Women’s Empowerment through War? Democracies’ Foreign Policy Gamble in Iraq and Afghanistan

There is an agreement in the literature on war and gender that war disproportionately disadvantages women in relation to men. This research project aims to contribute to this literature by studying the impact of the US-led “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq on women in these countries. Wars need a selling point in democracies. The “liberation” of Muslim women in Muslim-majority countries has become a popular selling point for Western democracies’ “War on Terror” in the Middle East, waged primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, if the empowerment of Afghan and Iraqi women were truly a foreign policy objective, we should be able to see that the situation of women in the invaded countries has improved. Is war through invasion an effective foreign policy tool to improve the status of women worldwide? We contribute to the literature on gender and war in two main ways. Firstly, our research project contributes to enriching the study of International Relations (IR), for it employs a gender perspective in understanding IR at a time when the subject is often falsely assumed to be a gender-neutral subject. Secondly, it provides a nuanced investigation of the different social, political and economic forces that contribute to the oppression of women. According to our thesis, among liberal democracies, women’s empowerment offers an effective and readily available complementary narrative for “rallying public opinion” for war. However, women’s empowerment abroad is rarely, if ever, a true foreign policy objective when initiating a third-country invasion. The reason is that war usually does not improve, and it often worsens, the status of women in a particular society. This is because war produces and reproduces certain understandings of masculinity and femininity that facilitate the oppression of women in their respective societies, and harbours negative consequences on security and the economy that disproportionately harm women. Objectives: First, we want to analyze the narrative around the “liberation of women” that was put forward as one of the justifications to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, we aim to compare the status of women before and after the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and evaluate whether the situation has improved, worsened or stayed the same and whether this has happened in both countries equally. Methodology: The analysis of the “liberation of women” narrative will be realized through the methodology of computerized content-analysis. We will proceed to the content-analysis of political speeches and declarations by the US and UK members of the executive, parliamentary debates, op-ed articles and editorials in the mainstream mass media. In order to measure the “status of women” before and after the intervention of US and UK in Iraq and Afghanistan we will define the concept and operationalize it into empirically observable and measurable indicators belonging to four major dimensions: political, legal, economic and socio-cultural.

UREP cycle: 18

Faculty Mentor(s): Dr. Sonia Alonso

Student(s): Nourhan Elsayed


The project resulted in a dataset that includes the data from the manual content analysis of more than 800 statements by the Bush administration between the years 2002 and 2009.

Presentation of preliminary research findings at the Women in War/at War conference in Milton Keynes, in September 2016.

Funding: $9,900

The Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP)