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How the US ‘War on Terror’ Impacts Women and Sexual Minorities

(photo: Cover of new CHRGJ report on impact of US counter-terrorism policies on women, sexual minorities)

Calling attention to how the US government’s counter-terrorism measures impact women and sexual minorities (those in the LGBTI community), the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) has released a report that suggests the USG government cannot continue to claim it is taking a “holistic” approach to countering terrorism while at the same time failing to address how the so-called “war on terrorism” impacts women, men and sexual minorities differently.

The report explains what it would mean for the United States to take a “gender approach” to countering terrorism and why considering gender matters. It scrutinizes the US government’s emphasis on women in its national security policy. It analyzes six areas of US government counter-terrorism policy, illuminating how USAID development, militarism, anti-terrorism financing measures, intelligence and law enforcement measures and cooperation, border securitization, and diplomacy have impacted women and LGBTI people. And, it makes recommendations on how the US government can overcome this “challenge” and take into consideration impacts on gender in its policy.

For those doing the report, it appears whether the US “war on terrorism” is legitimate or whether the US “war on terrorism” should be continued is beyond the scope of the report. The report avoids looking at whether it is true that gender-focused counter-terror policies can combat terrorism. It makes note of the fact that the US government’s lack of a clear definition of terrorism has a great impact on women and sexual minorities. But, the report accepts that terrorism is a problem in the world and doesn’t suggest the US government, in the “war on terrorism,” has created more inhumanity and violence in the world that, perhaps, prior to the “war on terror,” did not exist.

Despite that, the report does a solid job of presenting the US government’s record on gender and counter-terrorism. Research collected through “stakeholder workshops” in the United States, Africa, Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—workshops that included citizens from regions impacted by counter-terrorism policies sharing their perspective—demonstrate many have deep concerns or outright doubt about the US government’s professed desire to address women’s rights, as it carries out a “war on terrorism.”  [cont’d.]

Jayne Huckerby, research director for CHRGJ, notes a key theme of the workshops were ways Islamophobia was “squeezing” women, meaning, as described in the report, in various instances US counter-terrorism policies have “empowered extremist groups,” “created more terrorism,” and embolden extremist narratives in their communities.”

Indeed, from Somalia to Pakistan to Afghanistan to Iraq, there are countless examples of how terrorists undermine the rights of women and sexual minorities and how the USG’s counter-terrorism response fails to protect and can make things worse. For example, in Somalia, Al-Shabaab—an entity the USG designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2008—recently increased its violation of women’s rights by imposing dress restrictions, instructing that women “cannot shake any male’s hands in public, travel on their own, sell anything or work in an office,” closing women’s organizations, and subjecting women to rape, forced marriage, and beheading. However, USG counter-terrorism actions have exacerbated rather than helped this situation. For example, Somali women report that the U.S.-supported invasion of Somalia in late 2006 squeezed women leaders between Al-Shabaab and the Transitional Federal Government, such that “it seems the United States, in its pursuit of the war on terror, unwittingly played a role in sending Mogadishu’s women back to an era they thought they had left behind forever.” Most recently, the USG’s significant cuts to humanitarian aid to Somalia (for fear it would be diverted to Al-Shabaab), has wreaked havoc on the humanitarian crisis there, with disproportionate impact on women and girls. Our Stakeholder Workshops also provided numerous examples of where terrorists may use the impacts of USG counter-terrorism to limit the rights of women in their communities. For example, according to a national security expert at our MENA Stakeholder Workshop, Al-Qaeda propaganda has stated that the USG’s drones in Yemen are taking photos of women, which could be used as an excuse to limit women’s movement outside the home.

The mentioning of Al-Shabaab is timely, when one considers how they The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill has been talking about how a recent story he wrote on the “CIA’s Secret Sites in Somalia” not only uncovered a “secret prison” being used by the CIA in Somalia but also how US counter-terrorism policy has strengthened the role of Al-Shabaab in a region where they used to have minimal strength.

