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A Feminist Analysis on Abu Ghraib Essay

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Updated: Jul 14th, 2021

Feminization of Male Prisoners and Public Torture

The photographs of tortures against Iraqi prisoners organized by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib shocked the public and provoked debates regarding the nature of demonstrated barbarity. According to researchers and experts, soldiers made prisoners stand on a box and hold electrodes to prevent any movement, wear women’s panties on their heads, walk naked wearing hoods, or walk on a leash.[1]

Some of these tortures can be discussed from the perspective of feminization as an approach to dehumanizing prisoners and depriving them of their masculinity. Thus, it is important to discuss these acts of cruelty from two important theoretical perspectives: Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist approach and Michel Foucault’s views on punishment and panopticism.

The issue of gender received much attention in the discussion of the situation at Abu Ghraib by researchers, and the role of changing prisoners’ gender roles as a punishment should be discussed from Beauvoir’s perspective. According to the theorist, men and women are traditionally perceived differently because males are associated with power and authority, and females can be referred to as “Other.” [2]

This difference in views is imposed by social and historical conditions, and it is expected in a society that women and men play rather opposite gender roles.[3] The nakedness of Iraqi prisoners, the sexualized nature of torture, the use of women’s underpants was utilized for abusing males with the help of gender manipulation that can be discussed as a specific type of punishment. Moreover, these tortures were intended to become public with the help of demonstrations at Abu Ghraib and taking photographs that accentuated the loss of prisoners’ masculine power.[4]

According to Foucault’s views, public torture is an effective means of control and demonstrating supremacy that is often used in prison.[5] In the case of Abu Ghraib, public torture became the tool for feminization and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners.

Certain punitive methods and the apparatus of power can form individuals’ behaviors and control their actions through supervision, punishment, and tension. Following the assumptions of Foucault, social institutions such as prisons are considered as punitive, repressive bodies that suppress human freedom and free will.[6]

Both control and punishment at Abu Ghraib were used in the form of correction, leading to the transformation of individuals to suppress their will. In the case of Abu Ghraib, torture and control explained by Foucault’s theory of panopticism were realized through gendered violence. Thus, “the photographs of the Iraqi men … are clear evidence of their captors’ attempts to humiliate and feminize them,” and “much effort seems to have been made to impose gender excess on the prisoners.” [7]

These attempts can also be discussed from the perspective of Beauvoir, who states that men are traditionally defined as humans without accentuating their gender.[8] In this context, men are discussed in society, especially the Middle Eastern one, as “the bearers of a body-transcendent universal personhood.” [9] Consequently, any torture at Abu Ghraib involving the sexual context or feminization can be viewed as extremely abusive for Iraqi prisoners.

Women in Torturing Prisoners

One more important aspect to discuss is the role of women in humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. According to the evidence, Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman, and Megan Ambuhl were involved in torturing prisoners, and researchers concentrated on discussing their actions in the context of feminism.[10] The public’s attention is drawn to these females because their actions do not correlate with traditional female roles, and researchers speak about the absence of femininity.[11] According to Beauvoir, the aspects of the female identity and the position of a woman in history were clearly specified, as well as the features of interpersonal relations between men and women.[12]

In the case of Abu Ghraib, women are considered as persons who differ from males in their behaviors; therefore, the effect of viewing cruel women is so striking. However, while focusing on female soldiers’ actions and tortures as similar to male soldiers’ ones, it is possible to speak about a kind of equality in the context of the military forces. Following Foucault, it is important to state that Abu Ghraib is a critical security apparatus, and it is not significant who maintains control there.[13]

The media representation of the torture at Abu Ghraib shows much attention to women, while the actions of male soldiers are discussed with lesser criticism. The photographs of England and Harman, which present their appearance as androgynous, are discussed by researchers in the context of acquiring masculine features by women.[14] According to Puar, the image of England leading a prison on a leash is “about the victories of liberal feminists, who argue that women should have equal opportunities within the military.” [15] It is also about “the failures adequately to theorize power and gender beyond female-male dichotomies.” [16]

Female soldiers are perceived as masculine women who trouble their femininity because of their unusual actions. However, it is still impossible to state that, by their actions and behaviors, England, Harman, and Ambuhl proclaim the equality of genders, the necessity of which was accentuated by Beauvoir in her work.[17] Instead, researchers state that female soldiers chose to transform their femininity in order to address the realities of the military forces.[18] This shift from femininity to masculinity in female soldiers’ actions provokes questions though it is expected that women in the military behave like men.

There is also one more aspect discussed in gender studies that need to be mentioned in this review of literature on the topic. Initially, proponents of feminist ideals expressed the opinion that increasing the presence of women in power structures and the military could positively change the forces in terms of decreasing cases of violence and aggression. Thus, according to Ehrenreich, “a certain kind of feminism, … a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib.” [19]

From this perspective, the environment of a prison can be viewed as the place where women do not play equal roles with men, as was desired by Beauvoir and other feminist theorists.[20] On the contrary, in the military forces, females tend to follow masculine roles following socially acceptable patterns and widely spread the public’s expectations.

