The Intersection of Disability and Masculinity in International Relations

Disability through injuries is a consequence of war for both combatants and non-combatants. In particular the gender lens is fundamental to understanding the lived experience of people with disabilities. This essay seeks to answer the question of how masculinity intersects with (dis)ability in ‘post conflict’ situations.

My thesis is that masculinity and the sense of being emasculated forms a central concern for men who are disabled and that the state must consider gender in the forms of welfare it seeks to provide for the disabled.

I will do this in three parts with the first stating the theory used and definitions of terms. I will then look at two case studies, Turkey and Uganda before providing my thoughts on potential solutions to some of the problems encountered by men in both communities.

            I will analyse these issues through the use of Standpoint Feminist theory. Feminist Standpoint has historically been used to study women’s specific experience with the state (Hansen, 2010, p. 21). I will use this theory to instead study the position of disabled men within Turkey and Uganda. In the same way that Standpoint Feminism maintains that women are subjects defined by their physical bodies but that those meanings are socially defined by women’s relation to femininity and masculinity (Hansen, 2010, p. 21), I will research men in the same manner. I will value the experience of the men who have been caught in these situations and specifically prioritise their voice as sources.

Disability will be understood through the “social model” of disability. The social model of disability posits that disability is a social construction (People With Disability, 2016). The model functions through two mechanisms: people may have impairments such as learning difficulties, mental illness, limb removal or otherwise; however, the person is only disabled through the result of interaction with the environment. The environment consists not only of the physical material reality of a person’s space but also the attitudes and culture of other individuals within their environment. As a result, a person may be physically impaired as a result of severe muscular dystrophy and thus be unable to walk and be wheelchair bound, they are however not disabled from moving between buildings until they encounter stairs. They would not be disabled had the building been designed with their impairment in mind, with ramps.

            Likewise, disability can also be social and result from the ignorance of other individuals as well as prejudice. A woman with a mental illness (such as bipolar or schizophrenia) who has been sexually assaulted by her care staff may disabled from engaging with the justice system by other staff or police simply brushing off her accusations as a result of her illness. The perception of the mentally ill as “crazy” and thus capable of delusion/fabrication of events is an example of how the social environment, institutional environment and ignorance of others can contribute to disability.

            Disability is also a gendered phenomenon with disability squarely falling into the feminine category of the gendered binary (Bollar, 2015, p. 2). The adjunct qualities of being disabled: dependency, deformity and even the plain inability to perform basic activities is feminised as a lack of capability does not square with traditional masculinities that stress independence and competency (Bollar, 2015, p. 2) (Mik-Meyer, 2015, p. 581)

            The United Nations (UN) endorses the social model of disability through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations, 2006).


            Masculinity and gender will both be understood through a similar definition of gender as a social construction which is integral to Standpoint Feminism (Hansen, 2010, p. 17).

            Masculinities are thus iterative; it is something that is continually performed through actions for the sake of being seen to be a man. Militaries in particular as institutions engage in creating “militarised masculinities” (Fox & Pease, 2012) which according to Jakupcak et al fosters “greater adherence to traditional male gender norms” (Implications of Masculine Gender Role Stress in Male Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, 2006) in an attempt to socialise men into selfless sacrifice to the group (Shields, 2016). Further, men who sign up to join militaries may well already be more receptive to, or identify with hyper masculine performances (Garcia, Finley, Lorber, & Jakupcak, 2011) and thus take in the notion of a “warrior” masculinity more easily. Central to this is that the ideal militant male is aggressive, stoic and self-reliant, thus the process of socialisation through the institution of the military exists not only to turn civilians into soldiers, but also boys into men (Shields, 2016) (Caddick, Smith, & Phoenix, 2015, p. 98).


            ‘Post conflict’ will be used in a different sense within this essay to the more common uses. Commonly the simplest definition of post conflict is the cessation of armed conflict (Tzifakis, n.d.). However due to the sheer paucity of research in the area of post conflict disability and men, the definition used in this article will be “the period of an individual’s life once they have been removed or removed themselves from the role of combatant”. This definition is used in order to include disabled Turkish veterans in the on-going conflict with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) separatists. The upshot of this definition is that it can focus on individuals and their experience as a gendered subject in relation to the state, working along the lines of feminist standpoint theory.

