Sexy, Tough or Inept? Depictions of Women Terrorists in the News

By Sternadori, Miglena Mantcheva

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the war on Iraq and the frequent ethnic conflicts around the world have spurred many news stories about Islam and religious fanaticism. Recently, a new sensation emerged: Muslim women who blow themselves up in suicide bombings were depicted as mysterious figures, sometimes veiled and sometimes in high heels. The Western world was disturbed. At least on the surface, Islamic terrorists had become more gender-liberated than the exclusively male Sicilian Mafia (Jamieson, 2000). Expectations of how women are supposed to behave are apparently so prevalent that they were even included in a U.S. Senate resolution about violence in the Middle East: “The involvement of women in carrying out suicide bombings is contrary to the important role women must play in conflict prevention and resolution” (Epstein, 2002, April 6). Most news about female bombers underscored the discrepancy between femininity and violence, or at least between their stereotypical versions. Details about the attractiveness and reproductive history of the women often spiced up the coverage. Unfortunately, the sexy details not only reinforce gendered images but also serve the public relations strategies of terrorists, who largely depend on publicity to achieve their goals (Brunner, 2005).

This study is a rhetorical analysis of dramatized and gendered images of female suicide bombers in English-language newspapers and magazines. I argue that coverage of women terrorists is an example of a social construction of reality shaped by newsroom routines and selection of sources. The analysis has an intentionally broad scope, both in geographic and topical terms, and is a beginning exploration of international patterns of perpetuation of gendered narratives and frames. It not only confirms already existing evidence of stereotyping of women terrorists, but also attempts to hone the categorization of the stereotypes. In addition, the study explores the perceptions of skills and intelligence of women terrorists, a rarely approached issue.

The following questions are posed: What are the most common stereotypical categories that media have used to portray female terrorists in the 21 century? How are those “modern” stereotypes different or similar to historical representations of violent women? What, if any, linguistic and rhetorical approaches are used to convey that women terrorists are dumb, irrational, or immature?

Historical context

News coverage of women terrorists increased after a series of recent high-impact events involving female suicide bombers. In August 2004 two Chechen women detonated two Russian planes, killing 88 people. About a third of the Chechen rebels who held hundreds of people hostage in a Moscow theater in 2002 were women (Bowers et al., 2004). At least two of the terrorists in the deadly Beslan school siege in Russia were also women, who wore explosives. These events came after a string of Palestinian suicide bombings by women. Al-Qaeda in Iraq also began using women in its jihad. The first female terrorist in Iraq, dressed as a man, blew herself up in September 2005 (Dickey et al., 2005, December 12). A couple of months later, Mureille Degauque of Belgium became the first European to commit a suicide bombing in Baghdad.

The recent coverage of female political violence has inaccurately constructed women terrorists as a new phenomenon. History shows otherwise. Charlotte Corday attempted to change the course of the French Revolution by murdering Jean-Paul Marat. Vera Zasulich “heralded the onset of terrorism in Russia” by attacking the St. Petersburg police chief in 1878 (Knight, 1979). A 17-year-old Lebanese female committed the first ever suicide bombing in 1985 (Bloom, 2005). A woman, a member of the Tamil Tigers, assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 (Bloom, 2005). Over the past two decades, female bombings have spread to Sri Lanka, Israel, Morocco, Egypt and Iraq. An expert analysis suggests 30 percent of suicide attackers are women (Bloom, 2005).

Theoretical framework

From a constructionist viewpoint, news stories represent not an actual reality, but a reproduction “created” by human beings and shaped by personal and external factors. Social construction of reality, a concept developed by Berger and Luckmann (1966) explains how stereotypes emerge and set foot in the so-called “social fabric.” People as social actors create mental images of each other’s actions over time; then those images become habitualized, institutionalized and come to be seen as carriers of meaning.

Tuchman (1978) suggests that news reports not only publicize events but also “impart character” to them by presenting only selected details. Other scholars call the imposing of some sort of an artificial order on a chaotic reality “framing” (Reese, 2001; Entman, 1989). There are time and staff constraints that do not allow news organization to cover every event as a “thing in itself” (Tuchman, 1978). Most experienced journalists seek culturally recognized narratives and use them as foundation stones on top of which to craft their reports.

