September 11 and Male Violence

The world faces a new global battlefield upon which terrorist deeds are met with a war against terrorism, unregulated violence with regulated violence. It is said that the world will never be the same after September 11. But what has changed - and for whom? How could September 11 be interpreted from a gender perspective? And is there a connection between global violence and terrorism on the one hand and the violence of individual men towards women on the other?

War is a story about men, virility and violence. War creates solidarity among men, for values that are defined by men. But war is also stories about gender relations, sexualised symbols, and access to women.

The most obvious aspect is that the terrorists are men. It was men, prepared to die, who steered the planes against the twin towers in New York. Al-Qaida and similar terrorist networks are dominated by men. And the attacks were directed against men. Usama bin Laden has stated in an interview that women and children were not targeted. ”The Holy Prophet was against killing women and children”, he said.

It is men, headed by president George W. Bush, who have reacted with force and who have initiated the war against terrorism. It is men who have passed the crucial resolutions, who make authoritative statements, and who dominate the media debate. With few exceptions, terrorism and the war against terrorism is a performance of men, for men, against other men.

Men are also less critical than women about attacks of retaliation. Two weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, an opinion poll in Sweden showed that 48 per cent of the men interviewed and 72 per cent of the women were against attacks which involve a risk that innocent people would be killed (SvD 2001-09-27).

Women are unreliable allies for those who are in favour of war. If, as Bush points out, there is only one way between civilisation and (global) terrorism, for us or against us, then it becomes evident that women’s hesitation to use of violence marginalizes them even more. To speak of alternative solutions and non-violence is dubious in the polarized global order that is outlined, both in the West and within fundamentalist groups.

The association of men with war remains. Nowhere in public life are men’s and women’s tasks more separated than in war and international crisis management: men as soldiers vs. women as civilians and outsiders, and at the same time symbols of the specifically national, the bearers of culture, those who should be protected.

It is not only that men are those fighting, both with and against terrorist methods. The message that is spread is, above all, that when the security of a country or other basic values are threatened, men are most suited to take on the political responsibility, as a group. But the physical exclusion of women is only part of a broader paradigm, which is built on gendered concepts such as nation, security and war.

Metaphors of sexuality

In a cartoon circulated on the net, bin Laden has assaulted the American president. She, America, has lost her innocence, peace researcher Johan Galtung writes (2002). He also wonders whether this could be interpreted in terms of three buildings being raped by jets, rammed into their wombs.

The fatherland is a woman who must be protected from assault (by men). But America was molested, humiliated, on her own soil. It has been regarded as a shame in the US that the attacks of September 11 could not be stopped. The military and economic superpower showed for a moment a sign of weakness. The man had not been capable of protecting his woman.

The metaphors are based in an idealised masculinity, where the security of the nation is built with strength, autonomy and demarcation against others. The citizen as soldier-patriot-man is glorified. Women symbolize weakness, even a threat against the national order.

”Nowhere in the public realm are (these) stereotypical gender images more apparent than in the realm of international politics, where the characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity are projected onto the behaviour of states whose success as international actors is measured in terms of their power capabilities and capacity for self-help and autonomy”, states Ann Tickner (1992, p 6-7).

In international relations (theory) ”security has been understood largely in terms of the protection of national communities from the violence – actual or potential – of excluded ‘others’”, according to Jill Steans. War ”has been constructed out of hostility towards the female ‘other’” (Steans årtal, p 99).

We stand in front of a series of simple and devastating dichotomies such as strength vs. weakness, autonomy vs. dependence, us (good) vs. them (evil). Goals are set up against means. Peace is regarded as based on a balance of power and deterrence, above all through the maximizing of military strength.

The question has to be raised: Could violence and terror be used in order to build a safe world without violence and terror? Feminist critique maintains that the separation of goals and means is one of the most devastating ideas in humanity, that, rather, security must be seen as the absence of war and violence, and that the security of one state cannot be built on the insecurity of others. The question has to be answered: security for whom – and for which values?

Threatened masculinity

Usama bin Laden is frightened by gender relations in the West. In an interview in 1998 he maintained that “the rulers of that region (the Gulf States) have been deprived of their manhood. And they think the people are women. By God, Muslim women refuse to be defended by these American and Jewish prostitutes”. The West, in bin Laden’s account, is determined “to deprive us of our manhood. We believe we are men”.

This interview was presented in the article “Occidentalism” in New York Review of Books and the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The authors’ comment is that ”to all those who see military discipline, self-sacrifice, austerity, and worship of the Leader as the highest social ideal, the power of female sexuality will be seen as a dire threat” (Margalit & Buruma 2001).

