Shoot the Women First, Part 1


Muslima (female Muslim) terrorism to many, this new word will sound like a contradiction in terms. This is an erroneous and dangerously naive response. The common association of women with peacefulness and harmony is a myth. Although it is quite rare for women to carry out terrorist attacks, the phenomenon is not new.

There were women among the leaders of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) who committed suicide in 1977 in Stammheim prison. And only recently, a prominent female RAF-member who had been involved in at least three murders and a plane hijacking was released from prison. Palestinian women  have carried out suicide missions. Chechen widows were involved in the violent hostage-takings in Beslan and Moscow. And in 2005, a young Belgian woman, who converted to Islam when she married a radical Muslim, blew herself up in Iraq.

In 1991 a book was published with the intriguing title Shoot the Women First. The author, Eileen MacDonald, took this title from an international recommendation to security and police personnel: in case they arrested a terrorist cell, they should kill the female members first.

In those days terrorist groups were not extremely Rightist, but rather extremely Leftist. MacDonald spoke with women from the German RAF, a Korean woman who had blown up a plane with hundreds of civilians on board, and a member of the Italian Brigate Rosse. It is difficult to draw a line between Leftist and Rightist when it comes to terrorism (see IRA, ETA, Hamas), and it is not the most relevant distinction. The essential (and scary) aspect of terrorism is not the intention, but the intensity of the commitment of the person involved its extremism.

The advice to ‘shoot the women first’ was based on the idea that female terrorists, not their male brothers, would be the first to open fire on their adversaries. Whether they actually did, remains unclear in the seven interviews by MacDonald. Their stories do teach us, however, that all of these women developed their political engagement in a context in which femininity was at odds with politics.

Regardless of how different their respective cultures were, politics was traditionally the domain of men. Women were excluded and, as they were also considered to have no interest in politics, they had to prove, more than their male counterparts, their commitment and loyalty to the cause. More than that: to be allowed to participate at all, the women also had to prove their courage, loyalty and competence to those skeptical and sexist brothers-in-arms, and refute the expectation that they would probably desert or fail. And there you have it: the pathway to taking it one step further.

Moreover, the nomadic existence of the ‘professional revolutionary’ was further from regular female life than from male life. The women had to give up more, which made it more difficult for them to retrace their steps. The credo ‘Nothing Left to Lose’ fosters fatalism, despair and indifference regarding oneself and others in other words: radicalisation.

And what about the radical Muslimas? Are we to assume that they radicalise more readily than their religious brothers? Are women more inclined towards desperado behaviour?

In the Netherlands, the importance of women in Islamic terrorist networks is on the rise. We know something about the Moroccan women around the Hofstad Network thanks to the investigative efforts  of reporters Janny Groen and Annieke Kranenberg from the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, who published a book on the issue, Strijdsters van Allah in 2006. These Hofstad women actively participated in living room meetings where male Network members informed them about radical Islam. In addition, several prominent Muslim women are involved in the dissemination of the radical takfir   ideas. They are involved in dawa (conversion, recruitment), disseminate sermons, books and other documents, translate texts and play a role in the radicalisation of young people.

In many ways these women resemble Moroccan Muslimas who are attracted not to violence but to radical Islam and who want to live according to the letter of the Koran. They are approximately 20 years old, educated, feel excluded by Dutch society, give Islam a dominant role in their lives and are considered too radical by their immediate Moroccan environment for example, their families.

Their hunger for information about Islam stands out. The mosque has little to no importance in their life because it is not puritanical enough or they don’t like the doctrine being taught there. Lectures in Dutch, usually in a community centre or other location instead of the mosque, are popular. They also take information from websites that propagate salafism and political Islam.

Political and spiritual female radicalism has a long tradition in which a pattern can be distinguished. Let me introduce you to Saint Lidwina of Schiedam, who lived from 1380 to 1433. In 1395 Lidwina went skating as a healthy and far from saintly girl, fell, broke a rib and subsequently never rose again.

The medical profession see Saint Lidwina as a classical hysteric. In the huge pile of hagiographic literature, however, she is considered a miracle. The writings dedicated to her compete to give the most horrific description of her suffering abscesses the size of a fist, festering wounds, parts of her body rotting, maggots as large as your little finger crawling from her belly. Lidwina remained bedridden until she died, almost 40 years later. She acquired a large following, was buried amid great public interest, and was canonised by Pope Leo XIII in 1890.

We can view Lidwina as a typical case of Catholic glorification of suffering. But of the 321 Christian mystics of suffering in Catholic history 274 were female: that is 85 per cent! Furthermore, Lidwina was held up as an example to Catholic girls far into the 20th century.

And she saw herself as an example too. By suggesting she redeemed the sins of mankind with her illness, she turned her suffering into something useful and special the more extreme the suffering, the better. She caused herself even more pain by wearing horsehair shirts, and while at first she would occasionally eat a piece of apple, in her final years her diet is reputed to have consisted exclusively of communion hosts.

In this genre of spirituality, suffering is an achievement: the more humble, the more superior. The manipulative Lidwina, a typical case of gain through suffering, managed to acquire considerable influence on the priests in her environment through her extreme fate. Her illness brought her fame at a time when it was impossible for women to achieve fame or even have a meaningful life through work, science or art.

Plus she also escaped an arranged marriage. When such a marriage loomed shortly before she went skating, she prayed to God for an illness. Get married, have children and die in childbirth this was the fate of women. Remaining unwed meant poverty. And so Lidwien found the one door to a public existence that was open to her gender: lying down, suffering, canonisation.

It is interesting (and alarming) that historically this Lidwina-pattern is found not only for example among nuns who hurt themselves more severely than the Church allowed, but also among Left-wing and secular women, although their self-chastisement took different forms. For all these women with their different ideologies, the desire to fulfil a political role clashed with the desire or duty to behave as ‘good women’ were expected to behave.

Their pursuit of a position in the community, outside the limitations of marriage and family life, put them in conflict with their environment. They solved this by taking on extra-heavy burdens.

We should not look for this tendency towards suffering or sacrifice in a ‘female nature,’ but rather in the awkward position of women in society. The influence that Lidwina, for example, achieved on Church life, was unattainable by other, less destructive pathways.

This line of reasoning also explains why these women lacked the weakness and passivity commonly ascribed to their gender. Their ‘strong’ behaviour expresses a compromise, a way of reconciling two identities that were in conflict from society’s point of view: traditional femaleness versus a purpose in public life. This self-destructive form of commitment is an alibi to escape the ‘feminine’ quality of passivity.

In this way, women have created an escape route from their second-class position through martyrdom. Subordination, sacrifice, and zealousness have often been the way for women in political and social movements to be allowed to join in with the men. As inequality between the sexes diminishes, women will have less reason to manifest themselves as martyrs.

This analysis is also relevant to the women of, for example, the Dutch Hofstad Network it helps us avoid the dilemma of whether Muslim radicalism is a form of emancipation or the opposite.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Dutch newspaper Trouw, and was translated into English for  by Maggie Oates. Parts 2 and 3 will be published over the next fortnight.

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