Literature review

Emphasizing either the femininity or the violence of women terrorists but not the two together is a typical, constructed dichotomy, according to Talbot (2001). Existing research on portrayals of female terrorists contains many examples of such a constructed dichotomy. Struckman (2006) found that the female rebels in a documentary about the Moscow theatre siege were often presented as brainwashed victims and gentle women forced into a distasteful farce; by contrast, the actions of the male terrorists were seen as “natural.” In a textual analysis of news reports about Palestinian suicide bombers, Berkowitz (2005) discovered frames reflecting the mythical archetype of the Woman Warrior, an image that audiences know from shows such as Xena and Charlie’s Angels. The first six bombers fit that archetype, but the seventh had two young children and had allegedly cheated on her husband. Suddenly, journalists had to replace the “Woman Warrior” with the “Terrible Mother” archetype (Berkowitz, 2005). Handley and Struckman (2005) also found that female terrorists were more likely to be described in terms of age, appearance, “familial or relational context” and stereotypical traits, i.e., propensity to deception and incompetence; furthermore, stories mentioning female terrorists were more likely to include facts and assumptions about their motivation, the psychology of the act, the emotional response and the immediate effects of the bombing.

An interesting aspect of the portrayal of women terrorists is the focus on their corporeal traits and sexuality. Brunner (2005) explores three corporeal traits of female suicide bombers: (1) virginity, used to underscore that they are “something very precious, a human capital” being sacrificed for an ideal; (2) pregnancy, especially in the context of a “demographic war” between Israel and Palestine, and the history of female bombers disguising their explosive belts as protruding bellies; and (3) motherhood, or the choice of martyrdom that has been extended by Arab media to a “generalized Palestinian motherhood.” Arab newspapers often portray female suicide attackers as “chaste wives and mothers of the revolution” (Bloom, 2005). Such a “poetic storytelling” approach, used by Arab media in descriptions of female bombers, often finds its way into rational and “individual-based” explanations for Western audiences (Brunner, 2005). The result seems to be a gendered representation tailored to fit Western standards, a completely out- ofculture and out-of-context picture of female suicide bombers. Underscoring the obsession with the bodies of female terrorists is the anecdotal evidence that many have been “raped or sexually abused … thereby contributing to a sense of humiliation and powerlessness, made only worse by stigmatization within their own societies” (Bloom, 2005).

When female attackers are not Muslim, their representations seem to be even more sexualized. Steel (1998) found that British fiction, film and news media often include sexual connotations in portrayals of Irish female terrorists. From a somewhat Freudian perspective, such representations of female terrorists exploit a “metaphorical equivalence” of death and orgasm, since dying at the hands of a gorgeous woman can be perceived as the ultimate good time (Steel, 1998). The concepts of fear and pleasure have long been intertwined in folk representations of womanhood: Blackledge (2004) accounts for many examples of vaginal display, in various cultures, as a tool to frighten evil demons and opposing warriors (p. 8).

In coverage of the West German second of June movement, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Weathermen, female terrorists have almost uniformly been portrayed as “more violent, ruthless and uncompromising than their male counterparts”; also, they are likely to be perceived as sexual objects for men and as part of “male-engineered” terrorist structures (Galvin, 1983). Themes of submission and dominance also emerge in representations of female terrorists’ motivational factors, including avenging a lost husband or male family member (Bloom, 2005; Bowers et al, 2004).


This study employed textual analysis based on feminist rhetorical theories and literature on news portrayals of gender and violence. The concept of “rhetoric” was viewed broadly as the symbols used to construct reality and from which “audiences derive meanings” (Foss, Foss & Griffin, 1999, p. 6). The analyses looked for frames, defined here as inclusion or exclusion of certain details; narratives; juxtapositions; metaphors; metonymies; and visual imagery conveyed through literary techniques. The analyzed stories were published in Englishlanguage publications in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia between 2000 and 2005. A Lexis-Nexis search, which was not limited to specific publications or story length, found more than 100 stories mentioning women terrorists in Nexosweek, U.S. Nezvs & World Report, The Neiv Yorker, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Daily Neius, The Montreal Gazette, The London Daily Telegraph, The Glasgoxo Herald, The Observer, The Irish Times, the Australian Magazine, and many others. In analyzing the results and crafting categories of stereotypes, I took into account the five notions that Talbot (2001) suggests have been historically used in representations of female terrorists: (1) extreme feminists; (2) only bound into terrorism via a relationship with a man; (3) only acting in supporting roles within terrorist organizations; (4) mentally inept; and (5) unfeminine in some way.


As was to be expected from the review of the literature, women terrorists were cast in traditional feminine roles in most of the analyzed articles. Overall, the framing and stereotyping were subtle but consistent; however, there were some exceptions from the rule that will be enumerated here before the actual findings:

* Not every news story contained linguistic elements that suggested stereotyping. Many news briefs and short articles were neutral and contained no value-laden descriptions at all.

