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International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics Volume 1 Number 1.
© Intellect Ltd 2005. Commentary. English language. doi: 10.1386/macp.1.1.15/3
‘War talk’ engendering terror: race,
gender and representation in Canadian
Yasmin Jiwani Concordia University
Discourses of war centre on the objectification of the enemy and utilize
Manichean oppositions to promote an explanation of events which make ‘common
sense’ (Cooke and Woollacott 1993). In the aftermath of the events of September
11, 2001, with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City,
those discourses assumed a heightened Orientalist mantle, coloured by the geo-
graphic, religious and cultural nature of the perceived enemy. In this short essay,
I examine how the news media, and in particular, print media, covered the events
of September 11, 2001.
My focus is on the Canadian print media - The
Gazette, a Montreal English daily, and The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s
two national papers. Both these papers play a pivotal role in shaping the ‘imag-
ined community’ (Anderson 1983) that is Quebec and Canada, but more impor-
tantly, both are highly influential in shaping policy towards immigrants and
cultural minority groups in the provincial and national landscape (Fleras and
Kunz 2001). The analysis that follows is undoubtedly influenced by my stand-
point (Durham 1998), as a woman, a Canadian of immigrant origins and as
Muslim - a religious affiliation rendered salient because of its shared character
with that of the ‘enemy’. In the sections that follow, I pay particular attention to
the issue of gender - how it underpins, informs and shapes the discourses of war
and how in so doing, it engenders terror such that the latter assumes a specific
type of fear with differential repercussions for women and men.
The local, the national and the global
At the local level, The Gazette commands the attention of the provincial
government in Quebec. Representing the interests of the province’s English
minority (which is a linguistic majority in the country at large), it exer-
cises the weight of influence by virtue of its history which parallels the
history of the Anglo community in Montreal as the traditional colonial
power. Further, The Gazette exercises weight because of its ownership by
the Asper family (owners of CanWest Global Corporation), which, like
other conglomerates in the Canadian landscape, owns a substantial
number of influential papers across the country. In contrast, The Globe and
Mail, one of the national Canadian dailies, is owned by the Bell Canada
Enterprises (BCE) conglomerate, a competitor to the Asper holdings. The
Globe and Mail is Canada’s oldest national paper and because of its burden
*The term ‘war talk’
derives from Arundhati
Roy’s (2003) text bear-
ing the same title.
1. A version of this arti-
cle was presented at
Nova Scotia, in June
2003. A more
focusing on The
Gazette was published
in Critique: Critical
Middle Eastern Studies
MCP 1 (1) 15–21 © Intellect Ltd 2005
Canadian print media
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of reaching across a vast geographic space and encapsulating diverse
regional interests and concerns, it tends to echo more of a pan-Canadian,
though Toronto-centric (based as it is in Toronto, Ontario) perspective. The
Globe also sees itself more of a centrist paper as compared to its national
competitor, The National Post.
Examining The Globe and The Gazette is interesting because each
responds to what it perceives to be the prevailing concerns of the day, and
though these overlap, the perspectives of each are different based on their
particular location and their attempts to reach specific audiences. For
instance, The Gazette, reflecting the perspective of the Anglo minority in
Quebec, positions itself as a minority paper, attempting to respond to its
main English-speaking constituency which includes other English-speak-
ing minority groups from older and more recently established immigrant
communities. Given that Montreal has a sizeable Muslim population that
is also English-speaking, the paper tries to reach out to these groups in a
manner that appears to be sympathetic while simultaneously attempting
to adhere to the hegemonic discourse about difference and its association
with deviance (Lenk 2000; Todd 1998).
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, both The Globe and
The Gazette focused on the tragedy in New York City, emphasizing the
Canadian connections, overt and assumed. Relying in part on press
agencies such as Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France Presse,
many of the stories printed echoed what appeared in papers in other
countries - reflecting the hegemonic power of press agencies (see Cohen
2002). However, what differed in the coverage and what were highly
influenced by the local environment (Tai and Chang 2002) were the
‘backlash stories’. These stories focused on the impact of September 11
on local Muslim communities - in Montreal and in Canada as a whole -
and dominated the coverage in the ensuing months immediately after
In part, the plethora of backlash stories can be attributed to the issue of
relevance (Galtung and Ruge 1973; Bennett 1996; Shoemaker and Reese
1996). Having Muslims within the nation subjected to hate crimes as a
result of their perceived affiliation with the perpetrators of the tragedy was
antithetical to the concept of moral superiority of Western nations and to
the national Canadian self-concept of benevolence and tolerance (Henry
and Tator 2002; Karim 2000; Mirchandani and Tastsoglou 2000).