Finally, the limitations of this article are many. The quantity of research on masculinity and disability in an international context is paltry. While many studies exist within sociology that look inwards within the Anglosphere, this information cannot be extrapolated universally. As such the overreliance on just one source for each case study is limiting in making generalisations for the communities studied. In addition, only physical disabilities have been studied to any great extent within this essay. Cognitive disabilities, particularly disabilities such as severe autism, traumatic brain injuries and other learning disabilities have not been covered due to the sheer complexity and divergence of experience to physical disability. Cognitive disability and gender is a severely understudied field of experience and certainly not common practice in international circles, it would perhaps benefit researchers to find a way to separate cognitive and physical disabilities from the umbrella field of “disability studies”.

Further, as a minor disclaimer, positioning myself as the author of the essay it is prudent to note that I myself am a cis-gendered male who suffers from Tourette Syndrome which has resulted in social disability in some situations. My own experiences with masculinities and a neurological impairment forms lenses through which I have studied and perhaps also privileged information from sources which agree with the social constructivist models of gender and disability that I adhere to.


Turkey – Victim-heroes and the everyday

            Disability in Turkey is a stigmatised condition within society. Disabled men can consistently yet infrequently be found on the street, particularly through lower to middle class areas of cities. The disabled male street beggar is an object of pity which is repulsed by greater Turkish society for his neediness. Urban myths abound about fake-disabled or “rich beggars” who are not impaired at all, which results in disabled beggars having to display their maimed or missing limbs in order to “prove” their disability, ironically feeding the cycle of disenfranchisement these individuals already face (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 16).

            There are 8.5 million disabled people in Turkey as of 2002, constituting 12 per cent of the total population (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 8). 78.3 per cent of the disabled population do not have jobs, 36.3 per cent are illiterate and 34.4 per cent have never been married (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 8) and in nationwide surveys, the word most commonly associated with “disabled” was “needy” attesting to the gendered nature of people’s perceptions towards disability.

Turkey has been waging a war against the PKK and other minor separatist groups since 1984 (Tahriri, 2007, p. 232). Prior to and during the war the most common sustained injury by Turkish military men has been lower extremity amputations from landmines (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 8). Prior to the PKK, individuals who were impaired due to military activities were classified as “duty-disabled” which separates them in some sense from more traditional understandings of beggars in Turkish society. However, since the mid-1990s and the strengthening of the PKK and its growing challenge to Turkey’s state legitimacy, the construction of the “duty disabled” veteran shifted to become the locus of nationalistic pride: disabled veteran’s bodies became recognised as a sacrifice to the state and they were afforded the title of “gazi” (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 9)

Gazi, taken from the Arabic word “Ghazi” is an Islamic honorific title similar to knighthood or martyrdom, semantically rich enough to conjure images of legendary Muslim warriors, Sultans and war ships (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 12). The term thus passes on a great deal of social capital within the “public sphere”, however, the lived experience is often vastly different.

This transformation from duty-disabled to gazi began with government initiatives such as the Anti-Terror Law No.3717 of 1991 which granted soldiers who were “disabled in the struggle against separatist terror” exclusive material assistance in the form of job replacement, interest free-housing credit, medals of honour, etc. (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 10). It continued with the emergence of an increasingly militarised nationalist public culture “in which soldier bodies are invested with enormous political value,” (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 10). This culture was created through flag campaigns and rallies where disabled soldiers were put front and centre in cover stories, television interviews and politicians’ warmongering efforts.

Finally, the process occurred at a community level as well through organisation between disabled veterans themselves. As the numbers of disabled veterans continued to climb and also become more visible facilitating the process of networking, it created unions of sorts for disabled veterans (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 11).

With all of these initiatives in place it would be easy to imagine that given the sheer social capital that a title like gazi imparts to a disabled veteran, along with government initiatives that veterans could have a very different lived experience to other “regularly” disabled peoples in Turkey. However, the material reality of the everyday does not live up to this ultranationalist construction.

Out of this disembodied public sphere and ephemeral exaltations during rallies, the lived experience of disabled veterans is at once similar to that of “regularly disabled” people and a constant battle to reinforce their difference from other disabled people.

Disabled veterans overwhelmingly come from spaces from poorer regions of cities, on the peripheries which are coinhabited by Kurds (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 8) most become dependent on their natal families for financial support and care during the period of their application for welfare under the Anti-Terror Law No.3717. Respondents to the study stated that during this waiting time they felt infantilised by having to be “diapered by their mothers” or having to “ask for money for cigarettes from their father” (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 8). Commonly those who were single prior to their disability are deserted by their girlfriends/have trouble finding spouses and those married generally suffer through marital troubles brought about by financial troubles resulting from their disability (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 8).

