emblematic of the relationship between militarism and the place of violence within it. US hegemony has seen the militarisation of domestic law enforcement within its own state; the increased use of military technology, sharing of personnel, equipment and information, has institutionalised a culture of surveillance in not just public agencies (such as welfare, schools, hospitals, universities etc) but through corporatism and private consumption. Furthermore, the regulation of particular groups too is highly militarised for example, using military technologies to police borders and immigrants, the prison-military-industrial complex that has seen the mass and disproportionate incarceration of black and latino populations for profit and disenfranchisement, or the pernicious war against terror that targets poor, immigrant and Muslim communities through fear mongering and detention. The effects of these are heavily entwined with US military dominance globally and the fact that it is constantly at war.

So how then is Renisha McBride or Marissa Alexander linked or connected to other instances of violence against women or LGBT peoples in more obviously militarised scenarios? Simply put, militarism can be seen as a project that attempts to discipline bodies through violence (both physical and structural). It can also be seen as a state project, one that seeks to produce, control and institutionalise particular types of racialised, gendered and sexualised bodies at home and/or abroad in relation to power.  

The production of the ‘terrorist’ since 9/11 for example has had clear and definite racialised, gendered and sexualised constructions, often depicting ‘him’ as not only uncivilised (and anti-civilisation) but also a sexual pervert or in some instances feminised and a deviant homosexual. At other times this is done through the preoccupation with Muslim women’s bodies in the veiling debate, where these women become the victim of Muslim men’s control, are sexually oppressed but also offer a visible threat to security and freedom (which in the West become interconnected). These images are constructed against the backdrop of the loyal and patriotic citizen who is normatively straight, white and male. They not only help to construct and validate an enemy (who may also be the enemy within), they also help to mobilize practices of heterosexualisation in relation to consolidating an ideal citizen, the boundaries of citizenship, and more broadly empire (Jaqui Alexander 2005).

The racist and masculinist nature of war and empire may too be demonstrated in other instances such as Abu Ghraib. White women alongside their male counterparts here were also responsible for enacting the rape and abuse of men of colour, collaborating in not only violence but a type that enforced a specific set of sexualised, gendered and racialised power relations. This of course also occurred during the time the US policy 'Don't ask, Don't Tell' was still in effect, prohibiting openly Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual peoples from serving in the armed forces for fear that they would be a risk to the morale, order, discipline, and unit cohesion, thus compromising military capability. Misogyny and heteronormative patriarchy run at the heart of torture and the celebration of power and domination in this instance. 

Renisha McBride is shot to death in the 86% white suburb of 80% black Detroit, Marissa Alexander is refused Stand Your Ground rights and is sentenced to 20 years imprisonment when she fights back against domestic violence, large scale rape in war (including of children and men) acts as a punitive reminder of gendered/heteronomative expectations during and post-war, and foreign military presences fuel and support large scale commercial sex industries and trafficking. Whilst violence against women may exist outside of militarism, it is this project that allows systems of domination to be reproduced in such close proximity to violence. Furthermore, it allows it to be reproduced in an everydayness that renders violence so extra-ordinarily ordinary. It allows a landscape of domination, one in which certain already vulnerable bodies become even more vulnerable, and does so in a world where we supposedly have the capacity to contest and secure equal citizenship and global human rights.

As women activists globally call for demilitarisation it becomes central in not only seeking peace or ending war, but more importantly dismantling the very systems and structures that allow for systemic violence. What then may a demilitarised world look like? Most likely one closer to equality and justice than we have ever known.

Hana Riaz is a queer (politically) black Muslim feminist, a British South Asian woman, writer, and blogger

This blog series is an initiative of the Stop Stoning Women Campaign hosted by WLUML - campaigning to bring an end to Stoning.