Reflections on Kony: women and children as handmaidens of colonialism


The recent news-grabbing social movement campaign to get the leader of the Lords Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, is deeply troubling argues Ashok Kumar

White Men Saving Black Children from Black Men

“…It plays to all the prejudices of white people about Africa and Africans. Most importantly, it is based on the assumption that the people of Uganda have no agency, as if they have been silent and have done nothing but await the call of the white savior to rally the troops… What meaningful change will this bring about, other than reinforcing prejudices about ‘the African savage’, someone who needs to be civilized by the white man?”

Firoze Manji, Editor-in Chief of the pan-African – Pambuzuka News – on KONY2012

When you thought you’d had enough of KONY, here comes another…

After the first wave of Kony-mania, the viral sensation that swept the world, came a second phase with an expected smorgasbord of analysis, critique and memes ridiculing ‘KONY2012’ on a number of grounds. The specifics of the campaign have been scrutinized to death (mostly by the left) and we’ve done a fine job indeed. Within a day mainstream media outlets began affixing the word “controversy” in association with the state-of-the-art marketing campaign, and the people of Uganda had condemned the campaign, a testament to the Internet’s ability to both disseminate and discredit with equal efficiency.

KONY2012 presents some interesting clues to a history of colonial adventures. Its construction of the binary self and other and invocation of paternalistic militarism is part of a hegemonic discourse in the lead up and the continued presence of imperial forces.

As the revelations on KON2012 come to light the term ‘white man’s burden’ has once again made an appearance in Western media and parlance. Although Kipling’s oft-cited ‘burden’ is understood within a racial lens, an analysis that has remained absent is the gender/race intersections in pre-war culture production. KONY2012 is situated well within this tired history of using racial/gendered archetypes and tropes as a justification for war that belies the real motives.

Kipling’s famous 1899 poem subtitled ‘The United States and the Philippine Islands’ marked the end of the ‘splendid little’ Spanish-American War, and called for the seizing of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam and Cuba by the US, signaling the US’ entry as world imperial power.

The poem was Kipling’s forceful plea for the US to annex the Philippines during the debate over the Treaty of Paris, joining the British in its racial right to ‘wage savage wars’ to dominate the lands of the ‘new-caught, sullen people, half-devil and half child’. Kipling’s message was disseminated in the Hearst press and welcomed by Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. The crushing of the resistance cost over a quarter of million Philippine lives. The totality of violence of occupied forces is found in policies of systematic rape, torture and the construction of concentration camps to imprison the indigenous population. The ‘burden’ allows a violent occupation to be sold to the white home populous as not only a benefit to the colonizer but rather the benevolence of the colonizer for the benefit of the colonized.

These ways of manufacturing consent continued to be central to the current crop of historical revisionists and proponents of Western power. Imperial apparatchik and historian Niall Ferguson, writing in his book Empire (2002), states:

The reality is nevertheless that the United States has – whether it admits it or not – taken up some kind of global burden, just as Kipling urged. It considers itself responsible not just for waging a war against terrorism and rogue states, but also for spreading the benefits of capitalism”.

Today, the US is leading the world in a new chapter of ‘nation-building’, similarly rationalized in the West by racism couched as benevolence. Later in the book Ferguson writes of India where Sati, the practice of ‘widow-sacrifice’ in upper-caste Hindus, was abolished “with the help of the British Empire.”

The use of brown colonized women in war propaganda is a tradition Gayatri Spivak calls “white men saving brown women from brown men,” in her influential essay Can the Sulbatern Speak? Spivak describes the relationship between ‘white male’ colonizer and ‘brown male’ colonized in which the femininity of ‘brown women’ functions as a metaphor for colonization. Spivak describes how Sati was used by Britain as an ideological battle to represent the people of the subcontinent as a barbaric in which imperialism was the only avenue to rescue the cruel fate of the helpless women at the hands of the brutal patriarchs who enslaved them.

Spivak highlights a deep ambiguity of masculine-imperialist ideology in the construction of the monolithic ‘third-world woman’- scapegoat. The imagery of the ‘inferior’ other prompts both an aggressive as well as a paternalistic response by the white colonial self. No sooner does the colonized begin to resist its violent occupation, that the colonizer switches from Kipling/Spivakian ‘savior’ to Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ as the rationale for a continued occupation, subjugation and extraction. The language of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is found throughout the post-911 West. The notion that the Western, Christian, Capitalist society was under an incontrovertible threat from a inferior, hostile, Islamic Other was popularized in the 1990s by Huntington yet is not new to the long history of colonizer-as-civilized, colonized-as-savage discourse.