The report raises the issue of “bartering,” which Huckerby explains is what happens when the US government enters into partnerships that are “good for counter-terrorism but bad for human rights.” For example, Huckerby notes the recent decision to engage the Taliban. “That’s something that really raises a question mark about the USG commitment to protect women’s rights worldwide,” Huckerby says.

Huckerby illuminates how securitization—the use of detention, deportations, etc—has created a wide impact on families, as they have been torn apart. And, under threat of deportation, women have grown afraid of reporting crimes.

Furthermore, it indicates a number of people in areas that have become embroiled in US counterterrorism operations doubt the US government when it suggests it is serious about addressing women’s rights, as it fights the “war on terrorism.” This is how the report outlines the concern some expressed at workshops:

For some of the Stakeholder Workshop participants, this concern was not so much about the idea that women’s empowerment is necessary to achieve security objectives, but more about how the Obama Administration’s focus on promoting gender equality relates to the Bush Administration’s invocation of women’s rights as a justification for invading Afghanistan, which compromised women’s rights there. To put it more starkly, there was concern about whether the USG’s current link between women and national security was genuine, followed by immediate questions about the extent to which the link was based on harmful stereotypes, such as gender inequality in Muslim communities. One Iraqi women’s rights advocate at our MENA Stakeholder Workshop reflects her frustration with the USG’s hollow emphasis on women’s rights as follows: “The United States’ propaganda of ‘saving nations from themselves’ is full of big titles but empty content like ‘women’s rights.’ The Bush Administration said they would free Iraqi women from the torture chambers and then they used the same torture chambers.” Participants at CHRGJ’s Stakeholder Workshops also identified other examples of how focusing on equality in the context of countering terrorism (either by the USG or its counter-terrorism partners) is not always benign and may distract from wholesale rights abuses. For example, several LGBTI groups argue that the portrayal of Israel as a gay-friendly nation diverts attention from its human rights abuses.

Participants in the workshops also expressed concern about “instrumentalization,” a worry that the “new emphasis on women and national security, women’s empowerment and women’s movements would be valued only to the extent that they could help achieve national security objectives.” They expressed a desire to see the US government work toward equality for women and sexual minorities in the world without being concerned about national security or power politics.

On this sentiment, Huckerby concludes that this shows people must understand the “US government’s current approach to terrorism does not occur in a vacuum.” Militarization, torture and detention have characterized the past ten years and, in order to achieve new ground on women’s rights, the Obama Administration has to understand the landscape inherited if they wish to make good on any promises on women’s rights. They also must understand that making good on promises requires more action rather than words.

This is all good, but those who are reading this report and considering recommendations should be cautious. The reforms proposed merely tinker around the edges. The report merely hints at the crisis of impunity that stems from this “war on terror,” which has created so much skepticism and disgust among citizens all over the world. None of the recommendations call for accountability.

There are people who should be investigated for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the Obama Administration (as Human Rights Watch called attention to last week with its report on torture) has shielded these officials from investigation and prosecution.

Nearly ten years after 9/11, should perpetuating the “war on terror” not be severely questioned? Is there not a better way to address the problem of terrorism in regions of the world? And, shouldn’t we be extra weary of letting Washington make propaganda out of the innocent, as Washington likes to do to advance illegal or illegitimate wars?


A debate should be had over whether the US can prosecute a “war on terror” without producing grave impacts on women and sexual minorities.

The report accepts that Washington aims to make the countries, which they are operating in, safer. It accepts that Washington genuinely wishes to democratize the regions where operations are taking place. However, one wonders if participants in the stakeholder workshops would think that was the case. It seems more likely that the Bush Administration and now the Obama Administration have goals and objectives that are based on US national interests and not the interests of women or sexual minorities this report seeks to protect.

Still, the people involved in putting this together have made a genuine attempt to call attention to how women and sexual minorities have been impacted. The pragmatism of the recommendations contained in the report may be worthy of debate but what should not be debated is the broad context of the report—how securitization, intelligence and law enforcement measures and anti-terror financing approaches have impacted women and sexual minorities. It is quite clear that these measures have contributed to what Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald might call a “climate of fear” and, therefore, the findings deserve the public’s attention.

To read the full report, go here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."