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Well, What is the Feminist Perspective on Iraq?psr_278 385..

Laura McLeod
University of Manchester
The three volumes reviewed in this article offer a range of feminist explorations of the Iraq War. Through their
gendered lenses, I argue that these books offer alternative ways of thinking about experiences, daily life and
temporalities in war and post-war contexts. The books reviewed here can be loosely described as emphasising a
standpoint feminist perspective, highlighting how gendered processes, practices, myths, images and expectations shape
the day-to-day lives of men and women concerned with the Iraq War in both Iraq and the US. These insights can
offer a challenge to the construction and reinforcement of the temporal division crafted between war and peace,
making us think again about how we conceptualise violence in international politics.
Al-Ali, N. and Pratt, N. (eds) (2009) Women and War in the Middle East:Transnational Perspectives. London: Zed Books.
Eisenstein, Z. (2007) Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy. London: Zed Books.
Enloe, C. (2010) Nimos War, Emmas War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War. Berkeley CA: University of California
Keywords: feminist; war; post-conict; daily lives; temporality
Understanding the intricate and messy connections between gender and war is difcult.
Women and men play a myriad of roles in war, warfare, conict and post-conict
situations, as indicated by a very diverse range of works within (broadly speaking) feminist
and gendered international relations scholarship. However, there is an assumption that
there is a specic and particular feminist perspective to be offered about war, an assumption
investigated by Marysia Zalewski in her 1995 article Well, What is the Feminist Perspec-
tive on Bosnia? Zalewski (1995, p. 355) highlights that there is an easy and a difcult
answer to such a question. Initially, it appears that feminist works focus on how women
are affected by war, but this immediately opens up questions about how illusions, myths
and beliefs about gender function to tell us new stories about international politics
(Zalewski, 1995, pp. 3556). So what is the feminist perspective on Iraq? The three books
under review here are manifestly about how women have been affected by the wars in
Iraq. But they all offer so much more than that. By exploring the gender dynamics behind
the events, processes and practices related to the Iraq War, the books reviewed here offer
an alternative insight into the functioning of international politics, and how we tell stories
about war.
The rst book reviewed is Cynthia Enloes Nimos War, Emmas War: Making Feminist
Sense of the Iraq War (2010), which focuses on the experiences of eight women who have
been affected by the processes of militarisation and war in Iraq. By taking a long-term
view of the lives of four women in the US and four women in Iraq, Enloe aims to notice
nuances between various moments of war (p. 6). While Enloe explores the Iraq War
through the eyes of these eight women, the second book reviewed, Zillah Eisensteins
Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy (2007) offers a provocative
investigation of howparticular moments of war and militarism continue to transform and
doi: 10.1111/j.1478-9302.2012.00278.x
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recongure the meaning of gender along with its relationship to the sexed and raced
body (p. xii). Eisenstein develops a complex and sophisticated critique of gender politics
in the United States, making connections to the Iraq War. The nal book reviewed in this
article is a collection of insightful essays edited by Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt in
Women and War in the Middle East (2009).
This edited collection is rich in empirical
material and many authors have drawn upon eld research in the region to support their
chapters. The seven essays in this highly focused volume undertake a critical examination
of the relationship between gender and transnationalism in the context of war, peace
building and post-war reconstruction in the Middle East through exploring conicts in
both Iraq and Palestine. In this article, the essays on Palestine will be left untouched as my
focus is on Iraq but the chapters about Palestine are rich and well worth reading.
Asking well, what is the feminist perspective on Iraq? presumes that there is a
particular knowledge or methodology that counts as feminist.The notion that there might
be a specically feminist knowledge has been a subject of some debate (see the essays in
Ackerly et al., 2006, pp. 188). The question also implies that there is a clear and denable
feminist insight that can be offered. As Zalewski among others has pointed out, there
is a plurality of feminisms and perspectives about gender, and these positions are not
necessarily mutually exclusive (Zalewski, 1995, pp. 3402). The three texts reviewed here
can be described as having been inuenced by standpoint feminist perspectives (Hansen,
2010, pp. 213). Standpoint feminists have an explicitly critical understanding of the state
as a set of patriarchal structures that enhance and silence the structural disadvantages that
women face. To investigate one way that a feminist scholar might seek to explain and
understand the effects of war in Iraq, I will rst examine how a standpoint feminist
exploration of daily life and experience reveals a number of surprising insights about the
practices and processes of international politics. Attention will then turn to questions
about the various senses of temporality embedded in these texts, focusing on the feminist
perception that wars dont just end (Enloe, 1993, p. 2), opening a way for reection on
the direction of future research related to war, conict and post-conict reconstruction.
