Laura Sjoberg is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. She holds a BA from the University of Chicago, a JD from Boston College, and PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California. Dr. Sjoberg’s work has been published in more than three dozen journals in Political Science, Law, International Relations, Gender Studies, and Geography. She is author or editor of ten books, including, most recently, Gender, War, and Conflict (Polity, 2014) and Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores (with Caron Gentry, Zed Books, 2015). She tweets @DrLauraEsq.
Caron E. Gentry was appointed as a lecturer to the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews in 2011. She has published widely on women, gender, and terrorism. Her publications include (with Laura Sjoberg) Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics (2007), which was just revised in a second edition, Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores (2015). Her work has been published in Terrorism and Political Violence, International Relations, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Critical Studies on Terrorism, and Critical Studies on Security. She is serving as an associate editor for the International Feminist Journal of Politics for web content. Caron has also been actively involved in leadership in the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Section of the International Studies Association and served as the Section Chair from 2015–2016.
A 2015 International Business Times story about “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite begins by discussing the terrible crimes she has committed, where she is “accused of masterminding 400 murders” and “has been on the run since December 2011” because of alleged involvement in “a plot to bomb tourist resorts.” This and other stories about Lewthwaite, though, are unlike many of those about her male counterparts in violent extremist organizations (VEOs) in two major ways. First, they spend a significant amount of time speculating how she came to be involved in violent extremism. Second, that speculation is laced with gender-based discussion: “she was a typical shy English rose” whose violence was influenced by the men she married.
We have been researching politically violent women – rebels, extremists, war criminals, rapists, terrorists – for more than a decade. In that time, we have consistently arrived at the same point: portrayals of politically violent women differ significantly from portrayals of politically violent men. Men who commit extralegal violence are framed as rebels, extremists, war criminals, rapists, and terrorists – terms that seem sex-neutral. But women who do the same things are almost always framed in ways that modify those terms by their sex – women rebels, women extremists, women war criminals, women rapists, women terrorists. The emphasis on politically violent women’s sex carries into how violent women’s stories are reported, how politically violent women are dealt with in jurisprudence, and how politically violent women’s victims are treated in justice and reconciliation efforts.
Almost a decade ago, we argued that politically violent women are frequently sexualized and even more frequently subject to a number of gender-laced narratives that at once play up their womanhood and deny them agency in their actions. Many accounts of women who engage in political violence characterize them as the result of femininity gone awry – where the special problems of womanhood account for their violence, but their broken femininity is opposite of normal femininity which renders political violence impossible for women. In our book, Mothers, Monsters, Whores, we find three interrelated stories told of politically violent women in the media, by scholars, and by political practitioners. We call them the mother narratives, the monster narratives, and the whore narratives.
The mother narratives blame women’s violence on their motherhood, where some politically violent women’s violence is treated as a natural extension of their urge mother, and politically violent men and others’ violence is characterized as vengeance for harm caused to a mother’s family. The latter can be seen in stories of the Chechen “Black Widows” which account for women’s violence as vengeance for their husbands and sons, while the former can be seen in treatments of the Baader-Meinhof gang in 20th century Germany.
The monster narratives build on the stereotype that women are more emotional, and therefore more potentially unstable than men to characterize politically violent women as more dangerous than their male counterparts. From popular culture accounts like the Attack of the 50 foot woman to newspaper accounts of female prison guards in Nazi Germany, these monster stories suggest that women’s insanity is different, and worse, than men’s, and can trigger terrible violence.
The whore narratives link women’s dangerousness to their sexuality – characterizing violent women as either controlled by hypersexuality or compensating for their inability to please men. Examples of both sorts of the whore narrative can be found in news coverage of the female perpetrators of abuse at Abu Ghraib soon after the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. One of the most well-known perpetrators, Lynndie England, was characterized as out of control sexually (she let her boyfriend have anal sex with her, is it a surprise she would abuse prisoners?) and susceptible to the sexual dominance of the man that she slept with (he told her to, and she needed him). Another prison guard, Sabrina Harmon, was featured in a number of stories that emphasized her lesbianism as they covered her violence – as if ‘deviant’ sexuality and deviant violence could be easily paired.
These stories characterize femininity as what is dangerous about dangerous women – but a broken sort of femininity that can be easily discursively and emotionally distanced from ‘real’ or ‘normal’ femininity. This ‘normal’ femininity remains, in the minds of many, a stable characteristic of most women – where women are understood to be more peaceful than men are. From traditionalists who would limit women’s potential roles to the home to feminists who would characterize political violence as masculine, many assume that violence is just not something women do. Nowhere across the mother, monster, and whore narratives – and very rarely in stories of women’s political violence at all— are politically violent women characterized as either political or having chosen violence. Instead, they are more often characterized as being personally motivated, with that personal motivation not being an agential choice but the result of something that has broken with their femininity.
As such, many media outlets, social media discussions, and even governments recognize that there are dangerous women who commit political violence. But their views of those women are gendered, partial, and unrepresentative. We put forth three arguments that we hope will help with a project of rethinking how politically violent women are seen.
First, we argue that ‘women’ is not a substantively differentiable category of dangerous people. Dangerous people and dangerous women are not different things. This is important not only for how dangerous women are told and understood, but also for myriad theories of political violence more generally. To the extent that women’s political violence does not fit in extant theoretical accounts of political violence, that is not a problem with women being different – it is instead a problem with theoretical accounts of political violence not including the full range of practices of, and motivations for, political violence.
Second, we argue that there is nothing dangerous about femininity. There is nothing inherently dangerous about female bodies. There is nothing inherently dangerous about traits associated with femininity (e.g., emotion, motherhood, female sexuality), and those traits are not necessarily found in people who inhabit female bodies. Women, and the femininity with which they are frequently associated with, are not generally less dangerous or selectively more dangerous.
Third, we argue that what counts as ‘dangerous’, and even what counts as ‘politically violent’, cannot fully be understood without understanding that it is gendered. In a recent special issue of Critical Studies on Terrorism, we and other authors argued that similar actions are often characterized very differently. For example, violence against individuals for political purposes is often classified as terrorism and accepted as such. But domestic violence could also fit into this definition as violence against women (or other feminized subjects) to uphold the patriarchy, is not normally seen as terrorism. While different articles in the issue took different positions on the utility of the term ‘everyday terrorism,’ we all agreed that what happens to women in private spaces is treated very differently, intellectually and politically, than what happens to people as citizens of states in the public sphere. Along with other scholars who study gender and international relations, both of us (Laura’s work and Caron’s work) have argued that the business of interpreting what is a security threat and what is not, and how to react to security threats, is intimately related to gender-based assumptions, and gender hierarchies.
Many of the women we research are dangerous in the sense in which danger is understood as being violent, and with a real threat of causing injury and/or death. Our research shows, though, that it might be even more important to debunk gender-based stereotypes around women who are politically violent. Sexed and gendered misinterpretations of women’s political violence not only misdiagnose the nature and causes of political violence, they also mischaracterize women, gender, and femininity. The dangerous women we study are dangerous people – but their actual dangerousness is obscured by gender stereotypes.
These gender stereotypes that obscure the actual dangerousness of politically violent women are numerous and widely deployed. From the times that guards have let pregnant women through security checkpoints with less scrutiny to the tendency to assume that politically violent women are pawns rather than decision-makers, essentialist notions that women are feminine, and that femininity is tied to certain dangers (while being immune from others) make the world more dangerous, in almost any understanding of danger. Critically interrogating gender essentialism and gender subordination can deconstruct these stereotypes and begin to construct a more nuanced understanding of women, gender, and political violence.