Are women the "exclusive" terrorists?
by Jennifer Geiser on February 5, 2015 - 6:11pm
When it comes to terrorism, gender plays a significant role. Not only do women have a special part in terrorist organizations, but also the term terrorism bears a special notion when it comes to gender. Using the examples of the film "The Attack" and of well-known German terrorist groups, I want to show how gender and terrorism are intertwined.
The movie "The Attack" is about the prestigious Israeli doctor Amin Jaafari with Palestinian roots who is unable to cope with the fact that his wife Siham, herself Israeli of Palestinian origin, becomes a suicide bomber. Through Amin's journey of finding out about his wife's objectives, the film shows in a very intimate way how it is possible for somebody to commit such an act.
How does Siham become a suicide bomber?
Siham accidentally discovers that Amin's nephew Adel is active in a terrorist group. Instead of talking him out of this she sees the opportunity and becomes a part of the group herself. Her taking action is best explained by the unclear background she has: Siham is a Palestinian who had the possibility to migrate to Israel. Obviously, she struggles with the dichotomy she lives in. She feels like being caught in the middle and not being able to truly commit herself to be an Israeli. This gets especially clear in the letter she leaves behind for Amin in which she says that she could not have given him a child that has no country. Thus, it is important to note that in this case, the socioeconomic background plays a significant role in her becoming a terrorist. Apart from that, the opportunity structure she gets into (when finding out about Adel's activities in the terrorist group) is the trigger for her becoming active herself.
Excursus: What is special about the Israel-Palestinian case?
By the example of Siham, "The Attack" makes the special case of Israel and Palestine very clear. The conflict reaches far back - over 60 years of rivalry signify the relation between the two peoples. The Palestinians as an ethnic group never had the chance of becoming a nation. After the British occupied the territory, it was given to the Jewish people for building their own nation after the Second World War. This background is the basis for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is hardened by the deep religious clash.
When Amin goes to the city of Nablus (which is part of the Palestinian territories) he finds out that there is a lot of propaganda against Israel and its people. On the radio, Sheik Narwan, an important preacher of Nablus, talks about the fact that Arabs had no rights in Israel at all. This statement is opposing to the reality of Amin himself who got the chance of becoming a renowned doctor in Israel despite of his Arab origin. The propaganda is taken serious by most of the people Amin gets confronted with. They cherish the suicide act of his wife and feel proud of her. Amin as a sole person cannot comprehend the hatred against Israel because he never experienced things like those who are proclaimed by the propagandists.
Gender and terrorism - are women the "exclusive" terrorists?
When talking about terrorism from a gender perspective, one can say that women mostly play the passive roles in terrorism organizations. This is due to the fact that women are categorized as the passive ones opposed to men being the active ones. Because of this fact, women becoming active terrorists - like Siham - play a very special role for terrorist groups. Through acts of women, those organizations become particularly famous. One cannot ignore that there is a risk of women getting instrumentalized by terrorist organizations but it is also important to notice that women also have political motives for the attack - they are precisely not only the passive executors.
In the case of Siham, it is said that her motive is the massacre of Jenin - also called "Jenin Ground Zero" - which took place in the West Bank: Israeli troops killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in a refugee camp. Later, this incident made her take the opportunity of committing the attack. Her reason strongly corresponds with the finding of Timothy C. Lim referring to Post who states "the power of culture (or particular cultural interpretations) to profoundly shape the mind-set and behavior of people on a collective as opposed to individual basis." (Lim 2010) This statement brings into place the special case of the Israel-Palestinian relations as a culturally profoundly internalized conflict as well as the idea that terrorists do not act rationally on an individual level but on the level of the group - the collective - they are serving. (cf. Lim 2010)
Gender blindness in the field of terrorism
When we have a look at popular terrorist attacks with female protagonists - such as the attacks by the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU) and the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) in Germany - we can observe that the public vividly discussed the question why (of all things) women became active aggressors. This shows that violence and criminality are perceived in a highly gendered way (cf. Jurt/Grisard), i.e. as typically male phenomena. This perception derives from the concept already mentioned above: Women are seen as peaceful and vulnerable, whereas men are thought of as capable of committing terrorist attacks. Socially, women are not expected to become assassins.
Another gender aspect falls into place when we have a look at the evaluation of the reasons for a terrorist act. The reasons are differently evaluated by the public and the media, depending on gender: Reasons for a female terrorist are always searched for in the private sphere as, e.g. personal failures or losses. By doing so, it is fundamentally negated that women act politically motivated. Violence phenomena are personalized and decontextualized by the media in order to blank out the sociopolitical context. (cf. Jurt/Grisard) The interpretive frame is understood in a way which can be called the "irrationalization of femininity" (Köppert/Schraut). What follows is a perception of women as politically incompetent people. This fact leads to the peculiar case that female terrorists are seen as victims and become stylized as virtuous martyrs. (cf. Köppert/Schraut)
In order to overcome the gender blindness in the field of terrorism, Eva Herschinger states that it has several advantages to address gender:
"First, gender as an analytical category in the study of terrorism is able to expose the gender blindness of the term terrorism; second, gender challenges the political myth of protection central to (international) politics, i.e. that states can legitimately fight wars to protect the vulnerable – vulgo women and children. Third, by including gender as an analytical category into one’s study one also challenges the myth of an intrinsic peacefulness/vulnerability of women and, thereby, imbues terrorism research with insights from the study of political violence in general." (Herschinger 2014)
Thus, it is important to rethink terrorism to fulfill the requirements of a general, gender-neutral discourse.
Using the examples of the film "The Attack" and of several German terrorist groups, I showed that gender and terrorism are interlinked very closely. Women play a special role for terrorist groups because of their common perception and the infringement of these stereotypes. Also, gender becomes relevant in the field of terrorism when it comes to the public discussion, especially related to the evaluation of the motives which drive the aggressors. Here, the typical categorizations of women and men influence the general view on terrorists. In order to overcome the gender blindness in the field of terrorism, the topic must be rethought in a gender-neutral way. Only this way, a serious dialogue about terrorism can take place - without the common stereotypes.
Herschinger, Eva (2014): "Political Science, Terrorism and Gender".
Jurt, Pascal/Grisard, Dominique: "Das brüchige »Wir« des männlichen Staatsbürgers" in: http://jungle-world.com/artikel/2011/09/42741.html.
Köppert, Katrin relating to Schraut, Sylvia (Gunda-Werner-Institut): "Hat Terrorismus ein Geschlecht?" in: http://www.gwi-boell.de/de/2009/10/28/hat-terrorismus-ein-geschlecht.
Lim, Timothy C. (2010): "What Makes a Terrorist? Explaining »Violent Substate Activism«" in: "Doing Comparative Politics".