However, while these stories on backlash were appearing, the media was
also focusing on the alleged connections between the perpetrators of the
tragedy in New York and Canada. Was Canada remiss in not patrolling its
borders more stringently? How did the perpetrators get through? Were
they residing in Canada prior to their move to the United States? Was
Canada complicit in allowing a ‘terrorist’ haven to exist within its borders?
These questions continued to plague the media and the backlash stories
provided an alternative way in which to shore up Canadian self-confidence
through the valorization and self-representation of the nation as a benev-
olent, multicultural state.
16 Yasmin Jiwani
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From the perspective of media bias, the backlash stories allowed the
press to deal with the double-bind of objectivity that Stuart Hall (1974)
has discussed (see also Hackett, Zhao and Repo 1998). Instead of appear-
ing partisan or as being highly influenced by the US agenda, the Canadian
media were able to deflect any criticism of partiality by focusing on the
Muslim minorities within the nation but doing so in a way that appeased
their sense of Canadian morality without making the State or its officials
accountable for failing to protect these minority groups from the hatred
and terror directed at them.
Engendering terror, the voyeuristic gaze
The backlash stories, it must be recalled, appeared against the larger back-
drop of the ‘War on Terror’ - featuring George Bush as the Crusader incar-
nate against the evil infidel Osama bin Laden. Whereas Bush was
consistently portrayed as the masculine hero of the New World Order,
Osama bin Laden was often feminized as evident in the following descrip-
tion printed in The Gazette.
The image has flickered across North American television screens so many
times in the last five days it will probably take years to fade - the liquid-eyed
Osama bin Laden, almost girlishly pretty despite the breast-long beard, sits in
the dust in flowing robes, firing an automatic weapon and smiling at the
strength of its recoil. The film was shot years ago, but in the pictures, the
charismatic gunman seems almost to be mocking the West and its grief.
(Waters 2001: B1)
This feminized portrayal of Osama bin Laden coalesces a number of differ-
ent signifiers and connotations, producing an overall picture of bin Laden
as the beguiling yet ultimately menacing arch-villain who is cold, calcu-
lating, ruthless and sinister - all characteristics, incidentally, that are com-
monly associated with women of colour in colonial literature and popular
culture (Jiwani 1992). A cartoon that ran in the paper a week later also
feminized bin Laden, portraying him as a woman in a burka. This particu-
lar cartoon (see Figure 1) was first printed in La Presse, and subsequently
reprinted in The Gazette on September 23, 2001.
These portrayals not only objectify the enemy but emasculate him in a
way that serves to justify his conquest, domination and/or annihilation.
While Afghan men are represented as barbaric savages and as weak, fem-
inized though ruthless hordes, needing to be contained, the ‘real’ Afghan
women are seen as the actual victims - oppressed by the barbarians and
awaiting their liberation by the civilizing forces of the West.
On an international level, the ‘rescue’ of Afghan women by the West
was achieved through the ‘intervention’ of coalition forces acting under
the auspices of the United States. On a national and local level, within the
Canadian landscape, their liberation was achieved by a two-fold discursive
move. First, by portraying Muslim women in Afghanistan as victims, the
press was able to reinforce the stereotypical notion of all Muslim women as
victims of barbaric Islamic practices and savage Muslim men (Jafri 1998).
As one writer opined,
‘War talk’ engendering terror: race, gender and representation...
