How do we understand women as agents of extremist violence?

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Imagining Violent Women in the Twenty-First Century

  • Lisa Downing, Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality, University of Birmingham

Actions undertaken by women tend to be understood differently than the same actions when undertaken by men. I have done a lot of work to show that historically and in the present, we tend to think of women collectively and of men as individuals. My new book, Selfish Women, explores this cultural phenomenon in some detail.

By creating the term “(s)extremism”, in a recent article for the journal Paragraph, I demonstrate that we have historically tried to make sense of acts of violence and extremism in ways that are determined by the sex of the perpetrator. These are underpinned by pervasive and lingering sexist cultural attitudes. When a woman commits extremist acts, it is often assumed that her motive was to please a man/ a group of men, or that her violence is a form of displaced maternal instinct.

I discuss two art installations I co-created with the international artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos, which examine how we might figure and theorize female interiority, creativity, violence, and victimhood through the lens of the idea of the “(s)extremist woman”, and outside of these stereotypical narratives.

The French Feminist Julia Kristeva theorized that feminists and female terrorists share common ground, since they both pose threats to the established social order and to our comfortable ideas of what women should be like. Building on her insights, I argue that, until we allow for the possibility of both female violence and female genius as properties of individual human beings, rather than perversions of female nature, we will not fully see women as individuals.

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Image: "Echo Chamber” (2017). Copyright: Navine G. Khan-Dossos / The Van Abbemuseum.