Gender justice 2: Female suicide bombers

Herj Marway

Herjeet Marway

In yesterday’s blog, Heather started the discussion on gender justice by posing the question, are women human yet? The suggestion was that, unfortunately, this couldn’t yet be answered in the affirmative; women continue to be doubly disadvantaged (they are afflicted by the same conditions men face and, in addition, are harmed specifically as women) and are still often regarded differently to men (while dominant men in the workplace are caricatured as ‘assertive’, dominant women are ‘bitches’, and the like

512px-Adult_Female_Black_Widow HerjMarway 14 Jan

It is claims of the second sort in particular that root some of my research into women and violence. I focus on how violent behaviour is often associated with men (when we think about violent crime and paedophiles and domestic abusers, many of us automatically assume the perpetrator is a man). Yet women are violent too (just recently there have been reports on female gang members, murderers  , child abusers , and even – so the internet tells me! – a storyline on an abusive relationship in Coronation Street .

A more extreme case of female violence that I look at is that of the suicide bomber, of which there are also numerous examples, including one just a few months ago in Russia. Since women are not expected to be violent, there are usually excuses or justifications presented about the bombers – they were coerced, manipulated, deranged, bereaved . Though male bombers can be attributed similar ‘reasons’, violence is within the suite of possible male behaviour and so suicide bombing is regarded as a possible (albeit extreme) act for men to carry out (Eager, 2008). But, as women are considered far more passive, all these ‘reasons’ end up perpetuating the myth of the non-violent ‘nature’ of women (Elshtain, 1995; Sjoberg, 2010). Moreover, they do so by detracting from the women’s agency (their ability to act upon the world) (Sjoberg and Gentry, 2007) and autonomy (their capacity for self-governance). In other words, these labels cast the female bombers as incapable of carrying out violence, and this in part sustains the view that only men can be violent (‘she can’t really have wanted to be a bomber – because women are peaceful – and only did it because she was coerced/manipulated/deranged/bereaved’).

You might think why is it so important that women be considered capable of violence? One reason is because of the concerns around whether women are persons yet. Women are often regarded not as subjects or agents but – as Simone de Beauvoir put it – as ‘other’ (characterised in opposition to men). In the non-violent example above, since assertiveness is recognised as a male trait rather than a female – or better – a neutral one, any attempt by a woman to be bullish is rationalised (she’s a ‘bitch’ or not feminine); in short, neither a man nor a ‘proper’ woman. Derogatory labels that ‘explain’ assertiveness by a woman will continue if we don’t challenge false assumptions about what women (and men) can and should be. Likewise, in cases of violent women, the women are not-men (who can ‘legitimately’ be violent) and not-women (since they’re not peaceful); neither persons nor women. If we care about moving away from gendered stereotypes like these then rectifying who we perceive to be violent actors deserves our attention.

In my work, I aim to go a little way towards this goal by exploring models of autonomy and devising better ways of capturing self-rule. In particular, I reject the ‘liberal’ notion of autonomy that depends on a detached and disconnected understanding of the self and favour a ‘relational’ approach that is based on an attached and connected self. I demonstrate ways in which all persons are constrained, including female suicide bombers but also the New York banker, as well as you and I, and that relational autonomy more persuasively recognises this for everyone and so can better recognise it for the bombers too. In sum, the claim is that men and women, rich and poor, white and black – not just some people – are limited in various ways and their autonomy is limited too, but this does not mean they are not self-governing. In so doing, we can start to redress incorrect assumptions about all of us.

Useful links:

Female Suicide Bombers: recognising media’s gendered descriptions of women’s violence- Merkel

Female suicide bombers: A global trend? – Bloom

Suicide Bombers as Women Warriors- Berkowitz

Male and Female suicide bombers different sexes, different reasons? – Jacques & Taylor

Female suicide bomber blamed for Russian blast

Black widow suicide bomber strikes at Russian Station- Ruggio

Female suicide bombers- dying for equality?

The mind of a female suicide bomber- Ghosh

Image Source

Image: Black Widow Spider: By Shenrich91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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