* Positions taken in some news reports ran the gamut from feminism to sexism without resorting to any subtle stereotypes. For instance, one male-authored article in The Irish Times was very non- stereotypical. It cited studies showing that women excel “in motivation, weapons skills, performance under pressure and leadership roles” and that “mixed-sex units outperform single-sex units in all phases of combat” (Clonan, 2002, Oct. 26). At the other end of the spectrum was a letter to the editor in the London Sunday Telegraph, also authored by a man, which suggested that “women are not physically or hormonally equipped for war;””doctrinal purism is quite a common female characteristic;””a woman’s instinct is to give life not to take it;” and “even when the ambition to be a killer exists, it is not usually matched by ability” (Myers, 2002, Oct. 27).

* At least two articles suggested untypical explanations for the deeds of female terrorists, such as need for money (Ward, 2004, October 10) and a practice of sale of young women into “suicidal slavery” (Groskop, 2004, September 5). A Washington Post story about Palestinian suicide bombers emphasized the women’s desire to be seen as “not less men than men” over individual circumstances (Copeland, 2002, April 27).

These exceptions apart, five stereotypical depictions of female terrorists emerged in the analysis: (1) the technically unskilled suicide bomber, (2) the “attack bitch” seeking revenge, (3) the failed (potential) mother, (4) the victim, brainwashed by a male, and (5) the sexy babe with personal issues. Some portrayals contained stereotypes that fell into more than one category. Overall, although the depictions reflected representations of female suicide bombers from the first few years of the 21 century, they are surprisingly similar to Talbot’s five “notions” (2001) about how women terrorists were represented over a period of many decades.

More often than not, stories about female terrorists mentioned how they were dressed, as well as their body language or facial expressions. For instance, a relatively short article in the London Daily Telegraph made it a point to mention that a 19-year-old student who blew herself up in the Northern Israel town of Afula was said to “be well-dressed and wearing high heels” (Gozani & de Quetteville, 2003, May 20). This is consistent with the findings of feminist scholars about gender biases in the news coverage of female athletes (with focus on the attractiveness and dress style of a tennis player, for instance), especially when compared with the coverage of male athletes (Eastman & Billings, 2000; Kinnick, 1998).

The following analysis is structured in seven subsections. The first five analyze the depictions of five prominent female suicide bombers who received significant coverage in English-language publications. Although these women are not representative of all female suicide bombers in the Middle East, their news coverage reflects the most common stereotypes. The sixth sub-section is about Chechen female terrorists, the “Black Widows.” The last sub- section, which is also the longest, is about generalizations on femininity within the context of terrorism. Not every article analyzed for this study is among the examples because of the sheer volume of the material; however, common narratives and frames were summarized if they appeared over and over again.

1. Wafa Idris

Idris, the first female suicide bomber in the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, was described as a volunteer with the Palestine Red Crescent Society. Her depictions in different publications cast her into four of the typical stereotypes: the; technically inept, the “attack bitch,” the failed (potential) mother and the “sexy babe with personal issues.”

In some initial reports, doubts emerged about whether Idris had really meant to kill herself or unintentionally set off the bomb in her purse as she was “rushing out of a shoe store” in Jerusalem (Lavie, 2002, February 6). Later, she was said to have shattered a glass ceiling and proven herself as a feminist in her own cultural environment (Bennett, 2002, February 11). A Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel article described her as a “sweet-natured woman” who had “curly brown hair” and did not wear a headscarf, but perhaps had a “secret life” Qohnson, 2002, February 3). A Christian Science Monitor article depicted her as enraged at Israel because of her volunteer experience treating “people wounded by Israeli troops, including children” (Lynfield, 2002, February 1).

News reports also reverted to seeking personal details about Idris to explain her violent act. Although described as physically attractive, Idris was also “divorced because of her infertility,””damaged goods,” old at 26″ and a “burden on the family,” according to an article in Australian Magazine (Toolis, 2004, November 13). The same article relied on a quote from an Israeli expert to frame all women terrorists as having personal issues of some sort:

“With female suicide bombers the same pattern repeats itself … There are always some family problems – divorce, infertility, or the male authority figures around them are weakened by sickness or death. There is always something about female suicide bombers that is a rupture from the usual social pattern” (Toolis, 2004, November 13).

