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The phrase 'innocent women and children' is sexist, racist, and inaccurate

We hear it all the time. We use it all the time. But scholar Emily Cousens says "innocent women and children" has got to go from our vocabulary, because it's both sexist and racist.
Volunteer medics assist an Iraqi civilian injured while fleeing his Islamic State group-controlled neighbourhood of Mosul in a November, 2016. This photo serves as a reminder that not all victims are women or children. (Nish Nalbandian/The Associated Press)
Listen8:59

"Innocent women and children." 

It's a phrase we hear, and read, often, especially in stories about catastrophe in far away places. 

But Emily Cousens says we need to rethink it. 

"I think that the innocent men are excluded when we use the term 'innocent women and children.'"

And, she argues, there are racist undertones too. 

Emily Cousens is a PhD student and researcher at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. (Provided )

Emily Cousens is a PhD student researching the concepts of vulnerability and feminism, at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. She joined Jim Brown for a conversation about the oft-used term. 

The following is a condensed version of that conversation. 

When I hear this phrase, it reminds me of that sort of Titanic-hitting-the-iceberg phrase "women and children first." Are they related? 

I always think about that as well, that's the kind of image that I have, that sort of springs to mind. I think it is related. I think, again, in the Titanic, it's the idea...that women need to protect the children, but I would argue that it suggests that, actually, it's the women and children that are in need of protection, and the men somehow don't need protection, or they can protect themselves. And I think that when we apply this phrase to the victims of war, we are saying that we don't need to protect the male victims of war, and I think that there are very problematic implications of that. 

It sort of implies that men are, rather than being people in need of protection, men are protectors. 

Yeah. I think it's both, I think in the context of the Titanic, maybe men are seen as the protectors, but I would suggest that there might be a more sinister racist undertone when we apply this term to North African refugees, for example. If we're saying that only women and children are vulnerable, perhaps we're suggesting that all [male] North African refugees are somehow aggressors, or somehow not worthy of our protection. 

I would suggest that there might be a more sinister racist undertone when we apply this term to North African refugees, for example... The underlying assumption seems to be that the men aren't innocent, they're guilty.

When we talk about innocent women and children, if we're excluding groups from that, we're excluding men from that, the underlying assumption seems to be that the men aren't innocent, they're guilty. And I would suggest that, in the context of the refugee crisis, and the way that we, often in the west, misperceive and misrepresent Arab men. We're constantly, in the media, seeing images of Arab men as terrorists; in the case of Cologne, we saw Arab men being represented as rapists, and I think that these sort of constant negative images of Arab men, coupled with the idea that they don't count as the innocent, suggests that they're always guilty, that they're not human in the way that perhaps women and children are. 

So that almost hinges on the idea that we don't say "innocent women and children" if we're talking about Western disasters and Western people under attack. 

Exactly. I live in London, and in the most recent London terror attack, Theresa May talked about innocent people. And we often talk about innocent civilians, innocent men, women, and children, if we're talking about our own population being under attack. We don't just highlight women and children as the lives that are worth grieving, or the lives that we care about. 

Cousens says that when we refer to refugees as "innocent women and children," we discount the men who are suffering too - men who could become contributing members of Western society, if we took them into account. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

So when men aren't included, the implication is that in that particular instance, men are the wagers of war, men are the guilty. 

Yes, I think so. Or perhaps that, if their lives are lost, it's not a big humanitarian concern because when the lives of babies and innocent children are lost, that really captures, and tugs on the heartstrings of Western populations. 

Now, I'm sure a lot of people are going to be listening to this, and they're going to be saying to themselves, "aren't we being a little too picky with language here?" Isn't the phrase "innocent women and children" just another way of saying "civilians" to a lot of people? 

I think that it's not. I think that it's a very carefully employed way of dividing civilians into good civilians and bad civilians. If we think about the images that we saw of Syrian chemical weapons attack, we saw lots of images of children suffering, and they were extremely powerful images. So powerful that they have sort of changed how countries are responding. And I wonder whether, if those images of Syrian children had been largely of the adult male population in Syria, whether or not people's heartstrings would have been tugged on quite so effectively, and I think that the way that we talk about innocent women and children, and the way that we have images that support this term, means that our humanitarian sympathies are much more blunted when it comes to the lives of men in these countries. 

I think that it's a very carefully employed way of dividing civilians into good civilians and bad civilians.

So, the next time we see a politician or a journalist use the phrase "innocent women and children," what should we think? 

I think we should think about who is not included in that phrase, and whether or not that is fair and just. I think the gendering of innocence is unfair, and unjust, and old-fashioned. It's completely irrelevant to 2017, and so I think that, when you hear it used, think about who's not included in that phrase, and whether or not they should be included. 

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