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Examining the portrayal of female suicide bombers in the media

In the first episode of the BBC’s 2018 hit series The Bodyguard, the show’s protagonist, Detective Sergeant David Budd, discovers a suicide bomber, Nadia, on a train destined for Euston station. In an increasingly tense scene, as the train hurtles towards London, Budd manages to convince Nadia into giving herself up to the police. It is revealed that she has been apparently coerced into this act of terror by a domineering and coercive husband. In the final episode, though, it is revealed the Nadia is the real mastermind of the attack as she boldly declares ‘I am a jihadi’ in a police interview.

The Bodyguard’s supposed great plot twist is that it is a woman, not a man, who possess the agency to blow themselves up in an act of extreme political violence.  To what degree, though is this true?  To what extent are women suicide bombers or is the portrayal of women like Nadia just an exaggerated media trope? This article sets out to look at the ways that women are the non-state perpetrators of explosive violence globally, and the way that such a role is represented in the media.

Global Context of Female Suicide Bombers

Beyond The Bodyguard’s lack of consideration for the true and often-time passive realities of women’s roles within jihadist organisations, placing Nadia at the epicentre of a suicide bombing is at odds with the data on suicide bombers. The truth is that female suicide bombers are rare.

The University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database recorded 6,531 incidents involving suicide bombings between 1998 and 2017. Of these, just 3.7% (240) involved at least one female suicide bomber. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) has monitored all suicide attacks from 1974 to 2016. CPOST estimates that 8% of suicide bombers between 1974 and 2016 were female.

Overall, if you include suicide-bombers in World War II, the Sino-Japanese and the Sino-Russian wars, along with radical political suicide bombers who undertook missions between 1882 and the 1920s in Russia and China, about 98% of all suicide bombers in history have been male.

In addition, for those few suicide bombers there have been, there is nothing especially distinct about female suicide bombers with regards to lethality. CPOST’s data indicates that both demographics kill, on average, 10 victims and wound 6 victims per attack.

However, despite making up a tiny percentage of all suicide bombers and having a comparable level of harm per attack, female suicide bombers have long received a disproportionate level of media and cultural attention. Mia Bloom, for instance, one of the preeminent scholars on women and terrorism, has estimated that female suicide bombers receive eight times more media coverage than their male counterparts [1].

This media fascination has existed since the first female suicide bomber in the Middle East, a seventeen-year-old called Sana’a Mehaydali, who blew herself up for the Syrian Socialist National Party near an Israeli convoy in Lebanon in 1985. Though there were suicide bombers in the Russian air-force in WWII, Mehaydali was the first woman to be represented as the suicidal martyr.

Since then, women have carried out suicide attacks on behalf of groups including Boko Haram in Nigeria and The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. The number of women carrying out suicide attacks has increased over time. According to the Global Terrorism Database, in 1998, there were only 3 incidents involving female suicide bombers; in 2017 there were 71 incidents involving female suicide bombers. However, these incidents still remain the exception to the norm.

Media Framing of Female Suicide Bombers

Not only have female terrorists received heightened media attention, the language and images within these articles is notable for reproducing often highly gendered tropes. From newspaper headlines asking ‘What About the Underwear?’ to declaring that a bomber was ‘Glamorously Dressed’, it is clear the hyper-sexualisation of women continues to sell papers, even when that woman has just carried out a suicide attack [2].

Media depictions of female suicide bombers oscillate between the sexualised femme fatale to the vulnerable and coerced woman. Articles make reference to them being ‘brainwashed’ and ‘drugged’ by terrorist organisations in order to carry out these attacks [3]. These reports also emphasise the woman’s physical appearance and clothing. In those reports that focus on the vulnerable female suicide bomber, they often fixate on the bomber’s girlish and feminine appearance. This was the case with Loula Abboud, a 19-year-old suicide bomber in Lebanon; media reports, academic articles, and propoganda all emphasised her ‘dark curls’ and ‘doe-eyed look’.

Both of these media framings are also highly racialised. Dr Claudia Brunner, an assistant professor at the Centre for Peace Studies at Klagenfurt University, has noted the tendency within Western media to vilify particular aspects of female Islamist suicide bomber’s personal lives as a means of ridiculing their faith [4]. Female political violence becomes almost a punchline to a salacious joke. Framing female suicide bombers as purely non-consenting is often constructed solely in relation to putatively oppressive Arab or Muslim societies; they are often construed as sacrificial virgins deployed by male terrorist organisations. It is a framework deployed in The Bodyguard’s depiction of Nadia: a Muslim woman framed as either a coerced housewife or the epitome of jihadist evil.

What is the problem with such generalisations? It is not to suggest there are not issues surrounding consent and coercion with regards to female suicide bombers. Indeed, with all acts of atrocity and political violence these questions exist. However, to frame them as either ‘lost souls led astray’ or as jihadist recruiters disguised as femme fatales, prevents any nuance entering the media’s discussion of their explosive acts. Both stereotypes deny female suicide bombers any political agency; their motives are either not their own or become reduced to deviancy.

Media coverage in this regard ends up both exaggerating the numbers of and reducing the complexities surrounding female suicide bombers, whether they are from Nigeria, Lebanon, or Palestine. Such coverage dehistoricises and depoliticises the conflicts they emerge within, oftentimes obscuring particular and nuanced discussions of suicide attacks.

Case Study: Hasna Aitboulahcen

The media reporting in the case of Hasna Aitboulahcen elucidates both the quantity and type of reporting that female suicide bombers receive. Aitboulahcen was one of the terror suspects linked to the Paris attacks on the 13th to  14th November 2015. She was initially reported across international media, including Channel 4 News, The Telegraph, and the BBC, as ‘Europe’s first female suicide bomber’, after a Belgian news channel wrongly reported this information. However, Aitboulahcen’s role in the attacks was comparatively minor. She was the cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who orchestrated the Paris attacks.

Aitboulahcen was killed in a police raid on a flat in Saint-Denis, Paris on the 18 November, 2015. The flat was owned by a man called Jawad Bendaoud, who was later prosecuted by French authorities for harbouring terrorists. Abaaoud was also killed in this raid. Initially, it was believed that Aitboulahcen had detonated a suicide vest, however, French officials later confirmed that it was not Aitboulahcen but a man, Chakib Akrouh, who was the suicide bomber. Although this was confirmed only five days after the event, the world’s media continued to repeat the initial claim, producing significant amounts of often sensationalist reporting.

Aitboulahcen was born in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-la-Garenne after her family moved from Morocco to France in the early 1970s. She was 26 at the time of her death and had been only recently radicalised, although it is unclear precisely when this occurred. Aitboulahcen did not carry out the Paris attacks herself, but was an accomplice to many of those involved, especially her cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Despite this, Aitboulahcen is still widely considered Europe’s first female suicide bomber.

Fig.1 below shows the number of press articles where those involved in the Saint-Denis flat were referenced. French police initially arrested more individuals from the Saint-Denis flat, but as their names were not reported in the media they have not been included in the table. The five UK news sites selected represent a broad range of ideological stances and reporting styles. These numbers were recorded through using Google’s advanced search, focusing on results from 15th November 2015 only. There were multiple other terror suspects involved in the 2015 Paris attacks but, to make the data more comparable, it was limited to those involved in the Saint-Denis flat.

All the listed media sites here referenced Abdelhamid Abaaoud the most in their reporting. This is not surprising given French officials have stated that he masterminded the attacks and was already wanted by Belgian police for his involvement in previous terrorist activities. The data indicates that Aitboulahcen was referenced the second most frequently. Although her name was referenced significantly less than Abaaoud’s (for example, The Guardian referenced her 131 times and Abaaoud 275 times), she is mentioned significantly more than Akrouh, the actual Saint-Denis suicide bomber.

