Basuli Deb, Transnational Feminist Perspectives on Terror in Literature and Culture

(New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 232 pp., $148

In a milieu of heightened Islamophobic and racist attitudes across the globe, Basuli Deb’s book is a must read. The book disrupts the designation of terrorism to racialized bodies, in a world where justice is propagated by the American and European empires. As an assistant professor of English and Women’s studies, Deb seeks to amplify the voice of “those who did not have equal power shares within the revolution” (xiii). To achieve this, she unsettles the prosaic understandings of terrorism, and disrupts the epistemological masculine and western production of the politics of terror. These hegemonic knowledge production projects marginalize women, especially those in the Global South. Deb portrays women as victims of “the chess game” (24) between imperialism and nationalism.

Theoretically, Deb engages with discussions in the field of postcolonial feminism. She posits that the disenfranchisement of women in the Global South has its roots in European colonialism, the legacies of which continue to inform the practices of post-independence state formations. She highlights the tension between nationalism and feminism, and stresses the continuity of colonial rule through various economic, legal, political and social forms. Thus, we do not live in a “post” colonial era, since colonialism was not terminated. Rather, we live in a post-declaration era, referring to the 1960 UN “declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples” (2), which recognized the right to self-determination only in principle. Colonial legacies, inherited by the post-independence state, tend to marginalize women, queer and indigenous people from their respective nation-building projects.

Methodologically, Deb addresses a gap in scholarly work by drawing on dissident voices to provide counter-narratives in literature. Literary productions of tortured women include, but are not limited to, novels, testimonials, films, blogs and art. Her intervention is, in essence, a corrective to ‘common-sense’ formulations of terrorism and torture, explicated through a historical genealogy of events. Her exploration of case studies of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Algeria, South Africa and India challenge the Western hegemonic conceptualization of terrorism. Despite the marginalization and exploitation of women’s bodies during processes of imperialism and nation-building, Deb does not deny the agency of women of the Global South. They provide counter-perspectives in their literacy production; they dare to “queer themselves through their destructive potentiality” (85) and their participation in resisting settler colonialism.

Deb unsettles the “myth of global sisterhood” by challenging the dominant belief that women of the Global North do not torture their “sisters” in the Global South. Through a transnational feminist framework, she unravels the atrocities committed by American military women in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, situating them as agents of their empire, serving to demonize the Other. She thus refutes the arguments of imperial feminism that denies agency for the American women soldiers, and justifies their actions as merely passive recipients of military rules. Deb also criticizes liberal feminism for situating women in opposition to men in their societies, a critique widely discussed in postcolonial feminism. While power imbalances exist between men and women, the suffering of women cannot be disconnected from the suffering of their societies, the plight of the Palestinian woman being one such example. Her claims remind us of Lila Abu Lughod’s call for “ethical feminism” (46) as they challenge the universalist conceptualization of womanhood from which Western white liberal feminists derive an understanding of women’s rights. Deb suggests that “terrorist acts” – as described by imperialistic nations – cannot be understood from within the individualistic liberal universalist worldview. Terrorism thus needs to be framed with an eye to the collective rights of communities fighting a history of colonization and dehumanization.

The strength of the book is the historical approach it employs to analyze colonization and its aftermath, and the gendered analysis of the politics of terror. A transnational feminist lens into the war on terror exposes the racial and cultural supremacy that justifies the torture of Muslims and Arabs in their homeland and in prisons such as Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram. Terrorism becomes the tool to demonize them, to occupy their lands in the promise of saving Muslim women from ‘violent’ and ‘barbaric’ Muslim men. She exposes imperialist violence inside American territory, where people of color are “reinvented in the form of the monster-terrorist-fag of the American nationalist imaginary” (54). France used the rhetoric of liberating Algerian women from their “subhuman oriental culture” (169) to enlighten them into civilized French culture, while the British occupation of India disavowed the caste system and embraced women’s liberation at the same time that its legislative policies reinforced these class and gender divisions. Israel’s self-positioning as a ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’ state becomes its marker as  bastion of the rights of women and queers in an otherwise ‘primitive’ the Middle East. Such discursive plays serve to sanitize the state’s ongoing genocidal policies towards the Palestinians.

The first chapter is crucial in laying out the terrain for the case studies discussed in the book. The geographic breadth of the case studies strengthens Deb’s central claim that colonial legacies continue to shape the postcolonial world. The second chapter discusses the US war on terror, through its collective humiliation, torture and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. The demonization of these peoples serves in expanding US imperialism, exploiting the Other’s natural resources, and building the imaginative American nationalism. The chapter on Palestine exposes the immense role played by the British in facilitating the realization of the Zionist doctrine and the subsequent settler colonial society that arose in its wake. It also discusses the revolutionary practices of Palestinian women, and the daily Israeli atrocities against both Palestinian men and women. In Guatemala, the genocide against the indigenous Mayan population was justified in the context of fighting communist counter-insurgencies during the Cold War era. Sexualized torture and forced impregnation of Mayan women who opposed the expropriation of their land to US corporations resulted in thousands of children shamed for their paternal rapist genes. In India, Dalit and poor women resisted the appropriation of their agriculture by the elite and the British military who saw their bodies as “the undenied right of the landlord or moneylender” (134).  The Algerian fidayate (freedom fighters) played a crucial role in fighting the French occupation either through direct military action or through supplying their male warriors with necessities. The Fidayate were represented as deviant terrorists, and were denied their right to defend themselves in the colonial era. Women who helped the Islamist rebels during the 1992-2002 Algerian civil war were exploited by the rebels, and demonized and treated inhumanly by the anti-Islamist rebels in a post independence state. Similarly, South African women experienced torture and rape during the Apartheid regime by both the regime and its opponents. This gender-based violence was compounded when the post-Apartheid state silenced the women who were assaulted by their male revolutionary comrades.

The concluding chapter not only summarizes Deb’s main arguments, it exposes the lack of accountability of the international system of justice, such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The latter acts as a tool in the hands of imperial power, by penalizing those who oppose imperial politics, and disregards imperial crimes. War crimes are prosecuted based “on the social locations of the agents of such crimes within the international division of socio-economic structures” (214). Deb provides a re-imagination of a better world through translocal grassroots organization. This argument is of utmost importance, although Deb does not go to great lengths to develop it. The solidarity networks of globally marginalized groups are challenging state and international institutions.

While Deb’s central arguments are extremely compelling, I find one of her concluding remarks in the second chapter problematic. In order to show the similarity of her case studies, Deb contradicts her analysis of pre- and post-declaration history of occupied Palestine and Algeria. She compares the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) that fought the French occupation and found itself confronting the Islamic terrorist-labeled group in the 1990s, to the Zionist settlers that confront what they considered to be Palestinian terrorism. This remark undermines her otherwise well-researched history of both countries. The Algerians fought the French occupation to get their independence, while Palestinians went from a British occupation to an Israeli one. In the Algerian case, the FLN was a resistance movement against a foreign occupier, and it confronted an internal conflict in the last decade. In the Palestinian case, Palestinians were fighting a foreign occupier (Great Britain) and continue to do so against a new occupying power.

Transnational Feminist Perspectives on Terror in Literature and Culture is written in a theoretical language, and will benefit any scholar in the field of postcolonialism, imperialism, international politics or feminism.

Reviewed by Rana Sukarieh
PhD candidate in Sociology

York University, Toronto


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