Female IRA fighter, 1970s crop.jpg

6:30-8:00pm, Room F44 (First Floor), New Wing, Somerset House, 30/3/17

In 2015, the Bethnal Green schoolgirls Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, and Kadiza Sultana left the UK to join IS in Syria, and in so doing captured the attention of the British media. In these accounts, the girls are passive victims, and their actions are the result of naivety, vulnerability, manipulation, misguidedness, or brainwashing. According to The Daily Mail, they were ‘lured’ to Syria; fell under the ‘spell of Islamists’, and had ‘poisoned minds’; in The Guardian, they are cast as ‘vulnerable children’; and The Telegraph ran the headline ‘Why teenage girls can’t see beyond Isil’s ‘cute kittens and Nutella’ ploy’ in which the girls were described as ‘gullible and guileless’.

It seems within the (racialised) logics of militarism and patriarchy, women can only be helpless victims. The figure of the female militant, however, has provoked such anxiety precisely because it threatens not just to deviate from gender norms, but also undermine the logic on which both militarism and patriarchy rest: men protecting ‘damsels in distress’. In fact, for centuries British colonialism was (and to this day still is) justified under the rhetoric of ‘saving brown women from brown men’. So ingrained is this logic that a 2016 change in UK law to allow women to serve on the front line was met with dismay. Kate Medina, a soldier in the British Army, insisted: ‘[w]e are physically different to men. It is a biological fact … women will be put in greater danger than their male colleagues purely because of their biology. Concerns have also been expressed by senior military figures that male soldiers would need to ‘look after’ their female colleagues … Are we really ready to see our daughters gang raped, tortured and decapitated live on the Internet by Isis fighters? Because that is exactly what will happen’ (The Telegraph, 8/7/2016).

The difficulty in accommodating the figure of the female militant into gender norms and militarist fantasies has historically fuelled an image of such a woman as mad, hysterical, nonsensical, sexually excessive, cannibalistic, devious, wicked, witch-like. A recent study of the figure of the female terrorist by Amanda Third found that ‘dominant representations of femininity are constituted in and through a discursive impossibility of evidence’. The lack of evidence to support terrorist studies’ not insignificant literature on the female terrorist derives, according to Third, from the reproduced preconception that women are unknowable and elusive, and female terrorists even more so. This has been the case from militant suffragettes to Ulrike Meinhof, Patty Hearst, Leila Khaled and Mairéad Farrell in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. How might we read between the lines or against the grain of how these women are pictured in the conservative imagination? How might a feminist approach to these questions undo the logics of patriarchy, militarism and heteronormativity that cast female violence as doubly deviant? How might these politics play out in a context like Palestine – or other sites of colonial conflict?

In our third GSV seminar, we will be joined by Dr Henrietta Stanford (The Courtauld Institute of Art), who will discuss her work on psychoanalysis, art, and the gender politics of the Red Army Faction. The seminar is open to all, and refreshments will be provided. Please book (free) tickets on eventbrite. The seminar’s reading list is below:

Core Readings

Further Readings

  • Adriana Cavarero, ‘When the Bomb is a Woman’s Body’, Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp.97-105.
  • Jasbir Puar, ‘Introduction: Homonationalism and Biopolitics’, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007) pp.1-36.
  • Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), pp.1-11.
  • Karen Beckman, ‘Terrorism, Feminism, Sisters, and Twins: Building Relations in the Wake of the World Trade Center Attacks’, Grey Room, No. 7 (Spring 2002), pp.25–29. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1262583?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Image: Colman Doyle, A woman IRA volunteer on active service in West Belfast with an AR18 assault rifle, c.1970s (detail).


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