Analysis | Unpicking the narratives: only by rejecting patriarchy and imperialism can we end war

In a world ravaged by violent oppression and conflict, Sofia Mason argues that only a defeat of both Imperialism and Patriarchy, by unmasking the narratives that justify them and organising our communities, can end global capitalism's logic of perpetual war.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, December 6, 2012 0:00 - 16 Comments



A female Eritrean guerrilla. (Photo: Jenny Matthews/Panos)

A female Eritrean guerrilla. (Photo: Jenny Matthews/Panos)

Many of those who actively opposed the illegal invasion and military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq became despondent when these wars went ahead anyway, in the case of Iraq, killing one million civilians.  As US drone attacks continue to kill civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and as the Israeli occupation of Palestine and bombing of Gaza continues, the question of how to oppose war is ever pertinent.

Those of us who are against racism, white supremacy and imperialism while also opposing patriarchy, sexism and misogyny, might ask how we can simultaneously end these intersecting forms of oppression by unpicking the narratives that justify them, learning from historical examples and taking political action on this basis.

During colonialism, narratives of white supremacy were employed to justify the barbarity and immorality of European settlers. The cruel exploitation of the people of the majority world, and the theft of their natural resources, was re-inscribed as taking Christianity to “savages.” Current day media narratives may appear, superficially, more complex, but the same underlying assumptions remain. The invasion of Iraq, in order to steal oil, was presented as the generous extension of “democracy” to that country. Only those audaciously convinced of their innate moral superiority can justify such a huge loss of human life in the name of a failing political system that serves only to protect corporate elites, alienating the vast majority of the population (many of whom don’t vote anyway).

While the West ceaselessly attempts to assert its right to police the world on the basis of its “advanced” economy, the truth is that the wealth of Europe, Australia and the USA is entirely the result of systematic theft, genocide, slavery, incessant exploitation and perpetual war. Needless to say, the current global economic recession, driven by blind greed and desperation for short term profit, exposes how the West’s inherently flawed economy is only able to squander its vast amassed wealth leaving disparity, poverty and environmental destruction in its wake.

In addition to rejecting the racist narratives underpinning war, it is also important to examine the gendered myths surrounding conflict and male violence. The widespread nature of the violence that women face during so-called peacetime, and the fact that men’s violence against women is often exacerbated during male-dominated conflicts, has led some to conclude that there must be something innate about men’s violence. This natural aggression, so the argument goes, inevitably leads to the creation of bellicose institutions and practices such as armies and war. Men are, apparently, strong, virile, aggressive and competitive; women on the other hand, despite their conventional support for wars and their successful participation in both statist and guerilla armies, are more often associated with the home-front and peace.

Women, we are led to believe, are neither violent nor aggressive, but rather they are caring and gentle. The peace movement and anti-war activism are also often associated with women; see for example the  Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the International Women’s Peace Service in Palestine, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the UK and Code Pink in the US.

However, feminist critiques of traditional, patriarchal gender roles have thrown the gendered nature of war into question. The crucial role of environmental factors such as cultural expectations and socio-political norms has questioned the biological justifications for the apparent differences between the behaviour of men and women.

To put it crudely, scientists have never found the part of the Y chromosome that determines that men like competitive sports and are predisposed to aggression. Similarly, there is no part of women’s genetic make-up that makes them naturally better at cleaning, cooking or caring for others. So, the gender roles that underpin patriarchy and war are socially constructed; indeed, they change over time and according to different cultural contexts. Nevertheless, those who continue to espouse patriarchal explanations will assure us that our hormones cause and explain the inequality of male and female social roles.

The fact is that the popular division of testosterone and estrogen into ‘male’ and ‘female’ hormones respectively is simplistic and misguided. Women and men produce both hormones in their adrenal glands and a biochemical reaction actually converts testosterone, which is a by-product of progesterone, into an estrogen. Perhaps most interestingly, from the age of about 7 months to 7 years, levels of testosterone are the same in boys and girls.

