Discussing the traditional Indian ritual of sati in which widows throw themselves on the burning funeral pyres of their husbands, in her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak,” literary theorist Gayatri Spivak shows the limitations of liberal notions of freedom, choice and agency when it comes to discussing subaltern women, or possibly women and oppressed peoples in general (1988). Spivak demonstrates how within the rhetoric of the traditionalists, these women are free agents who chose to burn themselves; but within the rhetoric of Western feminists, these women are the victims of repressive and deadly patriarchal customs of a “backward” culture. The double-bind in this situation is that, on the one hand, we don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype that women are merely passive helpless victims who don’t possess any agency of their own; but on the other hand, we don’t want to embrace a practice that not only serves patriarchal inheritance laws but moreover kills women. So, which is it? Do these women jump on the burning pyres of their own free will, or does their culture push them, so to speak? On Spivak’s analysis, it is precisely our stereotypes of women, and subaltern women in particular, that constructs this dilemma in which women do have agency but only the agency to kill themselves. Spivak complicates any simply idea that women’s choices are the result of their own autonomous free will apart from social pressures and political situations.
Spivak’s analysis of the dilemma or double-bind when it comes to women’s violence is apt as we consider recent representations of women’s violence in the Middle East. From the young American women soldiers involved in abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, to captured American and British women Private Jessica Lynch and Seaman Lynn Turney, to Palestinian and Russian women suicide bombers, women are figured as dangerous, even more dangerous than men, especially because of the cultural association between sex and violence. On the one side, you have conservative commentators suggesting that the very presence of women in the theatre of war brings out sexual “whore house” behavior and leads to violence. And on the other, you have feminist commentators arguing that these women are being used and manipulated by men. So, which is it? Are they pushed or do they jump, so to speak? How should we interpret women’s violence in the theatre of war? What is the status of women’s agency in situations where their roles are circumscribed by patriarchal stereotypes of femininity, female sexuality, and the association of sex and violence?
In this essay, I argue that women’s violence is given more media attention than men’s violence, not just because it is less prominent or because there are not as many women soldiers or militants than men. Rather, as we will see, traditional stereotypes of women as “black widow spiders” or “femme fatales” who use their pretty smiles and their sex appeal to lure men to their deaths play into media representations of women’s involvement in recent military action. Because of the way that stereotypes of women’s sexuality as inherently dangerous and women’s violence as more threatening than men’s, the issue of women’s participation in the theatre of war is complex. Indeed, as we will see, when military leaders or jihadists use women strategically as weapons, and when the media figures them as weapons in their very presence in the theatre of war, women’s agency is difficult to locate. As with Spivak’s analysis of the Indian widows, on the one hand, some conservatives blame women for their inherently violent natures, while some feminists blame male control of women for forcing them into these acts of war.
Although my analysis will be focused primarily on the media representations of women as inherently violent, it also has significant implications for how we answer the question of whether or not women are “pushed or jump.” In other words, the actions of these women cannot be separated from the patriarchal context in which they take place. Moreover, they take place within a history of colonial violence in which, as Spivak’s analysis makes clear, has revolved around rhetoric about women and women’s freedom. As Spivak so persuasively argues, when it is convenient conservatives rally around women’s rights to choose to kill themselves in the name of women’s freedom and even in the name of feminism. On the other side, also in the name of women’s freedom and feminism, both conservatives and feminists suggest the need to “save brown women from brown men,” as Spivak puts it. As we will see, the role of women in military action is complicated by stereotypes of femininity, maternity and sexuality that inflect their violent actions with a titillating aspect that captures the imagination and puts them in the media spotlight.
It is telling that while women soldiers’ rapes and deaths get little attention in the media or from the American public, women’s involvement in abusive treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanámo Bay prison in Cuba continue to haunt debates over acceptable interrogation techniques and American sentiments toward these “wars.”