Men are the typical image thatcomes to mind when people are asked to describe a terrorist. However, womenhave long been known to participate in terrorist activities across the globe, rangingfrom recruitment of others to suicide bombing. Yet, women have attracteddisproportionately large amounts of media coverage compared to terrorist actscommitted by men. There has been no evidence to prove there are differencesbetween a female terrorist and a male terrorist, from their recruitment totheir political or religious motivation, however the mass media portrayal offemale terrorists seems to encompass western societal gender stereotypes. Femalegender norms are presented by the media outlets to act feminine, which includesattributes like being caring and peaceful, and therefore provides stereotypeswhich image women as incapable of committing atrocities or being associatedwith groups which carry out terrorist acts. So, to feminise these acts in a waywhich society deems acceptable the media portray female terrorists into certaincategories to keep these gender norms. They’re categorised into stereotypicalfemale terrorist; these stereotypes were also created by the media.
Thesecategories range from female terrorists being portrayed as a victim to aruthless woman. To understand how femaleterrorists are represented by media, we must define the term terrorism. Eventhough the definition of terrorism is still constantly debated and differsbetween states and scholars, one definition of terrorism is; ‘Terrorism ispremeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatanttargets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents’ (U.S. Department ofState, 1996). Yet Terrorism is typically portrayed by western media asasymmetrical warfare between smaller non-western forces and western states withlarge armies. In this essay, I will explore how media portrayal, focusingmainly on Western media outlets, of female terrorists and to the extent inwhich the portrayal of them is gendered can be explained as gendered and towhat extent this is due to their gender. Female terrorists are representeddifferently by the media on many occasions.
The female terrorist has been subjectedby 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 moreoften than not are. Anne Mcelvoy a journalist for the times in London whenreporting on the infamous ETA’s female terrorist the Tigress said that the ‘theTigress “has the looks of a Mediterranean movie star”‘ (Ness, 2007). The fact that the article automatically showshow media outlets believe that the looks of a female terrorist are news worthyand represents how they look, before what they have done or why they have doneit. This is not a new phenomenon, women have been subjected to their looks longbefore this and in many different roles. Even in recent times, Britishnewspapers have done the same, the Daily Mail had an article on ‘Cameron’sCuties’ doing the ‘Downing Street catwalk’. The article went on to evaluate anddescribe the outfits of the MP’s such as, ‘who looked chic in agrey Vivienne Westwood dress with her long blonde hair perfectly coiffed.'(London, 2014).
Females are portrayed by the media based on their looks moreoften than not, female terrorists are of no exception. One way the media portrays thefemale terrorist in question is through a victim narrative. This is where womenare 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 beportrayed as too foolish and submissive to understand the ideology, be itpolitical or religious, behind the terrorism they are supposedly committingbecause they are under the will of males. The media use the idea of an immaturewoman to portray a woman who cannot understand the true meanings of theiractions and so are portrayed as being deceived into terrorism. These portrayalsimply that women are too naïve or unintelligent to comprehend the terrorism thatthey are a part of. The idea that women can’t understand ideology is beingpromoted, therefore implies their motivations lie elsewhere; which by the mediaoutlets is typically portrayed as an emotional conviction to become terrorists.
This is problematic since it adds to thenarrative that women fail to think logically but rely on emotions for theirdecision making. Yet even after all this, studies show that female terroristsare more likely to have a better education than males within the same terroristgroup as them, for example in Latin America ‘Sendero’s female members wereoften more well educated than their male counterparts’ (O’Toole, 2014). ‘Newsreports explore these (female) terrorists’ relationships because they arethought to be attracted to the cause for the love of a man’ (Nacos, 2005).
Thisgoes to further show how a woman cannot have her own ideals which motivate hertowards 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 wererecruited. This portrayal is a false one since women and men are both just aslikely to be recruited by friends and families as the other. Women can even bethe 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 goeson 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. Thisreduces the responsibility of women and adds to the idea that men are coercive,manipulative and generally much more violent. This stereotype portrays thevictim role further; yet, this may sometimes be true as it is supported by thestructure of the LTTE, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, even though womenmade up a large proportion of the organisation ‘the LTTE has created a highlylocalised and patriarchal understanding of womanhood despite the presence offemale cadres’ (Mahan and Griset, 2005).