What bin Laden says is that men who permit women to exploit their sexuality and pursue their emancipation as far as they do in the US are not real men. Hence, Western dominance in the world is a threat to the heroic masculinity, which holds death in contempt. Or in Anne Sisson Runyan’s words: “both the terrorist and the state terrorist are preoccupied with transcendence and (sexual) purification through death” (2002).

The standpoint of president Bush, in an address to the American people, is that the Afghan people have been brutalized, i.e. since women have not been allowed to attend school. The oppression of women is used as an argument against the enemy and its culture. The worry about Afghan women “is not really motivated by concern for these women. Rather it is a device for ranking the ‘other’ men as inferior or as ‘uncivilised'”, writes Nira Yuval-Davis (2002).

Real, civilized men do not treat women that way. The US government’s intention is to say that the Taliban are not only terrorists, but also sexists. The severe conditions of women in Afghanistan have been used to legitimise the bombings.

It is worth noting, though, that neither the US, nor any other country, have earlier been prepared to take to violence against the Taliban regime in Kabul to liberate women (on the contrary, they sought to co-operate with the Taliban).

“In the masculinist legalese of ‘national sovereignty’ men in power can do what they like to their women, safe in knowledge that no other men will intervene. Only when men attack each other do they react”, according to Annabelle Sreberny (2002).

Wendy Brown maintains that ”the state guarantees each man exclusive rights to his woman” and ”agrees not to interfere in a man’s family (de facto woman’s life) as long as he is presiding over it (de facto, her) (1995, p 189). Politics between men are ”the politics of exchanging, violating, protecting, and regulating women” (ibid, p 188).

Women must be controlled. The Taliban are not afraid of death, as the French journalist Catherine David formulates the problem (David 2001). They are afraid of women. David characterises the extreme fanaticism as a masculine neurosis, a phallocentric tragedy. The contempt for women is apparent. Mohammed Atta, probably the best known of the hijackers, wrote in his final message that he did not want pregnant women to say good-bye to him, nor any woman to go to his funeral, or later to his grave.

Do we face a new expression of threatened masculinity? With September 11, men’s frustrations and need to control are not restricted to so called honour killings or violence against women in the home. It was rather an attack on a gender order that is not tolerated. As Michael Kimmel writes: ”Terrorism is fuelled by a fatal brew of anti-globalization politics, convoluted Islamic theology, and virulent misogyny” (2002).

But these statements about the disdain for women within fundamentalist groups do not exonerate the US from responsibility in terms of gender. Global terrorism and the war against terrorism remain conflicts between men – conflicts pertaining to construction of masculinity and women’s freedom of action, to what degree and how women should exist for men. It is to a large extent a hidden agenda. Under the social contract there is a sexual contract which, in the words of Carole Pateman (1988), is based on the law of male sex-right, men’s right of access to women’s bodies.

Gender is a vital but rarely discussed dimension of global and national security. One could talk about a hegemonic masculinity, made up of a symbioses of a) an overwhelming presence of men, b) references to masculine values and symbols that restrict the political space for conflict resolutions to violence, war and terrorism, and 3) a substantial dispute about women’s agency, what women should and should not do.

Global – local

The next step, or question, in the discussion of gender and violence concerns the connection between public, global violence and so called private violence. My point of departure is that violence runs across all levels of analysis.

There are strange parallels between public and private terror, according to Kathleen Jones (2002). She states that the mantra of the domestic violence community is to ”break the cycle”. ”Why can’t there also be a prayer for peace, not revenge at times of public violence?” she asks. I certainly agree with her, but I would like to go a step further, not only see parallels but relationships between public and private.

As Jill Steans states: “The links between domestic violence and war go beyond soldiers, brutalized by their experiences, beating their wives. Rather, there is an intricate relationship between the construction of masculinity and patriotism and violence. War and domestic violence are, in a symbolic but still meaningful sense, linked” (1998, p 101).

It is easy to see women’s conditions in Afghanistan as a question of culture, collectivity and gender – as a power structure. The US government is constructing the Other (culture) as patriarchal, “evil” and “uncivilised”. But when an American man put bombs in skyscrapers in Oklahoma City in 1995, there was no talk of culture or collective responsibility. No retaliation. Oklahoma was not bombed. The event was explained in individual terms, as a mad person who ran out of social control.

In the same way, when a Swedish woman and her child(ren) are killed by a Swedish man it is not regarded as a sign of patriarchal culture or collective responsibility. It is seen as a single – and sad – action executed by a frustrated individual, (who happens to be a man). But how are the terrorist attacks of September 11 linked to a Swedish man’s killing of “his” woman?


I will use the story of Fadime as a link in our understanding. Fadime Sahindel was a 26-year-old Kurdish woman who was murdered in Uppsala by her father on the 21st of January 2002. She had been threatened for years by her brother and father and had finally received a hidden identity. Still, she was found and shot dead. Reactions to this so-called ”honour killing” have been very strong in Sweden. People have mobilised against this crime. 5,000 people attended the funeral in Uppsala.