In other words, young boys complete seven years of indoctrination into an all-encompassing global patriarchal system that teaches them that boys and girls are completely different, before this starts to affect their testosterone levels. Our bodies and brains are profoundly affected by our social environment. Hormones levels are inhibited and suppressed, or conversely, encouraged and increased, depending on whether they receive positive or negative feedback from the social environment. Social cues affect neural activity which in turn affects the structure of the brain itself, as well as gene expression. It is impossible to ascertain how children would act if they were allowed to develop their own identities, based on personal preference, free from the restraints and expectations of patriarchal gender roles.

Under patriarchy, white men have disproportionate political, social and economic power. Violence is male-dominated just as most aspects of political and social life are controlled by white men. War propaganda in the West has often employed gendered notions of manhood to encourage young men to fight. Utilising the idea of the sacred patriarchal lineage, men are reminded that their fathers and grandfathers sacrificed and fought and if they are ‘real men’ and not ‘cowards’ then they should too. Enemies are feminised and demonised while the home front is also equated with women as young soldiers are encouraged to feel as if they are going to war to protect female relatives and loved ones.

But who benefits from this gendered war propaganda? The often under-privileged young soldiers who return from war rarely feel as if their masculinity has been validated; they often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and many are aware that they have been co-opted into participating in genocidal imperialism. As mentioned above, the inherently flawed economic and political logic of capitalism financially and ideologically depends on wars and armed conflicts to boost arms sales and to ‘divide and rule’ by rallying different groups of oppressed people into fighting against each other, while the elites divide the spoils of wars amongst themselves.

In order to prevent working-class whites from realising what they have in common with the global majority, narratives of white supremacy and the economic and socio-political benefits of being white (aka white privilege), often succeed in encouraging racism, and can also lead to an increase in the popularity of fascism.

During the 1960s, the anti-war movement united with the Black Power movement and women’s liberation; together these political forces presented a strong challenge to the white male power structure’s war machine. The Black Panthers were at the forefront of demonstrating the connection between racism, imperialism and war, and were also exceptionally effective at political organisation. They organised around the issues of housing, education and health, providing free school programmes and health clinics, whilst also defending their communities from police brutality and violence.

Simultaneously, the Black Panthers opposed acts of US imperialism and aggression in Vietnam, offering their solidarity and support to the Vietnamese people. Veterans from the anti-war movement of the 1960s have stated that a successful peace movement presents the Western imperialist status quo with an ultimatum: either you end the war or we keep building radical alternatives until this whole capitalist system is threatened.

Today, a successful peace movement must provide radical alternatives, not only to perpetual war but also to the whole corrupt, morally bankrupt political economic system that depends on patriarchy and imperialism. It is important to briefly visit the adage “No justice, No peace” here. Until all of the white male power structure’s systematic and institutional violence has been eradicated, it is morally dubious to tell those seeking to resist structural violence that they must do so “peacefully”.

As the global economic recession continues to exacerbate environmental destruction, poverty and desperation, the need for radical alternatives is always growing. Similarly, the need for community organisation and sustained political action to develop and maintain these alternatives has never been greater. In order to derail the inevitability of catastrophic climate change, we must re-organise society so that human life and the natural environment take precedence over corporate profit. Another world is definitely possible, but it’s up to us to build it.

Sofia Mason

Sofia Mason is a post-doctoral researcher whose specialisms include the testimonies of politically active Latin American women, the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions and feminism.



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Dec 5, 2012 23:56

such an excellent article

Dec 6, 2012 15:41

This is a well written article, however I am not completely convinced by the suggestion that violence and patriarchy have been justified on the basis of genetic/testosterone inequalities which are triggered by social conditions. I would like to see a reference to any studies which has proven this.

I do believe however, that human beings are inherently and instinctively selfish survivalists, and because of this the simple justification for violence has always been that “might is right” in the furtherance of ideals: the strongest get their way by demonstrating their strength.

I would agree that such views are held by both men and women – look at Winnie Mandela for example. Despite women’s capability for and willingness to administer violence, it just so happens that in most cases men happen to be physically “mightier” than women, and on that basis have gained the upper hand in many spheres of life.

