Men recruitment of others to suicide bombing. Yet, women

Men are the typical image that
comes to mind when people are asked to describe a terrorist. However, women
have long been known to participate in terrorist activities across the globe, ranging
from recruitment of others to suicide bombing. Yet, women have attracted
disproportionately large amounts of media coverage compared to terrorist acts
committed by men. There has been no evidence to prove there are differences
between a female terrorist and a male terrorist, from their recruitment to
their political or religious motivation, however the mass media portrayal of
female terrorists seems to encompass western societal gender stereotypes. Female
gender norms are presented by the media outlets to act feminine, which includes
attributes like being caring and peaceful, and therefore provides stereotypes
which image women as incapable of committing atrocities or being associated
with groups which carry out terrorist acts. So, to feminise these acts in a way
which society deems acceptable the media portray female terrorists into certain
categories to keep these gender norms. They’re categorised into stereotypical
female terrorist; these stereotypes were also created by the media. These
categories range from female terrorists being portrayed as a victim to a
ruthless woman.

                        

To understand how female
terrorists are represented by media, we must define the term terrorism. Even
though the definition of terrorism is still constantly debated and differs
between states and scholars, one definition of terrorism is; ‘Terrorism is
premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant
targets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents’ (U.S. Department of
State, 1996). Yet Terrorism is typically portrayed by western media as
asymmetrical warfare between smaller non-western forces and western states with
large armies. In this essay, I will explore how media portrayal, focusing
mainly on Western media outlets, of female terrorists and to the extent in
which the portrayal of them is gendered can be explained as gendered and to
what extent this is due to their gender.

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Female terrorists are represented
differently by the media on many occasions. The female terrorist has been subjected
by media outlets to how they look, what they wear, their body language etc.
rather than the act of terrorism itself, which is what male terrorists more
often than not are. Anne Mcelvoy a journalist for the times in London when
reporting on the infamous ETA’s female terrorist the Tigress said that the ‘the
Tigress “has the looks of a Mediterranean movie star”‘ (Ness, 2007).  The fact that the article automatically shows
how media outlets believe that the looks of a female terrorist are news worthy
and represents how they look, before what they have done or why they have done
it. This is not a new phenomenon, women have been subjected to their looks long
before this and in many different roles. Even in recent times, British
newspapers have done the same, the Daily Mail had an article on ‘Cameron’s
Cuties’ doing the ‘Downing Street catwalk’. The article went on to evaluate and
describe the outfits of the MP’s such as, ‘who looked chic in a
grey Vivienne Westwood dress with her long blonde hair perfectly coiffed.’
(London, 2014). Females are portrayed by the media based on their looks more
often than not, female terrorists are of no exception.

 

One way the media portrays the
female terrorist in question is through a victim narrative. This is where women
are pictured to have become victims to their own emotion, and so act upon it,
or are victims to the will of others. This category limits women to be
portrayed as too foolish and submissive to understand the ideology, be it
political or religious, behind the terrorism they are supposedly committing
because they are under the will of males. The media use the idea of an immature
woman to portray a woman who cannot understand the true meanings of their
actions and so are portrayed as being deceived into terrorism. These portrayals
imply that women are too naïve or unintelligent to comprehend the terrorism that
they are a part of. The idea that women can’t understand ideology is being
promoted, therefore implies their motivations lie elsewhere; which by the media
outlets is typically portrayed as an emotional conviction to become terrorists.
 This is problematic since it adds to the
narrative that women fail to think logically but rely on emotions for their
decision making. Yet even after all this, studies show that female terrorists
are more likely to have a better education than males within the same terrorist
group as them, for example in Latin America ‘Sendero’s female members were
often more well educated than their male counterparts’ (O’Toole, 2014). ‘News
reports explore these (female) terrorists’ relationships because they are
thought to be attracted to the cause for the love of a man’ (Nacos, 2005). This
goes to further show how a woman cannot have her own ideals which motivate her
towards terrorism instead it’s for pursuing the agenda of men. In this scenario,
news reports assume it’s because of the ‘love of a man’, that they were
recruited. This portrayal is a false one since women and men are both just as
likely to be recruited by friends and families as the other. Women can even be
the lovers who bring men to terrorism; Osama Bin Laden stated that ‘They
(women) motivated and encouraged their sons, brothers and husbands to fight
(Sjoberg and Gentry, 2011). The role of a victim which media outlets portray goes
on to also suggest that women are used by men as puppets to further their agenda,
which is possible only due to patriarchal societies that women live in. This
reduces the responsibility of women and adds to the idea that men are coercive,
manipulative and generally much more violent. This stereotype portrays the
victim role further; yet, this may sometimes be true as it is supported by the
structure of the LTTE, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, even though women
made up a large proportion of the organisation ‘the LTTE has created a highly
localised and patriarchal understanding of womanhood despite the presence of
female cadres’ (Mahan and Griset, 2005). These portrayals help to further
reinforce gender roles already in place; where the male is dominant and violent
and the female is submissive and caring.

