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Sunday, May 27th, 2007
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Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy

by Zillah Eisenstein

Depravity Disguised

A review by Purnima Mankekar

As women gain more seats in public office, why is the world not a safer place for women (or, for that matter, for children and men), Zillah Eisenstein asks in Sexual Decoys. She suggests this is because some of these women, as well as some people of color, are sexual and racial decoys: They mask the damage caused by sexism, racism and avaricious forms of capitalism while also contributing to it. Pointing to the (in)famous examples of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, she describes how the appointment of women and people of color to positions of power neither reflects a just social order nor results in one. Instead, as decoys, these individuals participate in the reinforcement or aggravation of the unequal and violent treatment of women and people of color.

Gender decoys, for instance, were central to the scandalous abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The different roles performed by women -- ranging from Lynndie England, an inmate-processing clerk, to Janis Karpinski, the brigadier general in charge of the prison -- raise complicated questions about culpability and accountability. Karpinski was one of the few senior officers punished for the abuses. And, as Eisenstein points out, England and some of the other low-ranking women who perpetrated the abuses were pawns who supported "disgusting practices that they should have refused to perform." As decoys, these women covered up the "misogyny of building empire, while also actually building it."

If Abu Ghraib brought to public awareness the sexualized racism abroad, other political and ethical disasters uncovered the convergence of racism and sexism at home. As much as it was a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina was a "political disaster defined by racism, sexism and class privilege." The war on Iraq and the war on the poor in New Orleans were connected in many concrete ways. For example, over $71 million was cut from the Army Corp of Engineers for flood protection while billions were spent on the war. And, as in the war in Iraq, private firms like Halliburton have profited from receiving an early contract for the "rebuilding" of New Orleans.

Eisenstein describes the role of sexual and racial decoys across a range of troubling social developments: the rollback of civil rights, the feminization of poverty, the spike in the incarceration of people of color. She raises provocative questions about how we might measure the gains of feminism(s): Rather than congratulate ourselves on how many women now occupy positions of power, we might ask whether they have contributed to improving the world in which we live. When women decoys participate in the perpetuation of conditions of violence and inequality, she remarks, "this is not a win for feminism." Smart and witty, sobering yet uplifting, this book is essential reading for all of us committed to social justice.

Purnima Mankekar is an associate professor in women's and Asian American studies at UCLA.

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