Indeed, out of the four terror suspects, Akrouh is the least referenced in three news sites (The Daily Mail, BBC, and The Guardian). Aitboulahcen is also referenced significantly more than the other Saint-Denis perpetrator, Bendaoud. For example, The Daily Mail have 74 articles referencing Aitboulahcen, but just 26 on Bendaoud.

There does, then, seem to be significantly more articles referencing Aitboulahcen than the two other named perpetrators who had far greater levels of involvement in the Paris attacks.

News SiteNumber of Articles referencing Hasna AitboulahcenNumber of Articles referencing Chakib AkrouhNumber of Articles referencing Jawad BendaoudNumber of Articles referencing Abdelhamid Abaaoud
The Daily Mail741726311
BBC3612381397
The Guardian13119104275
The Sun3121100
The Independent5464218

Fig. 1 Table showing the number of articles referencing those involved in the Saint-Denis flat in the Paris terror attacks of 2015.

It is not just the quantity of articles about Aitboulahcen that reflect a media bias towards the coverage of female suicide bombers. The language and images used in these articles are also highly gendered.

Media coverage widely repeated ‘salacious’ details of Aitboulahcen’s private life before the attacks. The New York Post headline read ‘Skanky suicide bomber used to be a selfie-taking party animal’, making reference to Aitboulahcen having multiple boyfriends, wearing ‘heavy’ makeup, and going nightclubbing. The coverage in broadsheets featured similar details about her life, although using significantly more toned-down language. The BBC made reference to her ‘party girl’ status, The Guardian to her ‘drinking and dancing’ lifestyle, and The Independent to her regularly ‘drinking alcohol’.

These references construct Aitboulahcen as a sexualised, modern ‘party girl’ who had lost control. Reports also started to refer to her as ‘The Cowgirl’, a reference to the fact that she wore large hats in certain photos. This was a term widely circulated, creating an almost Bonnie and Clyde reference point to the stories.

Certain news outlets went a step further. The Daily Mail and The New York Post printed images of a woman they claimed to be Aitboulahcen topless in a bubble bath. The reproduction of these images appears to be a deliberate attempt to sexualise and fetishise Aitboulahcen, constructing her as a dangerous, attractive young woman. However, it later transpired that these images were not actually of Aitboulahcen. In the race to find increasing levels of ‘scandalising’ detail about her life, the media had reprinted images of a woman living in Morocco with no connection to the Paris attacks or terrorism.

Conclusion
The media’s coverage of Aitboulahcen reflects the fact that many news outlets are willing to alight on highly gendered tropes to depict female suicide bombers. Not only did Aitboulahcen receive more coverage than the actual suicide bomber in the Saint-Denis police raid, but the following coverage was distinctly sexualised and sensationalised.

Indeed, in the case of Aitboulahcen, this led to a significant amount of misreporting. Not only did the details reported place her firmly within the narrow category of the femme fatale, many were simply factually inaccurate. This suggests a disregard for media standards when there becomes a race to the bottom for increasingly ‘salacious’ details about female suicide bombers. Thus, Aitboulahcen’s involvement in the tragic Paris terror attacks was both over- and mis- reported.

This case study elucidates the many of the problems of the Western media’s coverage of female suicide bombers. It supports Mia Bloom’s findings that there is overreporting of these cases and also demonstrates how quickly media outlets compete to view a female perpetrator through a predetermined lens.

Such findings raise concerns for the accuracy and quality of public knowledge surrounding such attacks, and leads this review to conclude that it is not merely fictional TV shows such as The Bodyguard which distort, but factual news coverage as well.

 

Endnotes

[1] Bloom, Mia, Bombshell: Women and Terrorism (Penn State University: Philadelphia, 2011)

[2] Sela‐Shayovitz, Revital, ‘Female Suicide Bombers: Israeli Newspaper Reporting and the Public Construction of Social Reality’, Criminal Justice Studies (2007), 20:3, 197-215

[3] La, Hien, & Pickett, Selena, ‘Framing Boko Haram’s female suicide

bombers in mass media: an analysis of news articles post Chibok abduction’, Critical Studies on

Terrorism (2019), 1:1, 1-22