Gender, Experience and Daily Life
Feminist international relations frequently reassert the popular feminist insight that the
personal is political (and vice versa).This perception stresses that the practices and processes
that we understand as everyday are infused with power and can be highly political.These
daily practices are not the neutral and natural practices that we presume they are, and so
these practices deserve to have careful attention paid to them. As Lene Hansen (2010, p.
21) points out, standpoint feminists argue that paying attention to how real living women
are impacted by economic and security structures within and across state boundaries
reveals the effects of the patriarchal state. It is the claim to focus on the daily life of
women that frequently marks standpoint feminist works epistemologically and ontologi-
cally apart from other research on war and conict. In various ways, the three texts
reviewed here draw upon stories about daily life to shape our understanding of how
gender relations are product and productive of the processes and practices of the Iraq War
and US foreign policy in relation to Iraq. Signicantly, exploring these experiences reveals
the interlocking relationships between gender and militarism.
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Enloe has been adept at revealing the complexity of womens lives for over twenty
years. In Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Enloe,
1989) she investigated a number of roles that women have in international politics,
looking at diplomatic wives, women working in sneaker factories and as prostitutes on
military bases, to show how the very ways in which they lived their lives affected, and was
affected by, the structures of the international system. Enloe is known for her engaging
exploration of womens lives an exploration that reveals many surprising insights. For
Enloe, noticing the unseen is hard work and requires us continually to question mascu-
linised cultures and patriarchal structures (Enloe, 2010, pp. 1013). Of critical importance
to noticing the unseen is to hone in on the apparently normal practices that occur every
Her latest book on Iraq is no exception. Enloe tells the story of four women in the US
and four women in Iraq to show how the Iraq War has affected their lives. She uses the
stories of these women as a starting point for discussion of the wider context in Iraq and
the US. For instance, in chapter 2, we meet Nimo, who runs a beauty salon in Baghdads
Green Zone an area with a strong international presence. Nimos story is used to
develop a sophisticated argument about the gender dynamics of unemployment in Iraq,
and the ways that the US occupation has affected the work carried out by women. Enloe
highlights how the war in Iraq has resulted in unreliable electricity and water supplies,
increasing the household workload of women. The war has also meant increased sectarian
violence, making walking to and from work more insecure for women. Both of these
factors among others contribute to increased unemployment for Iraqi women. What
is striking is how Enloe returns to Nimo and her customers throughout the chapter as she
explores the gender dynamics of Iraqs wartime economy. An anecdote about a pedicure
cut short by a prolonged blackout is the starting point for a discussion about the gendered
signicance of electricity and water shortages.The focus on Nimos life renders the effects
of war on the Iraqi economy more personal and demonstrates how the personal is
political, and vice versa.
Nimos story was initially a newspaper report in the NewYork Times. Enloes insistence
on using information available in the public domain is inspired by a belief that any
attentive person could acquire an understanding of this war that ows from taking
seriously womens lives (Enloe, 2010, p. 11). In other words, Enloes book can act as a
guide to thinking about various snippets of news, a way of encouraging us to reect on
the political in apparently non-political spaces; helping us make feminist sense of the Iraq
War. Hence, her focus on Nimos beauty salon an apparently private space is revealing
of what becomes more intensely politicized in the course of any war: for instance, the
further politicization of womens paid work, standards of feminized respectability, and
masculinised fears of national degeneracy (p. 43). Rethinking our assumptions about what
is personal and what is political is important to Enloe, who suggests that paying attention
to these personal stories enables us to rethink what security and insecurity might mean
(p. 43).
