Racialised Emasculation in the War in Terror

Politics Jul 12, 2023 10 min read

Written by Irfan Chowdhury

In this essay, I will explore how Arab and Muslim men were systematically subjected to abuse during the War on Terror, at the hands of US and British soldiers and the CIA, that aimed at destroying their sense of their own masculinity and feminising them. This is a form of abuse that has received scant attention in the literature around the War on Terror, and around gendered and sexual violence in general, despite the fact that it has deep roots in the historical subjugation of racialised peoples; as I shall illustrate by drawing parallels with the experiences of black men in the American South, under slavery and Jim Crow. The purpose of this discussion is not to override or undermine female victims of abuse, or male victims who do not adhere to the traditional gender norms that were weaponised against the male victims in the cases that I shall explore; on the contrary, it is to shed light on an under-discussed form of abuse whose victims have often been sidelined and silenced, to expand the scope of our understanding and create a more inclusive discussion in this regard.

Emasculation of racialised men is a historical technique of white supremacist domination and terrorism. In the American South under Jim Crow, black men were often castrated during lynchings. Robyn Wiegman has pointed out that “In the disciplinary fusion of castration with lynching, the mob severs the black male from the masculine” – literally taking away his manhood – and that because “the black male” was viewed “as mythically endowed rapist”, in the eyes of the mob, “the hypermasculinized rapist must "become” the feminine through ritualized castration”. Aline Helg notes that “the icon of the black rapist… singled out the alleged barbarism and animal sexuality of the entire male population of African descent”, and “aimed at denying all black men their manhood and their ability to be providers and voters”. Black men were predominantly targeted for lynchings; Helg states that “According to the scholarship, most victims [of lynching] were young black men in the cotton-producing rural areas”, and that black men had to be docile and submissive if they did not want to fall prey to this terrorism: “any black male who did not conform to the Sambo model of servility and contentment was perceived as a threat to white supremacy and could be lynched”. The system of Jim Crow stripped black men of their masculinity, thus destroying them physically, psychologically, and spiritually, as a method of subjugation.

The US pursued a similar strategy of subjugation through emasculation in the War on Terror. The official US Army report on Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where detainees were subjected to “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at the hands of US soldiers, documents how one torture technique was “Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear”, which one US soldier is quoted as saying “was to somehow break them down”. Likewise, the Schmidt-Furlow report on US Army abuses at Guantanamo Bay, written by the FBI, confirmed that a detainee “was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head during the course of the interrogation”. This is forced feminisation of male victims – making them wear women’s underwear – as a technique of humiliation and degradation. At both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, US soldiers forced detainees to engage in homosexual acts and/or otherwise associated them with homosexuality, to further break down their sense of their own masculinity, rooted in traditional Arab and Islamic norms. At Abu Ghraib, male detainees were photographed being forced to simulate oral sex with each other while naked and hooded, and were photographed piled on top of each other, also while naked and hooded. At Guantanamo Bay, the Schmidt-Furlow report confirmed that the same detainee who had been forced to wear women’s underwear “was told that he was a homosexual, had homosexual tendencies, and that other detainees had found out about these tendencies”, and that on another occasion, “an interrogator forced [the detainee] to dance with a male interrogator”. As per the Schmidt-Furlow report, these techniques “were done in an effort to establish complete control and create the perception of futility and reduce his resistance to interrogation”; i.e., to destroy his autonomy and will to resist.

British soldiers subjected Iraqi male detainees to similar forced associations with homosexuality as a means of humiliation. In the report of the official public inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa (an Iraqi civilian who was tortured to death by British soldiers), Sir William Gage wrote that “At one time or another, several of the Detainees have alleged that a soldier touched their nipples and taunted them for being a “dudacky” (Iraqi slang for a homosexual or paedophile)”. Gage concluded that with regards to these allegations of “episodes of sexual humiliation… I think it probable that the allegations of abusive conduct were genuine”. Gage also documented how the technique of ‘harshing’, whereby British soldiers screamed abuse at Iraqi detainees while standing very close to their faces, included “racist and homophobic language”. Justice Andrew Collins stated in the High Court that the purpose of harshing was for the detainee to “be taunted and goaded as an attack on his pride and ego and to make him feel insecure”, a practice which he ruled “unacceptable”.

British soldiers also forced naked Iraqi male detainees to simulate oral and anal sex with each other at Camp Breadbasket in 2003. Trophy photographs were taken of the abuse. The International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed that this treatment encompassed “the war crimes of other forms of sexual violence”, that it was “gender-based”, and that it “appears to have been inflicted with the specific intention to sexually humiliate the detainees concerned, in order to cause offence, distress, and shame” to the male victims. This was another case of Arab and Muslim men having their notions of traditional masculinity used against them in order to destroy their self-worth and humiliate them. The ICC confirmed that these acts of sexual violence “occurred in a coercive environment, in which the detainees experienced fear of violence, duress, and psychological oppression”, and furthermore that “these acts occurred in circumstances that negated the detainee’s ability to consent, and in some instances by force, when the detainee was restrained in a vulnerable position”. In one instance at Camp Breadbasket, an Iraqi male detainee was anally raped by two British soldiers. According to the ICC, the victim “complained that his anus bled for a week and that he suffered from panic attacks as a result of the incident”. The ICC further confirmed that this gang-rape was accompanied by acts of torture. This was a particularly extreme form of emasculation, but not isolated within the War on Terror.