Dec 6, 2012 15:45

I do wonder though, if the patriarchy got “smashed”, would it really put an end to war and pillage? Women can be a vicious bunch you know, just visit any Catholic girl’s school, corporate office or women’s prison and see for yourself……

Sofia Mason
Dec 6, 2012 17:00

I would refer you to Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine and Joshua Goldstein’s War and Gender, How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. Both of these publications comprehensively deal with your queries. Thanks for commenting.

Sofia Mason
Dec 6, 2012 17:22

The full title of the Cordelia Fine book is “Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences”, or the more recent publication has been subtitled “Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference.”

Dec 7, 2012 0:18

Many thanks for the references! :)

Native Son
Dec 9, 2012 19:20

@TL – the women-only environments are still operating in a context of patriarchy – particularly prisons and the Catholic Church and neoliberal capitalism

Dec 10, 2012 11:34

This could have been written in the 1990s… Biology is so old hat that it doesn’t warrant discussion unless you think readers here pay attention to the likes of the appropriately named ‘bell curve’.

The intro did tease me, as did the mention of the black panthers – though you failed to note the role of women within the panthers!

Are drones so much harder to oppose than piloted planes and groundtroops for people in ‘the ‘west’? Does such a dichotomy really exist between ‘west’ and ‘other’ if the systems of hierachy are to mirrored everywhere, and neoliberalism has succeeded in evaporating the line between private and public?

You mention some good things on narratives but the strongest narrative is able to envelop all others while dealing with contrdictions – an institutional need to be at war (neoliberalism = continued colonialism) thus can accept AND reject patriarchy, racism, violence…

More succintly why is patriarchy the enemy, not that i totally disagree, but surely the bigger enemy is institutionalisation – whether that be in government or in the peace movement? I see so much institutionalisation whether in the peace movment press or in socialist-claiming organisations. I don’t believe in ‘despondent masses’ but do think many are pacified, my semantics likewise omits evidence…

The academic Ceasefire is not the lived ceasefire… and thus I do see a presentation of options…

Dec 10, 2012 19:50


Biological excuses for sexism/racism/etc are still alive and well. They’re not very academically credible, but still prevalent in a few fields, mainly Anglo-American psychology, in which sociobiology has morphed into “evolutionary psychology” and is now almost mainstream. However, the real prevalence is in popular belief, which is evident if you hang round newspaper comments sections, sites like Reddit, Imgur, 4chan etc – you’ll find constant references to alpha and beta males, women attracted to certain “types” of men for “biological reasons”, speculative accounts of why certain things happen and so on (TL, above, provides some evidence of this). I’ve also had recurring discussions along similar lines with all my non-activist friends and relatives. It’s not academically accepted within biology, and the global elite know better, but in terms of things which “prevent working-class whites from realising what they have in common with the global majority” (Sofia), or men with women, this kind of discourse is still very powerful.

Can we separate institutionalisation from patriarchy? The particular norms of formal institutions often correspond to the particular norms associated with “male” public space, and the norms into which men are socialised. Groups like La Ruta Pacifica use alternative organisational forms which probably fall outside what you term institutionalisation – spiritual and emotional interaction, settings designed as safe spaces, consensus and similar processes to encourage voice, and so on. This can’t be separated from their critique of the male dominance of the state, army and so on.

Happysmiles, I’m not completely sure you’re saying these things, but you seem to be implying that:

1) radical politics should focus on fighting the system on the “main” issue / primary contradiction (and make other issues secondary or subordinate),

2) neoliberalism is a smooth global system that is the same in its impact everywhere, rather than a stratified system of global inequalities (as in Hardt and Negri, William Robinson, or Baudrillard).

I think that 1) is unduly objectivist, and neglects the fact that, for someone who primarily experiences oppression and/or trauma along lines of gender or race (for example), relegating their concerns to a secondary status in relation to neoliberalism is both oppressive/re-traumatising and pretty much guarantees their absence from your movement.