However, in thinking about the lives of women, we must not essentialise their expe-
riences. As Enloe argues, this means conducting a more energetic kind of analysis, one
that does not refer lazily to families, children, parents, militias, political candi-
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dates ... and any other labels that we might use, as they fail to account for understanding
how masculinities and femininities critically shape the actions, worries, goals and inu-
ence of each (pp. 2178). The crux of her point here is that by thinking about the very
practices of daily life, we can (and must) avoid essentialising the complexity of human life;
indeed, we should embrace the complexity of Nimo, Maha, Emma or the lives of the
other women that Enloe looks at. It is this very complexity the refusal to slip into
shorthand that allows us to see the impacts of gender on the practice and process of
international politics. By urging us to pay attention to the epistemology of daily life,
Enloe is urging all of us to think critically, to notice practices that are normally not
considered signicant and to take extra care not to slip into easy categories. For Enloe,
this kind of thinking pays dividends as we begin to notice ways in which war affects the
practice and processes of international politics, shaping, and shaped by, gender.
The ramications of international and transnational processes for the day-to-day lives
of women and men in Iraq and Palestine are highlighted by contributors to Nadje Al-Ali
and Nicola Pratts edited volume Women and War in the Middle East. The collection aims
to consider critically the relationship between gender and transnationalism in war and
conict. Contributors investigate a host of concerns, including international processes of
gender mainstreaming, external donors, diaspora mobilisation and feminist organisations
to illustrate the effects of transnational interventions like neo-liberal post-conict recon-
struction projects. These transnational interventions have ultimately meant increasing
inequality with regard to gender roles and relations (Al-Ali and Pratt, 2009, p. 254). For
contributors to this volume, a feminist perspective about conict goes beyond adding
women: contributors insist upon the necessity of gender[ing] our perspectives and
approaches to include power relationships and structures as well as shifting notions of
masculinity and femininity (p. 4). For an edited collection, this volume is remarkably
coherent in paying attention to the connections between transnationalism and gender,
connections that reveal the impacts of these processes upon the day-to-day lives of men
and women in Iraq.
For instance, the chapter by Spike Peterson looks at the gendered nature of informal
economies in Iraq. Petersons aim is to undertake a critical reappraisal of the Iraqi
economy through a focus on gender. Her interest is on the coping economies in which
Iraqis engage in order to ensure their everyday survival. These day-to-day coping econo-
mies include a range of informal economic activities, including casual street vending,
communal sharing and volunteer works. Peterson (2009, p. 35) points out that while it is
acknowledged that women do the majority of informal work, most analyses miss critical
insights that can be gained through a gendered understanding of coping economies. Her
gendered investigation reveals how high levels of systematic insecurity coupled with
gendered expectations and identities profoundly affect womens ability to participate in
the coping economies that have developed in post-invasion Iraq (Peterson, 2009, pp.
4452). Like Enloe, Peterson (2009, pp. 4851) describes how international and transna-
tional interventions have contributed to the growing insecurity of daily life in Iraq: from
the failure of the coalition forces to ensure the security of basic needs like safe water,
adequate electricity and reliable communications to the failure of the occupying forces
and government to provide security on the ground, meaning that sectarian violence has
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grown. The insecurity faced by Iraqis has been compounded for women as a result of
growing religious conservatism, shaping the autonomy, mobility, health and, ultimately, the
livelihoods of women, affecting their ability to participate in these coping economies
(Peterson, 2009, p. 51). Noticing the gendered dynamics of coping economies highlights
the intersections between the daily lives of people and international and transnational
Practices that occur on a daily basis are also a feature of the analysis in Zillah
Eisensteins Sexual Decoys. Eisenstein constructs the notion of sexual decoys to show how
gender, race and class intersect to support the war on terror, and in particular the war in
Iraq. From Condoleezza Rice to Lynndie England, women (and men) are used as decoys
for [an] imperial democracy (Eisenstein, 2007, p. 6) supporting US military intervention
in Iraq. Sexual decoys, she argues, are produced by the (re)crafting of our daily perfor-
mances of masculinity and femininity. Through a bodily representation of a woman, we
can adapt masculine or feminine characteristics that allow us to bend gender, enabling
females to become or be used as decoys for imperial democracy (p. 6). Without these
daily practices of masculinity and femininity, the gender structures that support the
violence of the Iraq War would not be possible. Indeed, for Eisenstein, Bushs war has
militarized womens rights rhetoric for authorising war (p. 123). Hence, violence such as
that at Abu Ghraib can be made to look like feminism, but not a feminism that
Eisenstein recognises: for her, Abu Ghraib is hyper-imperialist masculinity run amok.
