Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores:
Thinking About Women’s Violence in Global Politics

by Caron E. Gentry and Laura Sjoberg, Zed Books, 2015

Book review

This is a second and significantly revised version of the original title by Caron Gentry and Laura Sjoberg, published in 2007. A central plank of their argument is that women’s involvement in political violence is systematically denied, denigrated, or assumed to be driven by personal, and thus apolitical forces – and hence is explained away by ‘maternalism, mental instability or deviant sexuality’ (p. 41). Second, and related to this, is that women’s political violence is always understood as different to men’s: in this view, ‘men who commit violence make autonomous decisions, while women who do so are controlled, coerced or insane’ (p. 44) – although in reality, of course, ‘all decisions are contextual and contingent, not only women’s, and all decisions are made, not only men’s’ (p. 46).

Third, while contrasting representations and readings of male and female violence are largely attributable to patriarchal and essentialist assumptions about what ‘normal’ or ‘real’ women and men are and should do, certain gender and development and even feminist discourses also suggest that women are necessarily more nurturing and peace-loving than men – and that, by extension, there is something especially troubling about women whose behaviour transgresses these

These gender-subordinating narratives mean that while male violence is viewed as inherent in (hegemonic) masculinity – men have the potential to be violent, even though most men never act on it – women’s violence is seen not only as exceptional but, more importantly, as disrupting the ‘natural’ gender order. A trivial but familiar example is that the media indicate a person’s sex only when referring, disapprovingly, to women who take on an assumed masculine role – a ‘female suicide bomber’ or ‘female soldiers’ – as if such women were perversely impersonating men.

Following the introduction and a chapter unpacking the implicitly gendered theories of political violence, the authors go on to examine women’s extra-legal violence with particular reference to ethno-nationalist insurgencies in the form of Chechen and Palestinian martyrdom and female jihadis associated with Al-Qaeda; and in relation to female génocidaires in Darfur, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, along with the sexual abuse of male prisoners boasted by female US prison guards at Abu Ghraib. The authors’ point is that whether or not the women who commit extralegal political violence have anything in common, the mother, monster and whore narratives signify these women as similar if not the same/monolithic.

These narratives describe very diverse women similarly: as different from and outside of normal femininity, as constituted by flaws unique to femininities, and as without agency and therefore outside the realm of legitimized political actors (p. 69). The following three chapters then look at the same case studies, often focusing on individuals responsible for incitement of and/or egregious (and much sensationalised) acts of violence, through each lens or trope.

In the concluding chapter Caron Gentry and Laura Sjoberg underscore that the question is not ‘why women (and people more generally) choose political violence’ (p. 137), which raises complex issues about what constitutes free choice; but rather of how such violence is represented, depending on the sex of the perpetrator. Women’s violence ‘is a property of womanhood gone wrong – a broken or flawed femininity’, whether ‘a mother nurtures bad men’ or has ‘lost her purpose in life when she has lost those for whom she serves as wife and mother’ (p. 141), or ‘a particularly disturbed version of femininity – one which is scary and even monstrous – to commit the particular sort of violence that women commit’ (ibid.). Or because women’s ‘sexuality is something other than the desire and ability to please and reproduce with men – whose traditional, feminine sexuality is somehow broken – are themselves broken, and therefore more likely to commit this special form of violence that is women’s violence, (pp. 141–2, all italics in the original). The rather wellworn observation is that these ‘idealized gender stereotypes’ (p. 143) ‘trap women (and men) into idealized roles, which threatens gender equality in a number of ways’ (p.144), including by leaving intact the ‘discursive structures of gender oppression (ibid.) and in particular by casting ‘emotion, experience and sense’ (p. 159) as peculiar to women’s political violence, and not to men’s.

While the book contains many critical insights, I found the ‘mother, monster, whore’ structure was occasionally laboured and, by revisiting the same examples from the three angles, often repetitive. Some of the arguments are strained or have been shoehorned in – such drawing on Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Female of the Species’, for instance (p. 72); Kipling’s reputation has had its ups and downs, but he is hardly an influential writer on women. In addition, while the authors convincingly show that women’s acts of violence are differently represented because they are women, the focus on named individuals opens up the possibility that their notoriety is because their behaviour was exceptionally barbarous, rather than exclusively because women behaved with unspeakable cruelty. I can’t help thinking, too, that since men perpetrate most acts of violence, political and otherwise, the ‘man bites dog’ about women’s political violence fuels the media fascination with and sensational accounts of women who, for instance, join religious fundamentalist organisations, whether the so-called White Widow behind the Nairobi shopping mall attacks, or European women barely out of their teens joining Daesh. Xenophobic and knee-jerk responses to international terrorism (which is exactly what it hopes to achieve), and a blanket refusal to offer sanction to non-European refugees fleeing war and its economic consequences, make it all the more imperative to understand that, as Cynthia Enloe so perceptively notes, ‘the personal is international and the international is personal’ (cited on p. 18). While it is not always written in the most accessible way, this book makes a nuanced and thought-provoking feminist contribution to achieving such understanding.

© Deborah Eade
Independent writer and editor, France

Review originally published in Gender & Development 24.1 (2016)