Once their welfare has been accepted, the most common jobs afforded to them by the government are janitorial positions, cleaning toilets for government buildings. This government assistance in the form of welfare payments and employment opportunities are an attempt to ‘re-masculinise” the disabled body for access to institutions such as marriage, yet it is undermined by the granting of “feminised” work such as cleaning and other support roles. This attempt to make them sovereign citizens in intimately bound up in the construction of masculinity as competent without considering the gendered nature of the work.

A popular motto of disabled veteran organisations is “We are not disabled but gazis,” which highlights the insecurity of identity and continued struggle to cement this identity of gazi in spaces outside of media and popular culture. Veterans will praise Allah for their impairment coming from their military service and not civilian life such as car accidents; blind veterans will not attend regular blind association meetings because they “have nothing to do with those blind people” (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 15). In one anecdote from the researcher, when wandering the street near their disabled veterans’ association with a veteran informant who was missing a left-arm, they came across a beggar missing his left-arm as well and the veteran angrily stormed off grumbling. The veteran made the case at the next meeting that they should keep beggars away from the association (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 16).

Disabled veterans on the street are often confused with beggars:

I stopped by this patisserie early in the morning. I couldn’t climb the stairs with my wheelchair and asked the shopkeeper for help. The shopkeeper turned toward me, saw me in my wheelchair, and embarrassedly told me: “Sorry, no sales yet. I have no money in the cash register. But I’ll give you a free pastry.”

Veteran informant (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 15)

            This quote from an informant to the study illustrates how easy it is for a disabled person to be confused with a beggar in Turkey. Even when they are not confused with beggars in the street, veterans may well face discrimination and resentment for their government entitlements:

We had tea at a neighbor’s house. A distant relative of his was also present. The next day, my neighbor’s wife blurted out that this guy was gossiping about me: “Oh, what a great deal! I wish that I were also injured during my military service. I’m ready to give up a leg or arm if the state is going to take care of me.” What a cad! As if I wanted this to happen! As if I’m a beggar! I was so close to chopping his leg with a blunt knife to say: “Here you go!”

Veteran informant (Aciksoz, 2012, p. 16)

            In this instance it is actually the state’s welfare program, designed to take veterans out of the beggar stereotype that reinforces the stereotype that veterans are in fact still dependent upon the state.


Uganda – Disabled bodies and communal farming

Ugandan government forces waged a war with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for over two decades (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 218) and at the start of the conflict it was government forces who were the most flagrant abusers of human rights. The government made use of inordinate force, massacres and rape, but it was the LRA who toward the end engaged in the abduction of children for combat and later non-combatants for mutilation and maiming (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 218).

“the LRA’s brutality allows it to use mutilation as a method of communication and control over the population. Ears and lips are cut off as a signal to beware of informing on the LRA. Bicycle riders have their legs cut off because bicycles, a major mode of transportation, also bring communication.”

(Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 218)

The body as the site of war lead to disability being a common consequence of armed conflict in Uganda. In Acholi the term lungulo is used to specifically describe people with impairments and lugoro for people with a weakness of some kind (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 219) and from this distinction the experience of disability, the need to further oneself from such a label becomes apparent, with many individuals resisting the term lungulo favour of lugoro, mirroring Turkish men’s preoccupation with not being feminised as disabled.

The impaired body or the marked body thus then becomes the defining feature through which disabled men perceive their world. The biographical disruption of the course of their life begins at the moment of injury and their lives are taken to be changed since then. One respondent to the study by Hollander and Gill was severely injured by a landmine explosion which shot shrapnel into his stomach and abdominal muscles, killing his father and leaving him severely impaired (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 224). Through the events of the war the LRA killed his wife and today the informant depends entirely on his ageing mother and children.

Respondents like this male think about their experience in binaries, where they were previously virile men, responsible members of society and protector/providers to their families – after their “crippling” events they are “hopeless” (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 225). Gender is integral to understanding not only the internal experience these men have had with disability but also the social and attitudinal nature of their disability.

Northern Uganda is an agrarian society, production is a communal effort in the absence of tractors and other heavy machinery (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 229). Community members organise themselves into farming groups which on a rotating basis take turns in tending to the land of others. In this manner they are able to maximise their profits and outputs as a collective.

Respondents like the one above who have been maimed or impaired in some form are no longer able to participate to the same degree, threatening their networks of social capital (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 229). This inability to provide/protect is an internalised insecurity and a threat to their masculinity, “I was once a man, but now I am disabled” (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 226). This inability to live up to traditional Acholi masculinity is reiterated internally through feelings of dependency and uselessness.