Females are present to cover over the misogyny of building empire, while also actually
building it (p. 41).
Eisensteins bold argument suggests that US foreign policy has been supported by
gender decoys, where race and gender are interlocked in a complex relationship to
perform a radicalised (white) hetero-masculinity decoy regardless of actual colour or sex.
Condoleezza Rice, the United States Secretary of State 20059, is an example of a gender
decoy, where her black skin and female body operate to cloud and obfuscate us (p. 17).
For Eisenstein, Rice is a gender decoy used as a front for equality and to fool us that her
actions (like supporting war in Iraq) are acceptable, but the reality is that these women are
cannon fodder for the practices of imperial democracy (p. 42); their actions are not
feminist. However, as Eisenstein points out, these gender decoys do have agency: they can
refuse to participate in violence. These decoys are a constant reoccurrence in human
history, shifting and changing according to the context. But war makes these processes
more visible and contested (p. xii). Thus, the Bush administrations Iraq War campaign is
taken as a particular moment of war and part of a particular process of militarisation
which shifts and alters the way in which gender is inscribed upon the body. Eisensteins
argument utilises a logic which suggests that gender processes that shift and alter in
incremental ways on a daily basis subsequently support and shape the practices of
international politics.
Through paying attention to gender in thinking about the Iraq War, the three texts
reviewed reveal fresh insights about how war is experienced. Thinking about the different
ways in which the experiences of daily life shape the practices and processes of interna-
tional politics requires us to notice and question knowledge frequently taken for granted.
This point is reinforced by Christine Sylvester, who suggests that dening war in
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experiential terms requires considerably more research on the gender ghosts rattling
around dominant war narratives (Sylvester, 2010, p. 122). One way that we can tap into
the effects of daily life and experience is to explore how personal experiences can be
transformed into political understandings. For Enloe, a critical rethinking of our knowl-
edge and assumptions about what is considered important reveals the ways in which the
personal is political (and vice versa). Contributors to the Al-Ali and Pratt volume stress the
connection between transnationalism and gender to highlight how transnational inter-
ventions shape the daily lives of Iraqis. Eisenstein explores how daily practices of gender
behaviour shape assumptions that support the practices of international politics. All three
texts explore how the daily lives of women and men have been shaped by conict and
post-conict processes; yet they do more than that, as asking questions about women feeds
immediately into questions about how beliefs and myths about gender play an important
part in creating, maintaining and ending wars (Zalewski, 1995, pp. 3556).
Exploring the dynamics between gender and experience and the ways in which they
shape daily lives (often deemed to be unimportant) provides an insight into the practices
and processes of international politics. In all three books, this is evident in the conceptual
insight that these books offer to our understanding of militarism and how the process of
militarisation penetrates our lives. From looking at militarism as a transnational structure
(Al-Ali and Pratt), to focusing on the implications of militarism for the environment in
which we live (Eisenstein), to an examination of the functioning of our militarised
environment (Enloe), all three texts highlight the connections between militarism and
gendered practices that occur on a daily basis. Telling feminist stories about the Iraq War
sharpens our awareness of how daily practices are supported by profoundly political
Futures and Post-war Moments
Where now for feminist curiosity about the Iraq War? December 2011 saw the last
American troops leave Iraq, suggesting that Iraq is now in a post-war moment. Feminists
have long pointed out that the time often described as a post-war period can be
characterised by violence and insecurity, aptly described by Enloes insistence that wars
dont just end. They zzle and sputter; sometimes they reignite (Enloe, 1993, p. 2). What
does it mean to say that wars dont just end? In the books reviewed three particular
insights about how wars dont just end can be drawn out. First, even when a war is
apparently over, violence and insecurity continue. Second, the presence of international
forces and donors continues to shape patriarchal structures long after the conict is
deemed to have ended. Finally, the way in which war and conict are remembered affect
gender relations long after the conict has apparently ended. Problematising the apparent
divide between conict and post-conict moments raises questions about the connections
between temporality and gender in our (feminist) knowledge of the Iraq War.
