In history, women who failed to adopt traditional gendered roles have been characterised as “the bad, the mad and the good”. Similarly, narratives of mothers, monsters and whores are used to deny the agency of women who confound the stereotypes of passive victims of war or non-violent peace women, and who act with violence in the context of war or armed conflict.
These narratives have their roots in western myths: Medea, the vengeful mother, who killed all of her children; the beautiful, fearsome Medusa who turned men into stone; and Jezebel, renowned for her sexuality rather than her politics.
This book shows how women who actively engage in war are seen only through the lens of their sex. It includes studies of the US military women complicit in torture at Abu Ghraib, transcending not only international law, but both their own and militarised femininity; the Chechen “Black Widows”, characterised as vengeful mothers, rather than women who have endured 15 years of war; female Palestinian and Iraqi suicide bombers, described as failed – barren or single – women; and women who directed and participated in genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda.
While male “terrorists” are acknowledged within their political context, the actions of their sisters are apparently only informed by their roles as wives, daughters or sisters. “Controlled, coerced or insane”, they act only to please men, are drugged and brainwashed, or crazed by grief. Yet as one imprisoned Palestinian woman involved in planning suicide bombings stated, “For the first time in my life I was free and doing something meaningful for myself and for a political cause”.
Sjoberg and Gentry persuasively argue that while the myths continue, they limit not only our understanding of why women decide to act with violence, but also of women’s relationship to violence, and of women’s agency in war and most importantly, in global politics.
There is particular interest for PN readers where Sjoberg and Gentry, in proposing models through which we might understand these women’s choice to act with violence, cite Hannah Arendt’s definition of power (the theoretical basis of much writing on non-violence): “power with” rather than “power over”. Neither completely free nor entirely constrained, these women act with others, interdependent in their community, and with the political reality they inhabit.
It’s frustrating that the authors’ intention was not to discover why these women chose to act as they do, but how they decide to act (what aspects of their political or other context informs the complex processes of decision).
The second-hand research and lack of interviews is also annoying, especially where basic inaccuracies (as in the chapter on Bilijana Plavsic convicted of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina), might have been corrected.
Nevertheless, this is an important contribution to writings on war and gender. As a woman who has chosen to act nonviolently against war and violence, this naming of women in order to deny their agency also has a particular resonance for me with the verbal abuse we receive from passing motorists – “Whores! Slags! Lezzies!” – at Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp.