A Feminist Analysis of Nuclear Weapons: Part 2 - Hegemonic Masculinity in Oriental Narratives

Feminist Analysis of Nuclear Weapons Masculinity Orientalism Feminist Foreign Policy

Nuclear weapons represent more than just weaponry in international discourse; they are a symbolic pawn in a game of global politics.  They imbue national identity with modernity, symbolically separating the ‘advanced’ nuclear-possessing nations from non-possessor nations. Through a gendered and orientalist Western discourse, the latter is deemed antediluvian.  Such discourse relies heavily on a global hierarchy influenced by the objectification and sexualization of nuclear weapons.  A certain hegemonic masculinity is prescribed and encouraged to constitute and justify the United State’s ‘rightful’ place as a rational, responsible global protector.  With the application of feminist theory, both US identity and narratives can be complicated through the contextualization of nuclear policy.  

The idea of gender itself is a social construct and something that is relational.  It maintains a hierarchy proving oppressive to all, ultimately pointing to a need for transformation.  This series will notice the way in which gendered thinking, language, and metaphors are used in nuclear policy development, and how society values these traits.  This is an attempt to make gender visible in international politics, and examine how it affects systemic inequality.

Anne Tickner notes that most feminists who look at “global politics share a normative and empirical concern that the international arena is gender hierarchical, and that this gender hierarchy is reflected and reproduced in IR.”  Normatively, the concern is that this hierarchy is unjust and must be changed.  Empirically, any political (IR and security) theory that doesn’t address this hierarchy is incomplete and restricts the range of imaginable policy options.  Ultimately, a gender lens is necessary to better understand global politics, see reality more clearly, and promote beneficial systemic changes.

This series’ investigation corresponds to the normative goal of bridging feminist theory with political theories in order to reveal gendered hierarchies and see how they affect policy and politics.  This moves the idea of global security beyond a widely understood promise of protection from physical violence and towards a security which attempts to understand the hidden political structures that privilege a narrow idea of security.


Part 2: Hegemonic Masculinity in Oriental Narratives

The encouragement of a “dominate or be dominated” mentality within security discourse justifies forcible action to disarm other nations.

The narratives of Western nonproliferation generally draw a distinction between the responsible Self and the volatile non-Western Other. The US specifically has a tendency to rely on gendered terminology to reinforce its imagery and identity, and self-purports to be sensible, powerful, logical, and heroic.  It can often construct itself as a masculine protector, one who only seeks to act out a responsibility to care for, or control, the unpredictable, emotional, and irrational “other” non-nuclear country.  In this way the US is painted as a ‘good guy’ who is only looking out for the well-being of not just whichever country they may be developing policy with - most recently with Iran in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iranian Nuclear Deal - but for the rest of the world as well.  

The encouragement of a “dominate or be dominated” mentality within security discourse justifies forcible action to disarm other nations, while at the same time the US defense community continues to develop existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons to reinforce their position in the global order as one which is naturally occurring.  The Nonproliferation Treaty’s authorization of a select few nuclear-weapon states has also played a crucial role in the process of Western othering.  It has become a globally revered “legal anchor for a global nuclear regime that is increasingly legitimated in Western public discourse in gendered and racialized terms.”  It is now widely accepted as ‘common knowledge’ in the West that the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in the Middle East, would be exceptionally dangerous.

The ‘Other’

The dominant discourse that grounds this system of, what some would call, a nuclear apartheid within Western imagination fits within a wider system of postcolonial oppression which still works to separate the West from the Other.  It also works to naturalize several aspects of inequality within the nuclear hierarchy, as the ownership of nuclear weapons in some countries and absence in others is marked as reasonable and logical.  Any attempt from non-possessor countries to gain access to nuclear weapons is problematized without much thought.  This discourse also works to construct the security and safety needs of possessor countries as the needs of all countries.  A dynamic is created in which some countries assume authority to speak for all, and the monopoly of nuclear weapons by a select few countries is authenticated.  Any connections of inequality within the nuclear hierarchy and the systemic inequality of the global hierarchy are erased due to this sanctioned line of logic.

In this way, a gendered orientalist narrative can be traced throughout nonproliferation philosophies and is found embedded within US national security discourse.  Edward Said defines orientalism as discourse which constructs the world in a series of binaries, producing the Orient as a mirror opposite of the West.  This theory is reflected in the way the US constructs itself as disciplined and reliable while stories about Iran, in reaction to the JCPOA, label their uncivilized ‘barbarianism’ as something which allows passion to run free from reason, making them unreasonably dangerous.  

Allowing other nations membership in the nuclear club would challenge the custodianship of not just an ultimate force of destruction but by extension the right to global supremacy.

The process of othering does not work solely as an isolated method in constructing an image of Iran but simultaneously works to produce the US in a certain light.  The narratives and imagery within nonproliferation discourse which recurrently paint Iran as a criminal nation, in fact, reveal deeply embedded fears within the US, such as a loss of power or perceived lack of control.  Allowing other nations membership in the nuclear club would challenge the custodianship of not just an ultimate force of destruction but by extension the right to global supremacy.  With a careful eye, these fears can be read in how US rhetoric constructs Iran and Iran’s vie for nuclear weapons. This process of othering Iran marks the country as opposite of the US, imagined without masculine, or ‘valued’, descriptors. The fear of Iran’s weapon acquisition is often credited to “passions escaping control”.  Generally, Western discourse has constructed passion and instinctual emotions as feminine or animalistic, which are therefore implicitly set in contrast with masculine valued rationality.  Thus a distinction is drawn between the masculinized, commanding West and proliferation-ambitious nations who are othered, feminized, and subjugated.  While the US has “vital interests” or “legitimate security needs”, Iran has irrational, fervent yearnings for nuclear weapons, and as such, must be controlled by the more ‘responsible’ US.  Those who study Iran, however, are quick to note that government members do indeed seek out ‘rational’ decisions, made by weighing risks and opportunities.  But while rational, it is noted that Iranian officials see little need to build long-term trust or pacify other country’s security concerns.  This type of decision making and policy crafting, due to its divergence from Western security and political thinking, makes the US government nervous, leading to a reliance upon and emphasis of generalized and othered descriptions and constructions of Iran, rather than contextual understandings of their needs and wants.  

Gendered hierarchies paired with hyper-masculine language are used to support this global pecking order, reinforcing the idea that Iran has a ‘proper place’.

The imagining of nations on the verge of nuclear proliferation as feminized criminals so too constructs the relationship between the US and Iran within a hierarchical ranking of dominance, keeping the US on top and in the masculinized controlling protector position.  Gendered hierarchies paired with hyper-masculine language are used to support this global pecking order, reinforcing the idea that Iran has a ‘proper place’.  The justification of such subjugation is condescendingly conveyed by US reactions to Iran’s initial uranium enrichment.  Ultimately, these deeply embedded orientalist expectations and beliefs locate and sanctify the global hierarchy with a stereotypically masculine motivation to dominate.

This is not to argue that Iran, nor any country, should be allowed unbridaled access to nuclear weapons.  However, it is of utmost importance to critique the often unchecked reign of possessor nations in their effort to thwart nuclear activity of non-possessor nations.  That same scrutiny of nuclear ambition should likewise be applied to the US and the four other possessor nations originally granted nuclear power by the NPT.  So long as international and institutional power goes unchecked, and gendered constructs remain driving factors in crafting policy, systemic inequality can never be rectified.


Marissa Conway is the Founding Director of FFP.  Follow her on Twitter: @marissakconway