Myths in the Representations of Women Terrorists


Talbot, Rhiannon. 2001. “Myths in the Representations of Women Terrorists.” Eire-Ireland: Journal of Irish Studies 35 (3-4): 165-86.

Author: Rhiannon Talbot


The average depiction of women terrorists draws on notions that they are (a) extremist feminists; (b) only bound into terrorism via a relationship with a man (c) only acting in supporting roles within terrorist organizations; (d) mentally inept; (e) unfeminine in some way ; or any combination of the above. The representations of women terrorists within this particular discourse tend to present them as a dichotomy. The identity of a women terrorist is cut into two mutually exclusive halves; either the "woman" or the "terrorist" is emphasized, but never together. The construction of a "terrorist" is a strongly masculine one, whereas, the perception of femininity excludes use of indiscriminate violence. Not surprisingly, when a woman terrorist is represented, her culpability as an empowered female employing traditionally masculine means to achieve her goals very rarely emerges. She is seldom the highly reasoned, non-emotive, political animal that is the picture of her male counterpart; in short, she rarely escapes her sex. This essay explores the above dichotomy in five parts. First is a contextualization of women’s contribution to terrorism globally. Then consideration centres on how criminological explanations inform debates about women terrorists and our understanding of deviant and rebellious women. The main body of the paper offers an analysis of the explanations given for why women become involved in terrorism, including a critique of the separation of the “feminine” from the “terrorist.” The fourth section considers the perceptions of women who become involved in terrorism; discussion centres on the role of women as auxiliaries and depictions of terrorists as “unfeminine” women. The concluding section concentrates on female participants’ experience with terrorism: it examines what women terrorists do and how they subvert stereotypes to their own advantage, thereby corroborating the existence of the dichotomous representation. The material herein addresses the scholarly representations that often feed those of popular culture. Academic discourse is regularly presented as a superior form of knowledge. Whenever a terrorist attack or crisis occurs, general media sources frequently turn to academics for guidance in understanding the situation – and its actors. Thus, scholastic constructions of women terrorists can be particularly powerful propaganda tools.

Topics: Armed Conflict, Combatants, Female Combatants, Feminisms, Gender, Women, Masculinity/ies, Femininity/ies, Terrorism, Violence

Year: 2001

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