The imperialist contradiction as both white-male ‘savior’ of the abused brown women and the formation the imagery of brown savage man is found more recently in the rhetoric of the US invasion of Afghanistan.

In Leila Ahmed’s work Women and Gender in Islam, Ahmedlooks at the history of British empire building in the middle-east, and stated that ‘whether in the hands of patriarchal men or feminists, the ideas of western feminism essentially functioned to morally justify the attack on native societies and to support the notion of comprehensive superiority of Europe.’ Leila Ahmed sees this tactic of using women and women’s liberation as the ‘handmaiden of colonialism’ and intimately part of the production of cultural hegemony as a validation for Western imperialism.

Modern liberal Western society now requires an elaborate stage from which to construct, circulate and popularize a juxtaposition of a civilized, liberated white woman against a backward society, in which women are profoundly oppressed and warrant Americanized military intervention on humanitarian grounds. Indeed, the powerless women and children must be saved, through guns if necessary, from themselves.

In 2001, as bombs rained down on towns and villages, body counts skyrocketed, and an uninterrupted stream of images of menacingly bearded brown men and burqa-clad women penetrated and inundated the American psyche through every imaginable device, George W. Bush spoke passionately of the “women of cover” and that

Fighting brutality against women and children … is the acceptance of our common humanity….Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes…. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.

In the lead-up to the war in Iraq Bush, once again, showed us his feminist side. In a speech to the UN he told the world, “Respect for women…can triumph in the Middle East and beyond,” and to the New York Times he stated that “the repression of women [is] everywhere and [is] always wrong.”

The use of women’s liberation and children in Iraq and Afghanistan was nothing more than a cynical ploy to sell a war to the Western public. The appropriation of feminist language and gender oppression succeeds in pushing an imperialist agenda and furthering expansionary goals whilst rehashing Orientalist machinations of the ‘civilized’ occident obligated to tame an unruly Islamic world and free its women.

Other colonial intersections such as race and sexual orientation are found in current-day Israel’s hasbara campaign of “Pinkwashing” where gay-rights are a PR tool, in which Israel is depicted as modern, ‘daring and independent’ whilst Muslims and Palestinians are shown as oppressive, sexist and homophobic. The sole purpose of this branding campaign is to present Israel as an isolated oasis of tolerance in a sea of backwardness, whilst allowing the Israeli state to continue policies of colonialism and violence against the Palestinian people.

The Save Darfur Coalition of the mid-2000s – of which KONY2012 is a direct descendent – has been criticized for its tactics and aims. Both KONY2012 and the Save Darfur Coalition are startlingly similar. Mohmood Mamdani’s book Saviors and Survivors writes that the Save Darfur Coalition in its oversimplified approach distorts a complex history, lionizing the suffering of women and children, establishing a moral binary and ultimately serving as the ‘humanitarian face of the War on Terror” by acting as a “war mobilizing force” in which military intervention is the sole solution. Mamdani accuses Save Darfur of mobilizing ‘child soldiers’ by which he means naïve American youth to construct a moral bifurcation between ‘good’ Africans and ‘bad’ Arabs. Parallels to KONY2012 abound.

In Kony2012’s now famous 29-minute, 80 million viewed, superficial and easily digestible virtual infomercial — black children are victimized and feminized, not only by an older Kony, but by the very fiber of their brutal culture. A savage land where girls become sex slaves, boys become killers, and babies are maimed. What is presented is an inherently and irrationally vicious and bloodthirsty society that knows only cruelty and whose innocence must be saved by an outside civilized force. The civilized white men of the West are the only ones capable of freeing the African children from their savage environment. The roots of the violence are cleverly withheld as the narrator explains the situation to his white baby. A white baby who points to the darkest black man he has ever seen and defiantly gurgles “we have to stop him!” The youtube viewer, of course, is the baby, to be spoon-fed a fairytale–of white men saving black children from black men. KONY isn’t Kony, he’s a metaphor for barbarism, for hyper-masculinity, for the third world. The humanity of the Western military power, in Kipling’s terms, will ‘serve their captives’ needs’.

That is ‘one thing we can all agree on’, declares the architect of KONY.

To the hegemonic military-industry of the West, we are made to believe that the black children of Uganda, like the women of India, or the gay and lesbian activists of Palestine, remain voiceless, visible but silent, waiting to be liberated by the very forces that have entrenched, subsidized and exacerbate their historic oppression.


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