These portrayals help to furtherreinforce gender roles already in place; where the male is dominant and violentand the female is submissive and caring. Women are to be feminine is a typicalnarrative upheld globally, and when a woman departs from this social norm ofbeing caring nurturing etc. and instead turns to violence they are treated asif they have become irrational.
This leadsonto another common portrayal from media outlets which is the one of a brokenwoman, 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 mothersand wives and that any other role they take up, including terrorism, isdiverting from social norms and therefore must be damaged or insane to havetaken up these roles. There have been many instances and examples of womenbeing questioned for the reasoning behind their political drive to become aterrorist, whereas a male terrorist doesn’t receive this same treatment.
FemaleTerrorists are questioned by the media if they resort to terrorism oftenseeking if it was due to their failure fulfilling typical gender roles. ‘The clothes also concealed the explosives strapped around herwomb.’ (Dickey, 2005). This shows how the female terrorist portrayal isgendered; the fact that her womb is mentioned brings attention to her biology.The womb itself is also closely linked with the idea of motherhood, againreinforcing gender stereotypes. Her womb being the source of her motivation iswhat is suggested as the writer points out that the explosives are strapped toit. How successful they are as mothers and wives seem to define how they are toact, according to the media, instead of how they define themselves politicallyfor example.
As well as how they are portrayed as terrorists. It could even besaid that Christopher Dickey insinuated that the female terrorist treated theexplosives as a child which was to be concealed and protected and brought tothe womb for safe guarding. Again, perpetuating societal gender roles; wherethe woman is to naturally act as caring and protective. This is further shownby the nickname given to Chechen female terrorists the ‘Black Widows’; they arereferred 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 femininityand therefore react in an outburst which is terrorism. Even though whencategorised in this way, they are portrayed as much less of a danger due totheir femininity and need to act as a mother or wife, even though already beingapparent failures in these roles.
The media also use the depictionof a ruthless woman to portray female terrorists. The narrative explains themto be less of a woman because they are portrayed to be tougher than men, toughbeing a masculine trait and for women to be tougher than men is unlike what awoman should be according to social norms. ‘”Once in an activeservice unit they tend to be more cold-blooded and lethal than the men becausethey have to prove their worth.”‘ (Tremlett, 2002).
This descriptionhighlights also that some female terrorists feel that to enter and stay withinsuch a masculine world such as terrorism they must too act masculine, the mediaportrays this as a deviance from femininity and makes them less of a woman dueto their increased aggressiveness. This depiction of female terrorists is alsoseen in politics; the first female prime minster of Britain, Margret Thatcher,was described as the ‘Iron Lady’ and constantly described as ruthless by themass media. Evenwhen female terrorists aren’t more ruthless than males, they can still beportrayed as being so.
This is because if a woman commits these acts it departsso far from their social norms that it is looked upon more; whereas it isbelieved it is much more likely for a man to act in this way since terrorism isa masculine world and linked closely with masculinity. Therefore, seeming muchmore normal for a man to become a terrorist than a woman, and a woman to then beportrayed as much more ruthless than their male counterparts. Boredom is also used by the mediato portray women so that they can show female terrorists with a lack ofpolitical motivation, whereas men are not portrayed in the same manner. Thisnarrative created by the media portrays a female terrorist as out of touch withreal life, on top of this the narrative includes boredom it leads to thedangerous outcome of terrorism. This makes their actions portrayed as particularlynon-political; which is typical to the media portrayal of female terrorists.
‘Sometimesa 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-classwoman’ (Ness, 2007). This portrayal can display female terrorists as tools formen who are politically motivated and due to their naivety, they are used for aneed they do not necessarily support. This causes a display of an immaturefemale terrorists. This is a display of patriarchal control being enforcedbecause women are under the control of men when acting out terrorism and so dueto their naivety male terrorists take up the role of being their politicalleaders also. Societal gender roles say thatwomen should maintain the private sphere, that being the home, and that menshould deal with the possibly dangerous public sphere, that being the outsideworld. Yet in the 1970s this begun to change, with the second wave of feminismwomen entered the public sphere while leaving the private sphere more and more.