The CIA subjected Muslim male detainees at black sites to ‘rectal feeding’, wherein food was pureed and violently inserted into detainees’ rectums, sometimes causing rectal prolapse. Sophia Gualkin argues that rectal feeding constituted rape, as the CIA used it to sadistically humiliate and terrorise detainees, documented in the 2015 US Senate report on CIA torture:

“Despite this failure to conform to the traditional view of rape, rectal feeding nevertheless presents an unambiguous case of rape as a sexualized act of enjoying and amplifying the detainee’s powerlessness and ascribed inferiority by defiling, degrading, and humiliating the detainee in addition to inflicting physical pain. There is clear evidence that rectal feedings were administered for these purposes: the Senate Torture Report revealed medical officers admitting to administering the procedure despite its acknowledged medical inefficiency, taking steps to make the procedure more painful, using it as a threat to intimidate and coerce other detainees, and employing it as a method of demonstrating “total control over the detainee”; released CSRT [Combatant Status Review Tribunal] transcripts [from Guantanamo Bay] showed detainee testimony of blatantly unnecessary, humiliating, and horrific rectal penetration under the pretense of necessary medical treatment”.

Gaulkin further observes that rectal feeding “is a tactic to degrade, humiliate, and emasculate detainees, while demonstrating and underscoring their powerlessness (gendered feminine) compared to the power (gendered masculine) of the interrogators”. She points out that “There is evidence that Muslim victims of sexual abuse feel especially “degraded in their manhood” because of their religious beliefs”, and so “U.S. personnel intentionally subjected detainees to sexual humiliation and abuse because of the heightened suffering it would inflict on Muslim men” (as demonstrated by the sexual violence carried out at CIA black sites, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere). In terms of rape in general, Gaulkin argues that “regardless of the biological sexes of the individuals involved”, rape “is an act of feminizing the victim and correspondingly masculinizing the perpetrator by exploiting or enjoying the powerlessness and ascribed inferiority of the victim”. This applies to the rape of the male detainee carried out by British soldiers at Camp Breadbasket, and the rapes of both male and female detainees carried out by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib. The official US Army report specifically confirms that one of the abuses at Abu Ghraib was “Sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick”, while the report’s author, Major-General Antonio Taguba, has confirmed that an unreleased photograph from Abu Ghraib depicts “a male translator raping a male detainee”. Likewise, a US Army investigation recorded how a Palestinian detainee held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan was raped with an object by US soldiers. He stated: “They forcibly rammed a stick up my rectum. It was excruciatingly painful... Only when the pain became overwhelming did I think I would ever scream. But I could not stop screaming when this happened”. Male rape was an established tactic in the War on Terror.

Again, there are parallels with the historical treatment of black men in the American South. Dedrick K. Perkins has written that “Male slave owners used sexual assault to dominate, dehumanize, and emasculate male slaves in American Antebellum South”, and that “The idea that a man must provide security, protection, and finances is generated by what society deems acceptable. Male slaves were stripped of this liberty all the while experiencing further emasculation through forcible sodomy”. Thomas A. Foster has similarly documented how “enslaved black men were sexually assaulted by both white men and white women”, and that “sexual assault of enslaved men took a wide variety of forms, including outright physical penetrative assault, forced reproduction, sexual coercion and manipulation, and psychic abuse”. This mirrors how Arab and Muslim men were subjected to sexual abuse by both male and female US soldiers in the War on Terror (which included female soldiers stripping detainees naked and making fun of the size of their penises), while there is evidence that Iraqi male detainees were repeatedly sexually assaulted by a female British interrogator at the British Army’s Shaibah detention centre, near Basra. There is a clear pattern here of racialised male victims being subjected to sexual abuse by both male and female perpetrators, as a way to emasculate them and destroy their psyches.

The abuse of racialised men by Western subjugators through emasculation and feminisation is a phenomenon that is extremely under-discussed in the existing literature. It is significant because it shines a light on how male victims are both degraded and silenced by having their traditional codes of masculinity coercively turned against them, thus leaving them with an enduring sense of brokenness and shame. Furthermore, the victims are specifically targeted on account of adhering – or being perceived to adhere – to these traditional gender norms, thus making them vulnerable to having these norms shattered as a form of abuse. This exposes how traditionally masculine, heterosexual, cisgender men can be vulnerable to abuse that deliberately attacks these aspects of their identity, which happened systematically throughout the War on Terror. Again, this is not to take anything away from victims of abuse who do not share these characteristics; rather, it is to broaden our understanding of how abuse can take place and who can constitute a victim of abuse, so that all victims receive recognition and the help that they need. Furthermore, recognising that men can be subjected to abuse that undermines their traditionally masculine perception of themselves can help us to better understand why these notions of traditional masculinity may persist in the affected communities, due to a potential need among those who have suffered such trauma to overcompensate or cling more tightly to those aspects of their identity that they feel have been attacked. Perkins notes that anti-homosexual attitudes among African-American men may be explainable in this context. Therefore, this is a topic that deserves greater investigation and discussion; particularly as it has formed the basis for abuses carried out by the most powerful government in the world – the US government – and its allies in Britain and elsewhere, whose victims have received no justice.

Irfan Chowdhury is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on Western imperialism in the Middle East. He has been published in The Iranian, Mondoweiss, Peace News, Hastings In Focus, The Palestine Chronicle, Roar News and Bella Caledonia, and is now at Substack. His Twitter handle is @irfan_c98.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Iraq Now.


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