The rst way that wars dont just end relates to a sense of uncertainty about when
violence might end. Al-Ali and Pratt had long stopped using the terms post-conict,
reconstruction, not to mention peace when considering Iraq, as the country is still
in the midst of acute conicts and extensive and interlinked violence on many levels
(Ali-Ali and Pratt, 2009, p. 253). This point is reinforced by Enloe, who presents the
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striking statistic that as compared to 2007, 40% [of Iraqi women] felt their security
situation was worsening in 2008 (Enloe, 2010, p. 219). This is despite the 2008 survey
taking place at the end of the US troop surge that was meant to halt and reduce the level
of violence in Iraq. In part, Enloe points out, this is because men and women have
different perceptions about security and insecurity. For Iraqi women, their sense of
insecurity is bound up with having no permanent housing for themselves and their
children, broken local water pipes that mix sewage with drinking water, detained and
kidnapped husbands and fathers whose fates remained uncertain, among a range of other
issues (Enloe, 2010, p. 220). Through a gender lens, different violences and insecurity can
be noticed, highlighting that wartime events and experiences have consequences that
reverberate long after a conict is said to be ofcially over.
The second reason that the Iraq War will not just end is because the presence of the
US and other countries will continue to shape patriarchal structures in Iraq. For instance,
a contribution by Shahrzad Mojab in the Al-Ali and Pratt volume suggests that wars have
a long-term impact on local actors, in part because of the political agenda set by foreign
inuences. Mojabs chapter, based upon eldwork carried out in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005,
reveals how the US government has donated/distributed funds in Kurdistan in a way that
perpetuates the divide between gender NGOs which have little feminist consciousness or
awareness of notions about patriarchy or connections with militarism, capitalism and the
more radical feminist movement. Washingtons support of non-feminist gender NGOs
subsequently shapes gender politics in the region, ensuring that US intervention in Iraqs
gender politics [is] on the basis of one of the most conservative anti-feminist agendas
(Mojab, 2009, p. 124). Mojabs research echoes many of Eisensteins arguments that
imperialist US power has conducted a pseudo-feminist agenda which has consolidated an
old and new form of patriarchy. Bushs claim that Iraqi women are better off as a result
of US invasion and occupation because the rape and torture chambers of Saddam are
closed is problematic because rape and torture of women continue in different ways
(Eisenstein, 2007, p. 125). Occupying powers tend to leave behind and perpetuate
patriarchal structures that shape gender relations long after the war is deemed to have
Finally, wars dont just end because a particular memory of certain wars remains
etched on our consciousness, shaping how we act in future wars. Eisenstein suggests that
imperial moments grab hold of memory and smother it, reminding us that Mothers
Day is marketed amidst the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with little remembrance of its
origin as a day of peace and to strike against war (Eisenstein, 2007, p. 106). In celebrating
the mothers of soldiers ghting in Iraq and Afghanistan, how Mothers Day is remem-
bered and thought about changes. Enloe also touches upon the importance of
memories in military recruitment through Emmas story. Emma is an American mother
living in San Antonio, Texas, where the military has had a strong presence since 1845,
when Americans fought Mexicans for control of the territory of Texas. Enloe highlights
how San Antonios military presence means that stories of past soldiers heroism [are]
tightly woven into the collective local memory, ensuring that military recruiters particu-
larly target San Antonio for enlisting soldiers to ght in the Iraq War (Enloe, 2010, p. 130).
How a war is remembered etches patriarchal structures that remain well into the future
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and this raises questions about how memories of the Iraq War will shape gender
structures and therefore the processes and practices of international politics.