Those unable to contribute to their local farming collective are not just subject to being shunned from the group but also direct verbal abuse (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 227) and those with spouses may also face internal marital problems from spouses being told to leave their disabled partners on the grounds of their uselessness and being a “burden” (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 229) exemplifying the social and attitudinal nature of disability. Often disabled men must take up ‘feminine’ jobs such as brewing alcohol to make ends meet, meaning their very subsistence is feminised (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 227).

Through the binary nature they look at their own biography, the disabled body becomes and embodiment of the past and the war. In this sense while they may be in a post-conflict society and they themselves may well be out of active combat or service, their struggle continues. They live the consequences of the war in their everyday, not just through PTSD-like flash backs (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 224) but through their lived experience. The discrimination and disenfranchisement continues to maintain disabled men in a vulnerable position not just materially but mentally for their failure to bridge the gap with their experience and the expectations placed on them by greater society.

Another respondent was a well-respected school teacher who was known to assist people within the community in their labour (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 228) yet after an horrific motorcycle accident he endured fleeing an LRA ambush he was left paralysed from the waist down (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 224). Once considered strong a virile and responsible member of his community he faces discrimination not just from outsiders that now shun his wife for her refusal to leave him. This loss of social capital comes from his wife being preoccupied in taking care of him and unable to contribute to social affairs such as running a business or taking part in town meetings (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 229). Reciprocity as a theme is recurrent throughout the experience of disabled men in Uganda. Their inability to reciprocate the good will of the community leads them to be discriminated against, a key cultural factor to the discrimination they face.

For another respondent, PTSD-like symptoms threaten to undo the “peace” he lives in. This respondent was attacked by government forces during an attack where his left eye was gouged out, deep lacerations were cut across his chest and stabbed repeatedly in the stomach (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 222). This attack left the respondent severely impaired and in constant pain from activities such as moving small distances, going to the toilet or sexual intercourse. Most troubling for an international scholar is the symptoms of PTSD in which he is triggered by the sight of uniformed soldiers and armed convoys (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 223).  The sight of the government military triggers memories and feelings of injustice and hatred, hatred that the male respondent will share with his community. Peace may have arrived in the cessation of armed conflict, yet the hatreds of the conflict and the war continue within the minds of those disenfranchised and disabled by the course of war. Every time these men need to call for help in the toilet, that they are verbally abused or have triggering memories of the conflict, their impairment reminds them of the war, they embody this conflict and until their needs are met there cannot be peace for them.

What is obvious is the way in which gender is a social canvas on which gendered expectations are both inscribed and internalised. Men’s experience of disabilities is mediated through the gendered expectations placed upon them. It is these men’s inability to physically participate in community that brings them discrimination on highly gendered grounds, a theory of gender is integral to understanding the experience of the disabled Ugandan man post war. This may lead some men to take on masculine emotions in response to their position in society, to openly discuss the injustice, anger and hatred they feel for either belligerent of the war.


Discussion & Conclusions

Turkish and Ugandan disabled men have both similarities and glaring differences between them. While in Turkey the gazi receive funds and other assistance from the government, Acholi men do not have access to such assistance. However, in both cases the referent for their current emasculated position is the able-body and the source of their disability is as much social as it is material.

The Turkish jobs which are afforded to disabled veterans generally place them in low standing. They are support roles such as cleaners which in a hierarchical sense already place them below the individuals who use the toilets. The same is the case for Acholi men who once crippled and unable to take part communal farming take up the brewing of alcohol. In neither case has the government used a theory of gender to consider how these men could be assisted, despite gender being present in the intentions of the Turkish welfare system. Aside from tools such as prostheses to overcome material discrimination, social discrimination could be overcome through consideration of how to give these men skills that could give them value to their communities with a consideration of gender being present.

In the Turkish context the epiphet of gazi does provide for some celebration in a nationalistic context for the disabled body. This social capital however does not translate well into the everyday where they are mistaken for beggars often whereas in the Acholi context the abuse is more pronounced and there does not seem to be any veneration for the victims of war. In both cases there is an active will to distance themselves from “disability” be it through Turkish veterans shooing away beggars from being near their premises to Acholi men preferring the title of “weakened” over “disabled” despite its feminising connotations. The sad irony of course is that both of these groups of men place their own inferiority in relation to the able-body and could only stand to benefit from working with the disabled community to remove the stigma of the disabled body.

