Nimo's War, Emma's War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War

Carrie Rentschler on an astute look at the price paid by Iraqi and US women in a time of conflict

August 26, 2010

Patriarchal states are very confused, and that's the good news!" So opened Cynthia Enloe's recent talk in Montreal about women's lives and the war in Iraq. I thrilled at her astute analysis of the patriarchal processes at work in Iraq's war zone and the story she told of war widow Maha Hashim, one of the eight women who are the subjects of Nimo's War, Emma's War.

Balancing excellent research and conceptual precision, Enloe's new work is a great addition to her oeuvre on women, militarism and consumer culture in international perspective. She debunks a host of gendered euphemisms and Orwellian zingers about the latest Iraq war and replaces them with some concrete and enlightening concepts favoured by UN analysts and feminist activists alike. Prostitution becomes "survival sex"; "ethnic cleansing" is shown to represent forms of violent displacement wrapped up in intensifying notions of manliness; and the overwhelmingly gender-differentiated reality of the country's "internally displaced persons" is revealed. Hashim, for example, is one of the 75-80 per cent of the world's 50 million refugee women with dependent children who are widowed; Baghdad, as many have observed, is a city of widows.

In incorporating biography, Nimo's War, Emma's War takes a slightly different tack from Enloe's other books. It focuses on women whose lives have been affected by the conflict, four in Iraq and four in the US. Drawing on the feminist truism that the personal is political, in each chapter she connects the story of one woman to the structural conditions that shape other women's lives in the war.

Not many of us can, or are willing to, work in war zones to do the first-person research a book such as this requires. Enloe is no exception. She did not do the interviews herself, but relied on journalists, mostly correspondents from The New York Times, whose assignments enabled them to cover these women's varied experiences of war. Some readers may be disappointed that Enloe did not speak to or interview the women on whose lives she has written - initially I was.

This reliance is instructive. In the context of the meltdown of the news industry and the shuttering of newspapers, it is also a dire warning. The very reporting upon which Enloe draws will become more and more difficult to do and support. To continue to do this kind of feminist analysis of war will require more support for good, investigative journalism within an increasingly militarised news industry.

The chapter on Nimo Din'Kha Skander, a beauty shop owner in the Karada neighbourhood of Baghdad, examines how the start of the war in March 2003 exacerbated the declining availability of women's paid employment outside the home that began with the imposition of UN sanctions in 1990. Political activist Shatha al-Musawi's story is part of an 80-year history of Iraqi women's political organising. Her chapter presents an alternative history of the Iraq war. And through the story of 13-year-old Safah Yunis Salem, a survivor of the 2005 Haditha massacre, Enloe shines a light on the specific ways that girls suffer during war. Among other things, girls tend to be fed less than boys and they are targeted for sexual assault and servitude to a great extent than boys. Gender-differentiated realities such as these become hidden in the de-gendered nomenclature of "war children".

The chapter on Charlene Cain, whose military enlistee son became the victim of a roadside bomb, illuminates how central trucking is to US military operations in Iraq. As Enloe shows, thinking about issues of transportation and the ways it structures the labour and counter-violence of war is significant to feminist analysis. In Cain's case, the US military's reliance on trucking in Iraq and the targeting of its vehicles by counter-insurgents would ultimately shape her own livelihood as she looked after her war-amputee son.

Defusing the power of de-gendered constructs and "magical thinking" about the Iraq war requires both curiosity and the capacity to be surprised: two things Enloe has warned that feminists too often lack. Perhaps we do. Nimo's War, Emma's War calls on feminist scholars to rediscover some of the comfortable and seemingly worn-out concepts we may have abandoned, and to listen more carefully to the descriptive language of activists and researchers.

Doing both will help us to think more clearly about the war in Iraq, and Enloe's biographical turn provides a compelling model for how to do so.

Nimo's War, Emma's War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War

By Cynthia Enloe

University of California Press

336pp, £41.95 and £16.95

ISBN 9780520260771 and 0788

Published 4 June 2010

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