I’m unconvinced that 2) is true because systematic differences remain predominant today – for instance, in income/land distribution by gender, in wages across different countries, etc. Neoliberalism is quite clever in being able to stigmatise “extreme” versions of sexism, racism etc, and to promote niche markets (pink pound), personalised inclusion (Facebook etc) and tokenism (an African-American president, a woman prime minister), but at a deep structural level, systematic segmentations into different markets and types of exploitation remain strong and are deepening. For instance, there is a fundamental structural difference in the exploitation of productive and reproductive forms of labour, and the latter is overwhelmingly feminised (and in cases such as agriculture, “Southernised”). Despite the “emergence” of a few areas of China and India into the semi-periphery, huge areas of the world are still strongly peripheral, and many areas (particularly in Africa) have effectively been forcibly delinked from the world system. It’s just not viable to argue that capitalism/neoliberalism functions the same way in DR Congo – with a subsistence peasant and shanty-town majority, no formal sector to speak of, and an export economy based on primary resource extraction controlled by hypermasculine armed groups – as in Britain or America which are focused on global-city-led models of accumulation performing key command-and-control functions for global capital. Sure, the systems of hierarchy are present everywhere, and in some ways are equivalent everywhere, but they are also structurally different everywhere.

Dec 11, 2012 12:39

Respect for the reply!

Indeed, biological excuses are still active… and like ‘genomics’ and ‘bio-geographical ancestry groups’ the counter debate must also be updated and not simply repeated of course there are elements of both in the bio discourse).

Since you are drawing on a wide variety of examples and Ceasefire is mainly for the academic perhaps you can separate institutionalisation from patriarchy. Of course in practice this is more open to interpretation but there are moments, periods, and ongoing attempts to incoporate non-hierchical and non-violent working systems that seek to incorporate diversity whether these be on family planning programs in the Pacific region or the Black Panther Party (contextualised)… not everything that happens is ‘with or against’ the male domiance of states, some escape the mirror to set their own agenda.

Didn’t mean to suggest either of those assumptions 1) focus on ‘main’ issue 2) neoliberalism is smooth. Though a more apt metaphor might be ginger because ginger is a rhizome… focusing on any singular ‘main’ notion notion is detrimental because it will simply continue to grow and form fresh and multiple nodes. Neoliberalism, or continued colonialism, is such a beast.

Being unduly objectivist… I think Black Power as coined by Kawme Ture and practised by many Panthers recognised that Capitalism-The Man-The System doesn’t subjugate them purely because they are black men and women, but because that system of organisation needs an enemy, needs an oppressed, needs an neverending war.

And it is the final paragraph (in the comment) that belittles your reference to Black Power – which recognised the bureaucratic and violent system while also recognising the need for localised overstanding and practical application.

Structurally different in implementation perhaps but not so different in ambition and principle?


Dec 16, 2012 21:13

So, you’re simultaneously claiming that:

1) neoliberalism is an overarching, structurally similar (in “ambition and principle”) system, and
2) neoliberalism is a rhizome, with no trunk, no core, no “main” notion to focus on.

Surely it can’t be both of these things at once?

I didn’t mention the Black Panthers, that was Sofia in the original article, and what she said was: “The Black Panthers were at the forefront of demonstrating the connection between racism, imperialism and war”, which seems to be very similar to what you’re now saying: “Black Power… recognised that Capitalism-The Man-The System… subjugate[s] them… because that system of organisation needs an enemy, needs an oppressed, needs an neverending war” – I don’t see where your disagreement with Sofia’s argument is on this point.

In fact I’m having difficulty making sense of what you’re arguing in general. “But there are moments, periods, and ongoing attempts to incoporate non-hierchical and non-violent working systems that seek to incorporate diversity” – what do you mean here? That people are trying to build non-hierarchical alternatives (which I’ve already said)? That my and/or Sofia’s view of alternatives is insufficiently diverse? That the system is trying to recuperate these alternatives? You’ll need to be clearer to get answers, I’m afraid.

Dec 26, 2012 2:11

I would love to contact Sofia Mason regarding possible lectures to Palestinian students/activists in Gaza. How possible is that? My e-mail is

Feb 12, 2013 9:13

You can’t balance a duality, you can only transcend one.