 

Women are to be feminine is a typical
narrative upheld globally, and when a woman departs from this social norm of
being caring nurturing etc. and instead turns to violence they are treated as
if they have become irrational. This leads
onto another common portrayal from media outlets which is the one of a broken
woman, damaged mentally due to her failure as a mother or as a wife. Again,
this portrayal of women implies their main role in life is to be providers as mothers
and wives and that any other role they take up, including terrorism, is
diverting from social norms and therefore must be damaged or insane to have
taken up these roles. There have been many instances and examples of women
being questioned for the reasoning behind their political drive to become a
terrorist, whereas a male terrorist doesn’t receive this same treatment. Female
Terrorists are questioned by the media if they resort to terrorism often
seeking if it was due to their failure fulfilling typical gender roles. ‘The clothes also concealed the explosives strapped around her
womb.’ (Dickey, 2005). This shows how the female terrorist portrayal is
gendered; the fact that her womb is mentioned brings attention to her biology.
The womb itself is also closely linked with the idea of motherhood, again
reinforcing gender stereotypes. Her womb being the source of her motivation is
what is suggested as the writer points out that the explosives are strapped to
it. How successful they are as mothers and wives seem to define how they are to
act, according to the media, instead of how they define themselves politically
for example. As well as how they are portrayed as terrorists. It could even be
said that Christopher Dickey insinuated that the female terrorist treated the
explosives as a child which was to be concealed and protected and brought to
the womb for safe guarding. Again, perpetuating societal gender roles; where
the woman is to naturally act as caring and protective. This is further shown
by the nickname given to Chechen female terrorists the ‘Black Widows’; they are
referred to and portrayed to be bound by their role as a wife by media outlets.
This narrative assumes that the woman must have a problem with their femininity
and therefore react in an outburst which is terrorism. Even though when
categorised in this way, they are portrayed as much less of a danger due to
their femininity and need to act as a mother or wife, even though already being
apparent failures in these roles.

 

The media also use the depiction
of a ruthless woman to portray female terrorists. The narrative explains them
to be less of a woman because they are portrayed to be tougher than men, tough
being a masculine trait and for women to be tougher than men is unlike what a
woman should be according to social norms. ‘”Once in an active
service unit they tend to be more cold-blooded and lethal than the men because
they have to prove their worth.”‘ (Tremlett, 2002). This description
highlights also that some female terrorists feel that to enter and stay within
such a masculine world such as terrorism they must too act masculine, the media
portrays this as a deviance from femininity and makes them less of a woman due
to their increased aggressiveness. This depiction of female terrorists is also
seen in politics; the first female prime minster of Britain, Margret Thatcher,
was described as the ‘Iron Lady’ and constantly described as ruthless by the
mass media. Even
when female terrorists aren’t more ruthless than males, they can still be
portrayed as being so. This is because if a woman commits these acts it departs
so far from their social norms that it is looked upon more; whereas it is
believed it is much more likely for a man to act in this way since terrorism is
a masculine world and linked closely with masculinity. Therefore, seeming much
more normal for a man to become a terrorist than a woman, and a woman to then be
portrayed as much more ruthless than their male counterparts.

 

Boredom is also used by the media
to portray women so that they can show female terrorists with a lack of
political motivation, whereas men are not portrayed in the same manner. This
narrative created by the media portrays a female terrorist as out of touch with
real life, on top of this the narrative includes boredom it leads to the
dangerous outcome of terrorism. This makes their actions portrayed as particularly
non-political; which is typical to the media portrayal of female terrorists. ‘Sometimes
a woman turns to terrorism out of simple boredom. It sounds strange, I know,
but boredom is one of the pathetic rights and privileges of a middle-class
woman’ (Ness, 2007). This portrayal can display female terrorists as tools for
men who are politically motivated and due to their naivety, they are used for a
need they do not necessarily support. This causes a display of an immature
female terrorists. This is a display of patriarchal control being enforced
because women are under the control of men when acting out terrorism and so due
to their naivety male terrorists take up the role of being their political
leaders also.

