Every time we hear of girls and young women who appear to embrace violent jihad by joining Islamic State (IS) or al-Shabaab, we struggle to comprehend their actions. Violent women subvert entrenched notions of femininity which tell us women are gentle, nurturing and conformist. Violence by women tests the limits of these norms, and is threatening because it reveals that cultural understandings of womanhood are constructed – in other words, these norms are not given or “natural”.
Portrayals of violent women in the media often vilify them as warped and evil, or demean them with humour. There is a tendency to assume that women are not truly in control of their violent acts. Instead, they have been coerced, have fallen under the influence of others or are not in their right minds. Of course, violence by men is not considered to be acceptable as such, but it is more easily seen as an acknowledged aspect of normal male behaviour. Culturally, violence is coded as masculine.
In my work on gender representations of women who kill, I have examined the repetition of certain stock stories about violent women, for example as witches on the margins of society. For the most part, these stories emphasise the deviance of female murderers, repeating stereotypes of violent women as especially masculine or as sexually depraved. These portrayals reappear in different places and at different times. This is not to argue that the telling of these stories is fixed and unchanging; it gets modified in relation to new events, contexts and cultural concerns. But these stock stories offer ready-made explanations for, and ways of talking about, women’s involvement in violence.
Marriage of convenience
The phenomenon of girls and young women travelling to Syria to join IS have also been portrayed in the media through stock stories and gendered stereotypes. The widely used term “jihadi bride” is a clear example. The fact that “jihadi” has to run alongside the idealised feminine role of the bride underlines the novelty of young women’s – and particularly young western women’s – involvement with IS.
Such gendered nicknames, which define the role of women and girls in relation to men, have trivialising effects. Articles raise the spectre of young women’s rebellious actions to participate in a violent, extremist group, and yet they also rob those actions of their seriousness through repetition of these vaguely humorous nicknames.
A parallel can be found in the practice of referring to female Chechen terrorists as “black widows”. This is a more threatening term than “jihadi bride” but it similarly positions women in relation to a conventionally feminine, heterosexual role. One reading of this is women avenging the deaths of their husbands. There is also a longer standing meaning of the deadly black widow who kills multiple husbands. This plays into stereotypes of women’s calculated evil and devouring sexuality. Samantha Lewthwaite, believed to be a prominent figure in Somali terrorist group, al-Shabaab, has been dubbed the “white widow”.
Contrasting portrayals can be found where women are judged to be on the “right” side. Kurdish women who fight IS are described as “brave” and skilled fighters. But this does not mean they are immune from the stereotypes – one headline from the Daily Mirror called them the “angels of death” in an attempt to highlight the novelty of their femininity.
The thrill of implied deviant sexuality is a significant aspect of reports on female members of IS. Terms with sexual connotations, such as “seduced” and “lured”, are used to describe Western young women and girls travelling to Syria to join IS. These terms play down willing choices but also hint at a sexual motivation.
The Daily Mail’s website is a particularly good example of how media outlets seek to highlight this aspect of women in IS. It is illustrated by their report on a “female Gestapo” whose members “bite and whip any woman who steps out of line and force girls to become sex slaves”. Rape and sexual abuse in IS camps is a serious issue but this reporting, complete with Nazi imagery, is uncomfortably close to soft pornography. It seems designed to titillate the reader above all else. And of course, MailOnline stories are always accompanied by its infamous sidebar of shame, where celebrity gossip and pictures of semi-naked women which deepen the associations between young women and girls, and sex.
Women’s involvement in political violence and terrorism makes it more newsworthy, as some articles explore and as the recruiters recognise. Femininity is especially symbolic. The unruly behaviour of women and girls is interpreted as a warning sign of social disorder. A comparison can be found in the media fascination with young women’s drunkenness. This is a less apocalyptic symbol of social unrest than joining IS, but also voices fears about female unruliness.
The stereotypes and assumptions about young women and girls who join or support IS downplay the significance of politics. The absence of a consideration of their political rationale from many, (although not all), news features denies that these could matter or need to be understood. This prevents the opportunity to investigate and counter the motivations that brought them to their decision. Instead, women and girls must have been brainwashed, lured or seduced by cleverer men – it is a powerful, enduring narrative that we would do well to reject.