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...before September 11, it might have been possible to feel pity for the men
who joined the Taliban, with their feelings of dislocation after 20 years of
Soviet invasion and civil war, their poverty, their desire to make sense of their
world. But not now. By now we know how they intend to order their world:
women under house arrest; the rest of the world their enemy. (Bagnall 2001:
At the local and national level, the representation of Muslim women as
victims was underscored by reiterating the fear that Muslim women were
experiencing as a result of being targeted by others. This was accom-
plished by quoting Muslim women, organizations and prominent leaders
of the community. The latter advised Muslim women to stay indoors and
not appear in their hijabs (the headscarf). For example, in one story, the
website of the Islamic Assembly of North America is cited as advising its
members to ‘not leave home unless absolutely necessary, especially
women, who wear Muslim dress’ (Richards 2001: B4). These words of
caution, though well-intentioned end up legitimizing Muslim women’s
containment in the private sphere of the home. That home might well be
located in America or Canada, but the end result is a containment ironi-
cally reminiscent of that which the Taliban in Afghanistan had been
enforcing upon women. Gendering terror, then, becomes in part about the
various ways in which the threat of violence and retaliation forces women
and men to refrain from being seen, from occupying space as legitimate
citizens. In yet another article, reference is made to a woman who now
refrains from wearing the veil precisely because of this threat of backlash.
In the same article, two female students recount their experiences of
terror. One is told to ‘go home. You’re just a terrorist.’ The other student
states, ‘I do have a feeling of insecurity because of the looks I am getting of
18 Yasmin Jiwani
Figure 1. Courtesy of Michel Garneau, 2003.
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anger and suspicion’ (Block 2001: A17). In other words, fear, heightened
security, and potential threats were and continue to be the ways in which
Muslim families and individuals are terrorized into ‘going home’ or
staying at home. These press accounts failed to interrogate notions of
‘home’ nor the racist intent and implications of these statements.
A significant motif apparent in the national stories dealt with imperial
feminism. Amos and Parmar (1984) identify imperial feminism as that
brand of feminism that sought to advance the interests of white feminists
often at the expense of black and other minority women under the guise of
benevolence and imperial logic (Cooke 2002). Imperial feminism was most
apparent in those stories covered by female reporters who attempted to
minimize the social distance between themselves and Muslim women
living in Canada by wearing the burka or the hijab. One such story titled,
‘Under the Cover of Darkness’, describes the reporter’s experiences as she
puts on the hijab and walks around the city gauging others’ reactions
towards her. As she states, ‘The burka tells the world, “Do not acknowl-
edge that I am here.” But it is also a message for the woman who wears it:
“You are entitled to just this much physical space.”’ (Nolen 2001: F8).
Another reporter, performing the same exercise, recounts ‘The veil com-
mands me to take my hands off my hips, round my shoulders and lower
my chin. It persuades me to walk quickly with my arms at my side, staring
down at the sidewalk’ (McLaren 2001: L3). These reporters could have
simply interviewed Muslim women to understand how they felt wearing
the burka and why they preferred the anonymity it granted them (Hoodfar
1993). Instead, they chose to wear the burka and emphasize its oppressive
character (for them). In so doing, their reportage reinforced the perceived
contrast between oppressed Muslim women who wear either the hijab or
burka and their own representation as Western, progressive, liberated and
The gendering of terror is apparent in the targeting of women as victims of
retaliation in the West and the East. While patriarchal powers compete for
social, cultural and economic resources, it is women and children who
suffer the ensuing terror. The coverage in these two dailies represented
similar stories as were reported in other papers in Western countries.
However, they departed in the kind of local stories they covered, notably
stories dealing with the backlash against local Muslim populations.
Nonetheless, in covering these stories, the papers resorted to similar moves
in reinforcing the binary oppositions between the liberated West and the
oppressed East, with women centred as the site of these competing dis-
courses. As victims of backlash, their victimization resonated with the
larger discourse of the oppressed Muslim women living under Taliban rule
or under the regimes of an ultra-patriarchal ‘Islam’. As objects of a
voyeuristic Western gaze, they were subjected to imperial feminism where
ostensibly feminist reporters sought to understand their oppression by
donning the burka or the hijab. In either case, the women were silenced
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Jiwani, Y. (2005), ‘“War Talk” engendering terror: race, gender and representation
in Canadian print media’, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 1: 1,
pp. 15–21, doi: 10.1386/macp.1.1.15/3
Yasmin Jiwani is a faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies
at Concordia University. Her research interests include mapping the intersections
between systemic and intimate forms of violence. Contact: Department of
Communication Studies, Concordia University, 7141 Sherbrooke Street West,
Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H4B 1R6
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