 

Societal gender roles say that
women should maintain the private sphere, that being the home, and that men
should deal with the possibly dangerous public sphere, that being the outside
world. Yet in the 1970s this begun to change, with the second wave of feminism
women entered the public sphere while leaving the private sphere more and more.
The wave of feminism witnessed a surge of female activity in criminal
activities from robbery and drugs to white collar crimes. ‘The emergence of this ‘new female criminal’ engaged in
predatory crimes of violence and corporate fraud has broken into a man’s world’
(Trueman, 2015), this statement ‘broken into a man’s world’ leads to an
assumption that females have no place in the world of crime and therefore,
terrorism also. Many women
turned to left wing terrorism for feminist reasons and general women advocacy.
Even though feminists are divided in opinion over rejecting masculine
militarisation; it is still viewed as a deviant form of feminism for a feminist
movement to employ terrorism and to use females to do so. This portrayal of women implies that women are attempting to
become more like men by trying to enter their supposed ‘world’ of militarism by
creating a deviating form of feminism.

 

In most of these portrayals,
societal gender roles are contradicted by the lack of feminine attributes.
Leading to an assumption that feminine women cannot be terrorists as the two
contradict each other. Often the lack of femininity is how the media portray
female terrorists as well as emphasising any masculine characteristics that
they may have. Although these portrayals are common female terrorists can also
have their femininity at the centre of their terrorism. Female terrorist groups
such as the Palestinians nicknamed the Army of Roses and the Chechen terrorists
nicknamed the Black Widows. Yet these names can be seen as the media trivialising
their actions and not taking into account their political motivations but
focusing on their womanhood instead. Again, displaying that women only take up
the use terrorism for personal reasons and not because of political
motivations.

 

Terrorists are portrayed as
violent and merciless by the media, typically men are given this reaction, in
almost all instances. Although there are variations among media reaction around
race by certain outlets; for example, a white American terrorist is much more likely
to be portrayed as a lone wolf or mentally deranged and an ISIS bomber. An
example of this is Frazier Glen Cross who killed 3 Jews on Passover eve and
screamed ‘Heil Hitler’ after his arrest was labelled as ‘Kansas Gunman’ by the
Daily Mail instead of being labelled a terrorist (Nye, 2014). This shows that
media portrayal of terrorists varies among factors other than gender. Even
though there is a variation in the narrative used to describe how terrorists
act, in this example it being their race that caused the difference, they are
still described as violent and merciless regardless of race. Whereas, as this
essay has demonstrated, female terrorists are hardly given this narrative again
showing how the media portrayal differs simply due to the difference in gender.

                                                                                    

In each of these frames, women
are portrayed to only act, or react, due to personal reasons. Therefore, limiting
female terrorists and their acts to a non-political action due to the
assumptions of the frames. Although the majority of cases are categorised into
the ones named above, there are cases where the media do not box female
terrorists into these categories. In an article by Dr Katherine Brown she
discusses ‘Why women are joining Islamic State?’ (Brown, 2014), the article talks
about women from the west travelling to the Middle East to join IS. It also fails
to fall into the categories above as well as being impartial. The article isn’t
gendered but the portrayal is instead alike to an article on male terrorism
would likely be written. This could be due to the fact that a woman wrote the
article or because this is her area of study. Which begs the question whether
it is only women that can produce a non-gendered portrayal for the media of
female terrorists; or because she is educated on the portrayal of women in
terrorism. Even though there are cases such as this the majority of media
outlets portray female terrorists in a gendered light, with this being the
exception to the rule.

 

In
conclusion, women in general, be it in legitimate careers as politicians or
terrorism, are subjected to gender stereotypes of staying in the private sphere
as the public sphere as these political activities they take up aren’t
acceptable for a woman. The media portrayal of female terrorists is typically a
portrayal of a naïve woman who only acts upon personal reasons and they don’t
have the ability to have political motivations behind their actions; which
further imposes and reinforced societal gender norms upon women that are
already in place. Female terrorists are stereotyped to not chose to act but
rather react to situations and emotion is used as a big part of their
reasoning. As well as this a skewed portrayal of female terrorists can, in fact,
affect counter terrorism measures, especially if the narratives effect the
people in power and in charge of counter terrorism. This leads to making it
hard to combat female terrorist’s due to their capabilities not being realised
or understood.