Gendering Terror

From the Chechen Black Widows, the female wing of the Sri Lankan Black Tigers, to Leila Khaled and the American middle-aged ‘Jihad Jane’, the media has noted female terrorism by exploring their lives, and  appearance. When these women are believed to be attractive, their participation in terrorism seems more shocking, as it mixes beauty and violence. If they are wives, or mothers, their femininity is considered to be at odds with their violent acts. Their motivations are rarely considered, or not in a way that might do justice to the complex nature of terrorism.

The motivations of female terrorists are normally characterized in relation to the men in their lives: whether it is revenge for the death of a family member, manipulation, or a lover, female terrorists are often denied the agency of choosing violence. Much of the analysis on female terrorists implies that women would never willingly choose violence by themselves. They are portrayed simply as the passive instruments of men’s agency. In comparison, men are assumed to be thier agents of violent actions. When women’s agency is discussed, it is often to celebrate women’s participation in violence as a useful form of political participation. This is problematic as it equates agency and meaningful political participation with violence

Neither portrayal can provide meaningful insight into why women participate in terrorism, and are too vague when it comes to motivation. Surely revenge, manipulation, and love are some potential motivations, but so are religious, political, financial, and many other reasons.

The idea that women will only involve themselves in terrorism by death of a family member, ignores that many men become terrorists for the same reason, and so this motivation is not gender specific. It reinforcing the notion that women are emotional and men rational. The idea that a relationship can lead to a women getting involved in terrorism is also flawed, as it portrays women as being easily seduced. It also sexualizes women in the same way the focus on their appearance does, by labeling them as objects of men’s sexuality and agency.

Our view of female terrorists is determined by our assumptions about masculinity and femininity. The reasons often cited for women’s participation in terrorism are not that different from the  reasons that motivate anyone to engage in terrorism. This does not ignore the manipulation of vulnerability that occurs within terrorist recruitment, but that this vulnerability is not necessarily gender-specific. A man in a desperate situation can, motivated by emotions and manipulation, engage in a violent act.

Female suicide bombers tend to be portrayed as desperate and vulnerable, and so are easily recruited. Men are often seen as being motivated by some kind of religious or political principle. Narratives of vulnerability such as a husband walking out, infertility, rape, or a family member’s death, are usually how female suicide bombers are referred to. Terrorist organisations are described as ‘using’ women for suicide attacks, making them seem merely a tool of terrorism rather than a participant. When it is a male bomber, the emphasis is on their responsibility and choice.

The key point here, is are women associated with peace and men with violence? If we are shocked by female terrorists , what does this say about the effectiveness of security procedures that are meant to guard against terrorism? The larger political or religious context is ignored, replaced by a focus on gender. News stories about female terrorists often refer to their beauty as distracting, noting the impact this can have on security procedures. But beyond the distraction of beauty, it is also due to a discursive mismatch between beauty and violence, between women and violence, that results from gendered assumptions, that makes the response to female terrorists so limited.

For a fuller discussion, see Jessica Auchter, ‘Gendering Terror: Discourses of Terrorism and Writing Woman-as-Agent,’ International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2012, 121-139.

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