Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?
As acts of political violence flood local and international news media outlets, it is imperative that academic study scrutinises, and if necessary, challenges, these news media representations. For the majority of people watching, listening to, or reading the news, these representations are the only information that they will receive. Hence, the content of these portrayals and how they are produced, have a significant impact on news consumers’ ideologies and understandings of political violence.
What is more, violence (and most threats to security) are deemed a primarily male domain. Women’s involvement in political violence jars with this ‘masculine endeavour. Women who commit acts of political violence are not depicted simply as combatants, freedom fighters or terrorists, but their representations in the news media are gendered. The terms female combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist are pregnant with gendering, as not only does the adjective ‘female’ come before combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist, which highlights her gender before her actions, but the fact that her gender must be qualified speaks volumes about the palatability of women engaging in political violence.
As the news media have a significant role in mirroring, creating and perpetuating social norms, the consequences of this is that the categories of representation can be adopted by news consumers and repeated and reiterated through dialogue and socialisation. The news media may be guilty of underpinning, rather than confronting, the dominant patriarchal culture and subsequently participating in women’s marginalisation in public life.
In society, women are generally defined by traditional gender roles, and these narratives are picked up by the news media and bolstered by repeated depiction. In the news media, women are still depicted using a formula of gendered accounts, especially with a focus on appearance. For example, hits in Google for Amal Clooney are blogs dedicated to her fashion sense. Unfortunately, her impeccable style looms large over her career as a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. Moreover, Michelle Obama is as well-known for her clothes (Weaver, 2017) as she is for her campaign for female education. Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with referring to someone’s clothes, when this becomes the be all and end all of a person’s characterisation this is where it is detrimental to women’s equality. If women’s news media portrayal is distilled down to an outfit, this constrains women’s roles to one-dimensional symbols of beauty rather than as figures of change.
This is particularly notable with regards to female combatants, as their acts of political violence are also framed by gender constructions. For example, the online New York Post’s headline ‘She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist’ (Rosenbaum, 2015) gives the impression of puzzlement. Why would a beautiful woman choose to be a terrorist as surely her beauty could have been better spent elsewhere?! The currency (and commodity) of beauty is a valuable and looked-for bargaining chip in society, “[t]hey call her the ‘beautiful terrorist with a Mona Lisa smile’ and she’s as wanted as any work by Leonardo da Vinci”(Rosenbaum, 2015). The choice of the word “wanted” alludes to her being sought by authorities for terrorist offences, but also wanted as in desired sexually. The portrayal of her appearance and associated sexuality have overshadowed her political activism, and the fact that the allusion to her looks precedes her occupation underscores the notion that her appearance is more important than her political agency.
Furthermore, the interview of Viner (2001) and Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is saturated with gendered connotations: “international pin-up”; “the gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye”; “Her cheekbones are still like knives; her eyes are gentle but flicker when moved”. This effusively gendered account of Khaled champions her appearance over her acts of political violence in 1960s and 70s. The oxymoron of the ‘beautiful terrorist’ suggests an uneasiness as beauty and terror are conflated. The paradoxes of sharp cheekbones as signifiers of attractiveness and knives as deadly weapons, and of delicate hands holding lethal arms, are difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, the female combatant is aesthetically pleasing by adhering to the accepted norms of beauty, however, on the other hand, her beauty is balanced with the ugly acts of terrorists. It is challenging to negotiate and navigate between the two notions in the news media. Therefore, in order to acquaint the female terrorist with the news consumer, familiar frameworks of understanding are utilised.
One such framework is the theme of hypersexuality. The Independent.ie calls Idoia Lopez Riano “the seductress ‘Tigresa’ lost her lust for killing” (Govan, 2011a) that alludes to her sexuality and female libidinousness which portrays her as a lascivious profligate. Frequently, female sexuality is referenced to undermine a woman’s credibility and ability. Moreover, an ‘oversexed’ woman is portrayed as having aberrant sexuality which has led her to murder, rather than a conscious and deliberate choice based on political acumen. The “green-eyed femme fatale”(Govan, 2011b) is a seductress rather than a political activist.