Why the case of Fadime? I want to point out that single events of murder could be constructed as patriarchal culture and group responsibility. When a Kurdish man kills his daughter it tends to be viewed, from a Swedish perspective, as a common, Kurdish, male cultural problem. Why is it the responsibility of a whole culture, when a Kurd kills his daughter because she wants to live an emancipated life, but not when a Swedish man kills his woman and child?

Why will woman-killing in Sweden turn into Kurdish macho culture when a Kurd kills his daughter, but not turn into Swedish macho culture when a native-born Swede is the perpetrator?

I will indicate some answers/objections:

a) The Kurdish case could be seen as worse since it was a father killing his daughter (in Swedish public rhetoric men could be regarded as bad, but fathers are always good, as Maria Eriksson’s research (2001) on the good-enough father shows).

b) There was a strong pressure on the father to restore the honour of the family, that is, to kill the daughter/whore. Hence, it is a problem of culture, of explicit male bonding.

c) There are more killings in a patriarchal culture such as the Kurdish than in the Swedish – it is a question of numbers. More macho if more women are killed.

Swedish reactions are based on the presumption that there is a difference in kind between Kurdish so called ”honour killings” and the killing of Swedish women. The broadly sanctioned ideal is maintained: Sweden is a land of equality, and thus, Swedish men are better men (with some exceptions).

If we say difference in degree, the Kurds will come too close, it will be difficult to uphold the construction of the Other as patriarchal, our own culture may have to be discussed and deconstructed as masculine, too.

It is interesting to note how members of Fadime’s family construct the event. They maintain the view that the killing of Fadime was done by a lonely, odd and lost individual. Just the way men’s violence is officially defined in a Swedish context.

Male violence

There is universalism and there is the position of us against them. There is difference in degree and there is difference in kind. If we regard hegemonic masculinity as a matter of degree we cannot construct the Other in the same easy way. This does not mean, though, that there are no differences.

I will pinpoint that there are great differences in how hegemonic masculinity is expressed.

However, threatened masculinity, men’s right to have access to women and the questioning and denial of women’s freedom of action, is in my opinion what links between global terrorism and an individual man’s killing of ”his” woman.

The demand for chastity which lies behind honour killings is a severe threat to women’s integrity and agency, accepted by some and a horrible crime for others, legitimated by explicit ideology and religious beliefs. But women who are killed all over the world, by their partners, without explicit reference to cultural and religious values, are still victims of men’s believed demands and rights. Codified and regulated male violence is worse than disguised violence, but it is still violence.

What is universal is the “culture” of male violence; that factors such as men’s frustrations, the need to control and that threatened masculinity are ”permitted” to express themselves in violence on all levels: on personal, collective (explicit or implicit), national and global levels. This hegemonic masculinity is an underestimated global problem, with repercussions for women’s conditions, democracy and peace in the world.

By Maud Eduards


Brown, Wendy (1995) States of Injury – Power and Freedom in Late Modernity Princeton: Princeton University Press.

David, Catherine (2001), “Psychanalyse des fanatiques”, le Nouvel Observateur, 20-26 Décembre.

Eriksson, Maria & Hester, Marianne (2001). “Violent Men as Good-Enough Fathers? A Look at England and Sweden” in Violence Against Women, no 7, pp 779-798.

Galtung, Johan (2002). “September 11 2001: Diagnosis, Prognosis, Therapy”., January 29.

Jones, Kathleen (2002). “The events of 11 September and beyond”. International Feminist Journal of Politics, no 1, pp 95-113.

Kimmel, Michael (2002). “Gender, Class, and Terrorism”., February 8.

Margalit, Avishai & Buruma, Ian (2002). “Occidentalism”. New York Review of Books, January 17.

Pateman, Carole (1988). The Sexual Contract. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Runyan, Anne Sisson (2002). “The events of 11 September and beyond”. International Feminist Journal of Politics, no 1, pp 95-113.

Sreberny, Annabelle (2002). “The events of 11 September and beyond”. International Feminist Journal of Politics, no 1, pp 95-113.

Steans, Jill (1998). Gender and International Relations – An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Svenska Dagbladet, 27 september 2002.

Tickner, Ann J (1992). Gender in International Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Yuval-Davis, Nira (2002). “The events of 11 September and beyond”. International Feminist Journal of Politics, no 1, pp 95-113.

This article is a revised version of a plenary lecture given at the conference “Alva Myrdal’s Questions to Our Time” March 6-8, 2002 at Uppsala University, Uppsala Sweden

First published in NIKK magasin 3 2002 © NIKK

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