From this particular perspective, prison should be discussed as the place where females need to hide their femininity in order to make their genderless visible, similarly to “the lack of male gender visibility.” [21] Thus, the military culture is based on creating an environment where the aspect of gender is not accentuated, and the focus is on discipline and punishment to secure society, according to Foucault’s views.[22]

Still, the lack of accentuating gender and the vision of males as universal humans is also associated with the situation when weaknesses and tortures are discussed with a focus on femininity. As a result, female soldiers are expected not to demonstrate their gender-related characteristics, and feminization becomes a particular type of torture. Therefore, the existing literature on the torture at Abu Ghraib is much devoted to analyzing female soldiers’ behaviors from feminist perspectives in order to explain why England and Harman demonstrated cruelty typical of males. On the one hand, women acted equally to men without referring to gender, but on the other hand, the public attention was drawn mainly to women’s behaviors because of shifts in gender roles.

The Impact of Torture on Iraqi Society

It is also important to consider the effects of torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib on Iraqi society. In the context of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the demonstrated cruelty could be used as an instrument of intimidation and pressure on residents of the occupied territories. From this perspective, American soldiers used the means that were perceived as most abusive in the Muslim society of Iraq: humiliation associated with sexual relations and nakedness.[23] Thus, according to Madhi Bray, the director of the Muslim American Society, “being seen naked is a tremendous taboo and a tremendous humiliation in Muslim culture.” [24]

Therefore, the choice of torture, as well as taking photographs, could be associated with American soldiers’ intention to demonstrate their actions and to abuse or frighten the Muslim community. From this perspective, according to Foucault’s ideas, soldiers intended to use public torture in order to humiliate Iraqi prisoners with a focus on religious and cultural aspects.[25] The reason is that sexual humiliation can be viewed as the most abusive form of torture for Iraqis, and the demonstration of this torture can have a significant negative effect on Muslim society.

One more aspect of paying attention to is the manipulation of the concept of masculinity as a tool for affecting Iraqi society. Tortures and feminization at Abu Ghraib can be discussed as directed toward violating Iraqi prisoners’ masculinity that can be viewed as the cruelest form of torture in Muslim culture. This aspect can also be explained with reference to Beauvoir’s views, who accepted the idea that men are inclined to see women as secondary in comparison to males.[26]

In the context of Iraqi society and their cultural visions, feminization is an extremely abusive form of punishment to break male prisoners’ will and accentuate their weakness. At Abu Ghraib, feminization was used to emphasize Iraqi prisoners’ submissive roles that are in contrast to the ideals of masculinity adopted in Muslim society.[27]

Consequently, the reaction of the U.S. and Iraqi public on the demonstrated photographs of torture and the scandal was the sympathy for humiliated prisoners because of understanding the cultural context and religious views of Muslims.

The review of the existing literature on the topic of the torture observed at Abu Ghraib demonstrates that most researchers have chosen to discuss the aspects of the problem from the perspective of feminist theories. In addition, they also discussed the case, referring to the views by Foucault on the systems of punishment and control adopted in society. The key subtopics examined in the literature on the case are the feminist approach to discussing the issue, the feminization of male prisoners as the form of torture, and the role of females in humiliating men. Researchers also discussed the problem with a focus on its possible impact on Iraqi society.


Benvenisti, Meron, Barbara Ehrenreich, Mark Danner, John Gray, Richard Grossinger, David Matlin, Charles Stein, David Levi Strauss, and Brooke Warner. Abu Ghraib: The Politics of Torture. New York: North Atlantic Books, 2004.

Caton, Steven C., and Bernardo Zack. “Abu Ghraib, the Security Apparatus, and the Performativity of Power.” American Ethnologist 37, no. 2 (2010): 203-211.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Vintage Books, 2011.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Gronnvoll, Marita. “Gender (In)Visibility at Abu Ghraib.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 10, no. 3 (2007): 371-398.

Kimmel, Michael S., and Michael A. Messner. Men’s Lives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib.” Radical History Review 95 (2006): 21-44.

Puar, Jasbir K. “Abu Ghraib: Arguing Against Exceptionalism.” Feminist Studies 30, no. 2 (2004): 522-534.

Sutton, Barbara, Sandra Morgen, and Julie Novkov, ed. Security Disarmed: Critical Perspectives on Gender, Race, and Militarization. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

  1. Steven C. Caton and Bernardo Zack, “Abu Ghraib, the Security Apparatus, and the Performativity of Power,” American Ethnologist 37, no. 2 (2010): 207.
  2. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 26.
  3. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 26-30.
  4. Meron Benvenisti et al., Abu Ghraib: The Politics of Torture (New York: North Atlantic Books, 2004), 38.
  5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 31-33.
  6. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 21-25.
  7. Marita Gronnvoll, “Gender (In)Visibility at Abu Ghraib,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 10, no. 3 (2007): 392.
  8. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 32-40.
  9. Gronnvoll, “Gender (In)Visibility at Abu Ghraib,” 374.
  10. Ibid., 372.
  11. Barbara Sutton et al., ed., Security Disarmed: Critical Perspectives on Gender, Race, and Militarization (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 190-194.
  12. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 41-48.
  13. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 71-72.
  14. Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib,” Radical History Review 95 (2006): 28-29.
  15. Jasbir K. Puar, “Abu Ghraib: Arguing Against Exceptionalism,” Feminist Studies 30, no. 2 (2004): 528.
  16. Puar, “Abu Ghraib,” 528.
  17. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 41-48.
  18. Puar, “Abu Ghraib,” 529.
  19. Ibid., 528.
  20. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 30-48.
  21. Gronnvoll, “Gender (In)Visibility at Abu Ghraib,” 373.
  22. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 71-72.
  23. Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner, Men’s Lives (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998), 566.
  24. Puar, “Abu Ghraib,” 526.
  25. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 62-68.
  26. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 30-48.
  27. Puar, “Abu Ghraib,” 526-529.
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