Another theme used to characterise female combatants is that of motherhood imagery. Kendall (2015) reports that Mairead Farrell, a member of the Provisional IRA, endeavoured to distance the female volunteers from the Mother Ireland image “because it didn’t reflect what we believed in…we’d moved on from that”. The iconic maternal figure wholly undercuts any form of agency within female combatants by reducing them to flat characters with meaning imbued upon them, rather than revolutionaries with their own agency.
The themes used in the news media categorise the female combatants/terrorists/freedom fighters in such a way as to undermine any form of agency or choice. The female combatant is difficult to articulate to a mass audience, thus short-hand stereotypes paint her with broad brush strokes and whitewash her political activism to present a less threatening woman, rather than a violent agent of change. A significant outcome of preserving the image of traditional feminine passivity in the news media, is that the imagery is internalised by news consumers and this affects how female combatants are seen. By manipulating gendered cultural norms to advance their cause, women have a vital role in paramilitary organisations where certain activities cannot be performed by men without attracting unwanted attention and detection. However, this further exemplifies and solidifies women’s secondary role in society by fostering gender inequality. Women’s emancipation is truncated because social values, expectations and assumptions about women are preserved.
Women are underestimated because of their presumed non-threatening nature; they are not important enough to warrant investigation. Due to this, women can infiltrate areas without detection or suspicion. In addition, the sensitivities to searching women’s bodies allow women to feign pregnancy in order to hide bombs (Bloom et al., 2011).
Therefore, when the news media keeps these gendered narratives alive it is misinforming the population about female combatants’ capabilities. Perhaps this is over-reading and over-stating the news media’s role – however, as news media accounts of female combatants (and women in general) still present them as sex objects, these representations must be analysed and confronted. It is important to examine gender as a category of experience and a social process, but it must not be overemphasised as a reason for actions. When political violence is reduced to gendered reasons, such as the Chechen Black Widows (Stack, 2011), this only allows the female actors to be understood through the prism of gender, which is a social construction. This is internalised in social cognition and can have devastating effects upon women’s equality, as it fosters the male as the norm and female as the other.
Not only do gender stereotypes in the news media harm gender equality, they also impede counter- and anti-terrorism security measures. Nacos’s advice is that in order to combat terrorism, the opportunities for the manipulation of gender prejudices by terrorists must be shut down. A suggested method is to allow and encourage gender reality to inform counter-terrorism policies by removing the gender stereotypes of female combatants in the news media, as these stereotypes “reflect and reinforce deep-seated societal attitudes”(2005: 448).
To finish, this analysis of the news media endeavours to be critical rather than pessimistic as the news media also have the power to defy pre-existing norms by refusing to use familiar gender stereotypes to represent female combatants and women in general.
Bloom M, Gill P and Horgan J. (2011) Tiocfaidh ar Mna: Women in the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 4: 60-76.
Govan F. (2011a) How the Seductress ‘Tigresa’ Lost her Lust for Killing. Available at: http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/how-the-seductress-tigresa-lost-her-lust-for-killing-26795118.html.
Govan F. (2011b) La Tigresa Kicked Out of ETA After Renouncing Violence. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/8910436/La-Tigresa-kicked-out-of-ETA-after-renouncing-violence.html.
Kendall B. (2015) What Drives Women to Extreme Acts? Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-33600267.
Nacos BL. (2005) The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in the Media: Similar Framing Patterns in the News Coverage of Women in Politics and Terrorism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28: 435-451.
Rosenbaum S. (2015) She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist. Available at: http://nypost.com/2015/10/26/turkish-police-hunt-for-smirking-female-isis-suspect/.
Stack A. (2011) Zombies Versus Black Widows Women as Propaganda in the Chechen Conflict. In: Sjoberg L and Gentry CE (eds) Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 83-95.
Viner K. (2001) ‘I made the ring from a bullet and the pin of a hand grenade’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jan/26/israel.
Weaver H. (2017) The Significance of Michelle Obama’s Bold Red Dress During Her Final Speech as FLOTUS. Available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/01/michelle-obama-final-speech-red-dress.