Asking questions and problematising the boundaries of war and post-war is an impor-
tant epistemological project.This is not just because the lines between war and post-war
are rendered fuzzy through the continuation of violence, the way that occupying forces
develop and perpetuate patriarchal structures, and how memories of war replay into the
present and future. The gender lens alters our perception of a discrete war and post-war
moment, allowing us to see the connections between gender and temporality. How we
know and narrate time in relation to war has an effect upon our understanding of the
events and consequences of that particular war.This point is made by Enloe, who argues that
conventional narratives about Iraqs history position the 2003 invasion as the latest in a
series of major political events (Enloe, 2010, p. 101). The feminist alternative that Enloe
urges for is a temporal repositioning of the war as occurring at a distinctive point in the
ongoing history of Iraqi womens organizing to establish their rights within marriage and
the family (Enloe, 2010, p. 102). This reformulation enables us to grasp why the political
contest over Iraqs personal status laws became so erce in the middle of the Iraq War
(Enloe, 2010, p. 102). The point I wish to make here is that the way in which we narrate
a war, or perform a temporal incision between moments of war and post-war, shapes
interpretation and explanation about a war including Iraq. Furthermore, the gender lens
that pays attention to practices of daily lives can help us blur the boundaries between
moments of war and post-war, highlighting that wars dont just end.
Conclusions: International Involvement and Post-war Problems
As with most seminal events, Iraq has become an oft-used analogy and symbol
rather than just an event. What does Iraq mean however? Depending on who
you read, it is a diplomatic failure, an invasion, an occupation, a counter-
terrorism operation or an exercise in statebuilding (Hehir, 2009, p. 225).
Iraq may mean all of these things, or Iraq may mean none of these things. What the
three books reviewed here offer is a challenge to what we think is important to know and
understand about the Iraq War and international politics. Exploring beauty salons,
informal coping economies or the gendered constructions of the body can be important,
not only for the insight that these spaces can offer to our understanding of the practices
and processes of international politics, but also for challenging the divisions often drawn
between times of peace and times of war.
Highlighting the gendered images, myths, practices and processes that occur on a daily
basis shapes our understanding of the connections between war experiences and tempo-
rality, providing a different insight into our understanding of violence. These three books
make us ask hard questions about what it means to experience violence, and the ways in
which violence continues even in the apparently post-conict moment. The complexity
of violence has been a subject of much recent feminist attention (for instance, Shepherd,
2008; Sjoberg and Gentry, 2007), and the three texts reviewed here offer a contribution
to this understanding in different ways. From Mojabs (2009, p. 120) claim that US-led
post-war reconstruction projects reinforce structural conditions conducive to the (re)pro-
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duction of violence to Eisensteins incisive critique of the violent policies of the Bush
administration, there is a rich understanding of the connections between gender, war and
violence. From the (standpoint) feminist perspective, there is much to be gained from
focusing on the structures that shape the daily lives of women and the day-to-day practice
of gender, as this contributes to patterns of violence in the past, present and future.
Thinking about how wars dont just end alters the lens that we have and the way in
which we look at a war. However, these temporal questions have broader applications.
How the relationship between experiences of war and post-war contexts is understood,
and the insights that this rethinking of conventional temporal divisions offer, could well
be a pathway for future feminist (and non-feminist) research.
When exploring the (various) feminist perspectives about the Iraq War, one is struck by
the tapestry of perspectives that emerges, offering a multifaceted understanding of gender
and conict. The insights of feminist writings about war and peace remain as fresh, as
exciting and as relevant as ever, revealing surprising insights about war, conict and
post-conict contexts.
(Accepted: 18 April 2012)
About the Author
Laura McLeod works at the University of Manchester. She has researched and published on feminist organising,
interpretations of gender security and gendered transitional justice processes in Serbia. Her current work focuses on
post-conict institution building in South Africa, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Ireland and El Salvador. Laura
McLeod, Department of Politics, School of Social Science, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, UK;
Thanks to Marysia Zalewski for allowing me to borrow the title from her 1995 article Well, What is the Feminist Perspective on
Bosnia?, International Affairs 71 (2), 33956. I wish to thank Adrian M. Gallagher for his thoughtful comments on a draft. Any
mistakes are my own.
1 Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt are also the authors of another book about the Iraq War: What Kind of Liberation: Women and the
Occupation of Iraq (University of California Press, 2009).
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