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Sage - Impossible Terrorist - May 2013.pdf (387.27 kB)

The impossible terrorist: women, violence, and the disavowal of female agency in terrorism discourses

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-09, 15:22 authored by Liz Sage
Throughout the multitude of studies and histories that make up the canon of the academic discipline of terrorism studies, researchers and authors consider the factors that could contribute to an individual’s or group’s decision to turn to violence. Never, in the definitions of terrorism that emerge from these studies, do the authors suggest that terrorism is a necessarily male set of behaviours. Yet within terrorism studies, we find a comparatively small subset of research, which focuses on the problematic nature of women and terrorism. This paper asks first why it is that the female terrorist merits a specific subcategory of research, before going on to examine the consequences of treating female violence as such an ‘exceptional’ subject within the broader context of terrorism studies and political violence. Through a critical analysis of comparative studies of male and female participation in jihadist suicide bombings, it is argued that women’s violence is always understood in terms of apriori assumptions about femininity and female agency and as such, is never read as action in its own right. In other words, in our current epistemology of terrorism, when a woman becomes a suicide bomber, established analytical categories do not apply. The specificity of female violence, the possibility of women’s participation in discourses broader than their own emotional spheres, is passed over. In the face of such a homogenisation of female violence, it becomes imperative to bring terrorism discourses into dialogue with theories of difference - specifically, a form of feminism informed by postcolonial approaches to cultural identity. Bringing together the work of Gayatri Spivak and Luce Irigaray on differences between women, this paper asks what the consequences are of terrorism discourse’s overwriting of specificity in favour of a universal understanding of ‘female terrorism.’ If women’s participation in terrorism is always read in terms of their femininity, what kind of agency does this leave all women - particularly at a time when discourses about terrorism shape international relations and global politics?


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Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies




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