The referent for normal and their deviant abnormality, for masculine and their emasculation, is the able-body. No matter how they attempt to frame and picture themselves as not-disabled, the reframing as “not-disabled” says something about disabled bodies, it says something about them. Namely that they are not only less than, they deviate from traditional masculinity, reinforcing their emasculation and thus disability. This caveat is largely invisible to the able-bodies that dominate the peace process and veteran’s affairs bureaucracies of the world. “While able-bodied individuals might not always perceive the wide array of our experiences as embodied, for the respondent group their very disabilities of disfigurements are a constant reminder of the legacy of their own past from which they cannot escape” (Hollander & Gill, 2014, p. 223).

As “new wars” continue to be fought increasingly within the state, against and on bodies as opposed to “traditional wars” between states which fought for control of territory and resources with clear internationally agreed laws, the body is frequently the site of war but not the site of peace.

Peace processes are frequently dominated by privileged abled-bodies that lack the personal experience to consider how disability may be a spoiler for peace. In the case of both Turkey and Uganda it is not difficult to picture how disabled people may foster animosity within the community and thus be a spoiler for peace. In Turkey, gazis are imbued with considerable social capital, those from privileged backgrounds may use their story to run for public office, be it in local or federal government. Their venerated status may grant them some measure of social impunity to say hateful things and warmonger when given access to media platforms through cover stories and it all fits within the hyper-nationalism that is inherent in the construction of the gazi, potentially making the rift between Turkey and Kurds worse. Likewise, in the case of Ugandan men, their continued experience of disenfranchisement at the hands of either party could result in the public expression of their negative experience which could foster hate within those communities. It should not be underestimated the ferocity of discontent that can be organised at a grassroots level particularly around the children of these disabled men.

Regardless of their potential to become spoilers for war, the fact of the matter is that people with disabilities are often the most vulnerable members of society and peace building processes should take this vulnerability into account when considering social justice program. In this sense, there is an opportunity for the disabled people of both conflicts and future to embrace their disability for the sake of community. In the case of Turkey, joining gazi communities with other civil society initiatives for persons with disabilities could result not just in the subversion of the construction of disabled people as beggars, but also gazi association with beggars. Subverting the pejorative notions of disability with weaknesses and abject life experiences could only be beneficial for gazis. Rejecting their own association with disabled civilians does nothing to end the social perceptions of disability upon them and as such challenging this perception is necessary.

Likewise, for disabled Ugandan men who prefer lugoro over lungulo descriptors of their situation, the reality is that they are disabled by more than the lack of farming infrastructure, they are also disabled by social attitudes. The government and other peace processes should attempt to imbue disabled members of the community with access to education and skills that are not necessarily readily available to the Ugandan community already. Perhaps through material aid such as access to rarer, more in demand crop seeds, education in accounting and business to aid in the bartering process or similar.

            As noted in the Turkish case study, the attempt provision material assistance as well as employment is an attempt to make sovereign citizens out of disabled men, while this is a gendered provision, gender has not been used to think of what jobs to give these men. In some sense while the subversion of gendered stereotypes and essentialisation is a welcomed and radical solution to gendered discrimination, sometimes working within gendered constructs can be beneficial to incremental change. Finding ways to give men education in “masculine” fields such as accounting, legal advocacy or otherwise would in breaking down some of the emasculation that comes from feminised work. Acknowledging that men become insecure when their masculinity is challenged and that their experience of disability exacerbates this, needs to be foundational in creating welfare solutions for men in post war.

            Be it in Uganda, Turkey or another society, gender is a dimension which is present whether noticed or not the construction of identity. The social nature of gender necessarily means that the construction is not entirely self-determined but inscribed upon us in the form of expectations which we must live up to in order to be considered to appropriately perform that gender. In this sense disability not only intersects with gender and thus masculinity, disability is gendered and feminised, a person’s experience of disability is mediated through gender. Disabled Turkish veterans find themselves with the honorific title of gazi in the public sphere but find their everyday is a struggle to differentiate themselves from the common stereotype of disabled men as beggars. Government welfare initiatives are intended to make them into sovereign citizens yet do so without a working theory or consideration for gender. Disabled Ugandan men note a similar desire to distance themselves from disability, preferring to be seen as weakened rather than disabled. The abuse and discrimination they face is more pronounced and constructed intimately along Acholi constructions of masculinity as providers and protectors. I have theorised that in both cases the attempt to distance themselves from the label of “disabled” ironically reinforces the discrimination they face and believe that solutions to this is for government and post-conflict reconciliation initiatives to use a theory of gender to both attempt to dispel the notion of disability as abject and useless by providing education and employment that coincides with the internal values of masculinity that disabled men hold.



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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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