Gargi Bhattacharyya, Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the War on Terror. Zed Books, 2008. 170 pp.

The gendered tropes of war narratives have been reconfigured in the context of the ‘war on terror’ in ways that have deeply troubled Western and transnational feminisms. This has given rise to a burgeoning debate within feminist scholarship to which Bhattacharyya’s monograph contributes. She brings new insights to the challenge of theorising the cultural processes through which cosmopolitanist discourses promoting democracy, and the rights of women and sexual minorities, have been mobilized to legitimate de-humanizing, racializing and imperialist practices of violence.

Much feminist critique of the ‘war on terror’ stems from the margins of international relations. In contrast, Dangerous Brown Men brings the methodological perspective of cultural and media studies to bear on this theme. The book’s strength is that it goes further than critiquing the architects of the ‘war on terror’ for their distortion of feminism, or demonstrating the ways in which this conflict resurrects ‘traditional’ gender norms in spite of its appeal to women’s rights. Bhattacharyya provides an insightful and nuanced analysis of how the ‘war on terror’ functions as a cultural project, through the circulation of images and narratives distributed by multiple, globalized forms of media. She argues that this cultural project constructs a “global public” (p. 3; 142), in whose name the ‘war’ is waged, through the invocation to defend “‘our’ way of life” (p. 2) by all necessary means – including the circumventing of international law and displays of sexual torture. She raises challenging questions about how we – the publics whom this cultural project seeks to claim as its own – are positioned in relation to the unfolding drama of this racialized, sexualized ‘war’, and the forms of complicity that our inescapable status as “spectators” (p.17) confers.

This book is also distinguished by its intersectional approach. Bhattacharyya elucidates the ways in which gender, sexuality and race are mutually constitutive in the cultural configurations and processes of the ‘war on terror’. Her analysis demonstrates how this conflict instigates a resurrection of state racism even as it explicitly disavows the term. This is achieved through a culturalist logic which implicitly justifies differential treatment as necessary to root out and eradicate dangerous “differences of values, beliefs and ways of life,” (p.102) reified in the highly sexualized figure of the “dangerous brown man” (p. 104).

The racialized boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this discursive economy are staked out, inter alia, through the referencing of gendered embodiment – “free and unfree femininity and barbaric and civilized masculinity” (p.73). The cultural articulation of the ‘war on terror’ constructs sexuality and a particular understanding of sexual freedom – including women’s freedom of movement and the display of female bodies – as emblematic of the cosmopolitan freedoms and values that ‘we’ in the ‘West’ hold dear. The demonization of Islam and Muslim men is thus linked to the sexual repression imagined as characterizing an essentialized ‘Muslim culture’ elided with barbarity and extremism, and constructed as giving rise to an explosively lethal form of masculinity.

The author analyses diverse and disparate sources, including academic texts, official policy statements, witness statements, NGO reports, news reports, and videos and images circulating on a range of Internet sites. This variety of material allows Bhattacharyya scope to move beyond the frequently cited, high profile policy statements of the most visible engineers of the ‘war on terror’, adding breadth and depth to her analysis of its far-reaching material and discursive effects. On the other hand, it raises the problem that the boundaries of the cultural project which the book seeks to both illuminate and dissect are never clearly located or defined. Such boundaries are by definition fluid and porous, but the way in which the author negotiates them in the conduct of the research is not made fully transparent. It is not always clear how the cultural artefacts under study are positioned in relation to the ‘war on terror’. The book would benefit from a fuller explanation of the methodology deployed, and particularly of how texts were identified and selected for analysis.

This omission contributes to the sense that the coherence of the ‘war on terror’ as a cultural project is at times overplayed in the pursuit of the book’s thesis. Bhattacharyya constructs her argument in such a way as to minimise the fragmented and multiple character of this project which permeates public consciousness through such a nebulous network of channels. The corollary of this is that the agency and heterogeneity of the spectators who consume its knowledges are underplayed, as the text tends to imply that we are passively drawn into the ideal public sphere constructed by the ‘war on terror’, and frozen into complicity with little recourse to resistance or critique.

However, a discussion of the consuming public’s engagement with these discourses is not the project of this book, which remains an excellent, rigorously executed and indispensable contribution to critical feminist analysis of the ‘war on terror’ and contemporary imperialist violence. Dangerous Brown Men will appeal to scholars and students of feminist theory and critical race studies in the fields of social sciences and cultural analysis. The book would make a highly relevant contemporary addition to undergraduate and postgraduate level courses in the fields of international relations, the sociology of gender, sexuality and race, and media and cultural studies.

Natasha Marhia, Gender Institute, LSE

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