This article is reactionary and only deals with effects without any comprehension of true causes.

Reformers political, social, and religious will only cause more sorrow for man unless man understands the workings of his own mind. In the understanding of the total process of the mind, there is a radical, inward revolution, and from that inward revolution springs the action of true cooperation, which is not cooperation with a pattern, with authority, with somebody who “knows.” When you know how to co-operate because there is this inward revolution, then you will also know when not to cooperate, which is really very important, perhaps more important. We now cooperate with any person who offers a reform, a change, which only perpetuates conflict and misery, but if we can know what it is to have the spirit of cooperation that comes into being with the understanding of the total process of the mind and in which there is freedom from the self, then there is a possibility of creating a new civilization, a totally different world in which there is no acquisitiveness, no envy, no comparison. This is not a theoretical utopia but the actual state of the mind that is constantly inquiring and pursuing that which is true and blessed.

- J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life

Feb 18, 2013 3:57

Luke, there is some truth in what you say, but I think you misunderstand the nature of dualisms and ego. The internal split, the process of alienation, is not something primordial, but is an effect of the alienation of humanity from its relations to ecology, to other humans, and to our own activity. The decisive division is not simply within each person (don’t get me wrong – it *is also* within each person), but today runs through the entire cosmos, the ecosystem, the spiritual realm. The world is structured around dualistic splits which subordinate the “minor” term, and around the affects you refer to – envy, acquisitiveness, comparison. The global system is run on the basis of status, of superiority and inferiority, which require a hierarchical way of thinking, and correspondingly, produce the ego in its modern sense (the abuser for example, who holds up his own ego by dominating someone else). This pattern works in the imaginary and in the self-conceptions of the mainstream, and is very hard for dissidents to reject or overcome; but it is not simply imaginary, as it is reinforced by a structure of violence, extraction, subordination, trauma, ecocide and genocide.

I don’t think it’s an “either-or” in terms of social change/revolution/reform/transformation and inner transformation/community rebuilding – the two imply one another. When we discover our true selves, and try to rebuild authentic community, we break with how capitalism conditions us to interact, and this is a source of great joy and inner peace. But we also find ourselves “under siege” from forces which seek to maintain the divided nature of the world, who wish to stamp out our light lest it spread. This is one of the reasons why indigenous peoples, the bearers of a range of cosmic visions similar to those you encourage, are suffering a centuries-long genocide. If you look at autonomous social movements today, at the rituals of La Ruta Pacifica for instance, or at Mistica in the MST, you’ll see that inner transformation is also being built as part of outer transformation and vice-versa. Indeed the inner-outer division is itself part of the problematic dualisms.

Sofia Mason
Feb 22, 2013 0:25

@Luke Krishnamurti also said “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” – so I think he would also agree with my understanding of how society, the material conditions that people live in, affects them emotionally and psychologically.

Jun 9, 2013 14:10

I think your article is very powerful. I particularly like how you show how males are made to feel so biologically different from females. I have seen this in patriarchal mythological and esoteric literature also. In the occult traditions it is claimed the male = intellect and women = emotions and how they ‘need to be brought together’ thus implying that they are not.
Monica Sjoo also showed how the Chines Yin Yang symbol via New Age had been made to be a dichotomy between ‘female energies’ and ‘male’ energies’. So this dualistic gender-role thinking goes all the way through.

It is clear that there very much is an occult elite hidden-in-plain-sight, and deep investigation into the 9/11 attacks (detecting various codes and so on) and other history changing events, as well as architecture, dates of speeches about a ‘New World order’ and even ‘insider info’ in movies and cartoons—all point to nefarious goings on between those who take secret oaths.

I also know that the most important thing to investigate are myths by which people live, because there you will see the source of psychic energy which drives them. The patriarchal mythologies followed by those attacking Mother Earth are of course EXTREMELY toxic!!! Mainly they are traditional religions, scientific materialism/physical ism, and ‘hidden’ behind these, occultist. It is crucial we all become more and more aware of this.

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