The wave of feminism witnessed a surge of female activity in criminalactivities from robbery and drugs to white collar crimes. ‘The emergence of this ‘new female criminal’ engaged inpredatory 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 anassumption that females have no place in the world of crime and therefore,terrorism also. Many womenturned to left wing terrorism for feminist reasons and general women advocacy.Even though feminists are divided in opinion over rejecting masculinemilitarisation; it is still viewed as a deviant form of feminism for a feministmovement to employ terrorism and to use females to do so. This portrayal of women implies that women are attempting tobecome more like men by trying to enter their supposed ‘world’ of militarism bycreating 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 twocontradict each other. Often the lack of femininity is how the media portrayfemale terrorists as well as emphasising any masculine characteristics thatthey may have. Although these portrayals are common female terrorists can alsohave their femininity at the centre of their terrorism. Female terrorist groupssuch as the Palestinians nicknamed the Army of Roses and the Chechen terroristsnicknamed the Black Widows.
Yet these names can be seen as the media trivialisingtheir actions and not taking into account their political motivations butfocusing on their womanhood instead. Again, displaying that women only take upthe use terrorism for personal reasons and not because of politicalmotivations. Terrorists are portrayed asviolent and merciless by the media, typically men are given this reaction, inalmost all instances. Although there are variations among media reaction aroundrace by certain outlets; for example, a white American terrorist is much more likelyto be portrayed as a lone wolf or mentally deranged and an ISIS bomber. Anexample of this is Frazier Glen Cross who killed 3 Jews on Passover eve andscreamed ‘Heil Hitler’ after his arrest was labelled as ‘Kansas Gunman’ by theDaily Mail instead of being labelled a terrorist (Nye, 2014). This shows thatmedia portrayal of terrorists varies among factors other than gender. Eventhough there is a variation in the narrative used to describe how terroristsact, in this example it being their race that caused the difference, they arestill described as violent and merciless regardless of race.
Whereas, as thisessay has demonstrated, female terrorists are hardly given this narrative againshowing how the media portrayal differs simply due to the difference in gender. In each of these frames, womenare portrayed to only act, or react, due to personal reasons. Therefore, limitingfemale terrorists and their acts to a non-political action due to theassumptions of the frames.
Although the majority of cases are categorised intothe ones named above, there are cases where the media do not box femaleterrorists into these categories. In an article by Dr Katherine Brown shediscusses ‘Why women are joining Islamic State?’ (Brown, 2014), the article talksabout women from the west travelling to the Middle East to join IS. It also failsto fall into the categories above as well as being impartial. The article isn’tgendered but the portrayal is instead alike to an article on male terrorismwould likely be written.
This could be due to the fact that a woman wrote thearticle or because this is her area of study. Which begs the question whetherit is only women that can produce a non-gendered portrayal for the media offemale terrorists; or because she is educated on the portrayal of women interrorism. Even though there are cases such as this the majority of mediaoutlets portray female terrorists in a gendered light, with this being theexception to the rule. Inconclusion, women in general, be it in legitimate careers as politicians orterrorism, are subjected to gender stereotypes of staying in the private sphereas the public sphere as these political activities they take up aren’tacceptable for a woman. The media portrayal of female terrorists is typically aportrayal of a naïve woman who only acts upon personal reasons and they don’thave the ability to have political motivations behind their actions; whichfurther imposes and reinforced societal gender norms upon women that arealready in place. Female terrorists are stereotyped to not chose to act butrather react to situations and emotion is used as a big part of theirreasoning.
As well as this a skewed portrayal of female terrorists can, in fact,affect counter terrorism measures, especially if the narratives effect thepeople in power and in charge of counter terrorism. This leads to making ithard to combat female terrorist’s due to their capabilities not being realisedor understood.