2. Reem al-Reyashi

Depicted in English-language publications as a 22year-old mother of two children and a likely adulteress, al-Reyashi was the first and only female suicide bomber used by the Palestinian organization, Hamas. A dramatic narrative used in most of the news reports about her suggested that she was “forced” to blow herself up in order to restore her family’s name and avoid the shame of being killed as an adulteress. According to a Queensland Sunday Mail article, the juicy information about al-Reyashi’s extramarital affair came from Israeli sources and was dismissed by Hamas as “Zionist propaganda” (Chalmers, 2004, February 1).

Despite the compelling “adulteress” narrative, alReyashi’s media representations fit only the stereotype of the failed mother. Many reports described the pictures she took posing with a rifle and her children before the suicide attack. The only personal detail available about her was that she came from a middleclass family (Myre, 2004, January 15). None of the stories mentioned if al- Reyashi was attractive and whether she had a history of personal problems, other than allegedly having slept with a Hamas operative.

Some news reports also speculated that she had gotten pregnant from her illicit lover. Although alReyashi was “under orders” and a victim of cultural norms, she did not fit the typical image of a brainwashed fanatic sacrificing herself for Islam and the motherland (Chalmers, 2004, February 1).

3. Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi

A suicide bomber who failed to detonate her bomb, al-Rishawi fit four of the five stereotypes. A Newsweek article described her as a vengeful 35-yearold virgin who had lost three brothers in the Iraq war and had married “a fellow bomber” in a union that was never sexually consummated (Dickey et al., 2005, December 12).

According to Western cultural and gender norms, those details cast her as a failed potential mother, since she was still a virgin at 35; an “attack bitch,” because she ferociously sought revenge for her brothers; a brainwashed victim, since she had close relations with male terrorists; and a technically unskilled woman, since she apparently did not figure out how to detonate her explosives.

The New York Times recently reported that alRishawi was sentenced to death by hanging. The news brief included a sentence that underscored yet another aspect of her unfeminine behavior: she “showed little emotion in the packed courtroom as the verdict was read” (Maayeh, 2006, September 22).

4. Hanadi Jaradat

A trainee at a law firm, Hanadi Jaradat was depicted in news stories as having nothing to live for by her own cultural standards. Already in her late 20s, she was an old maid. According to a story published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jaradat, who had a Jordanian passport, passed through a checkpoint and took a cab to Maxim, a popular restaurant in Haifa, the third largest city in Israel. Here is how the article describes the subsequent bombing: “She bought her driver lunch, for $20, delivered it to his car, and returned to the restaurant, where she paused near a group of baby carriages and blew herself up. She and 21 patrons died in the blast, including a family of five” (Hermann, 2004, January 25).

The Mercury (Australia) described Jaradat as a “breathtakingly pretty 27-year-old,” who “rose before dawn to pray.” After her fiance was shot by Israeli soldiers, “she had nightmares and became obsessed with what was happening to her family and her people.” And although Jaradat always wore the traditional headdress and long black robe, on the day of the suicide attack she “discarded Muslim clothes, put on jeans and make-up, tied her hair into a ponytail and began the final part of her terrible mission” (Pendlebury, 2003, October 18).

Several months after her suicide bombing, Jaradat was again at the center of a scandal, this time because an Israeli-born artist and his wife compared her to a submissive fairy-tale character and made her the focus of an art exhibition in Sweden (Brown-Humes & Devi, 2004, January 19). The work, called “Snow White and the Madness of Truth,” consisted of a picture of Jaradat carried by a small white boat in the midst of a rectangular basin filled with red fluid. In addition, “on the wall at the art exhibit there was posted a text that interposed passages from the Grimm brothers’ story of Snow White with excerpts of a posthumous profile of Jaradat that ran in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz” (Martin, 2004, February 15). The Israeli ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel, physically attacked the artwork, claiming it glorified Jaradat and signified anti-Semitism.

Jaradat fit three of the stereotypes. She was clearly a “sexy babe with personal issues;” a failed potential mother, who not only had no children of her own but cold-bloodedly killed other people’s children; and an “attack bitch” who was taking revenge.

5. Mureille Degauque

The first ever European suicide bomber, Mureille Degauque of Belgium, became a sensation. She was a Catholic who converted to Islam. A Newsweek article depicted her as a problem child who often ran away from home. Later, she had relationships with several Muslims. Her last marriage was with a man of Moroccan descent. At the time of her death, she was 38, childless, and framed as the brainwashed wife of a fanatic: “They went to live for at least three years in Morocco, and when she returned home she was fully veiled: alienated, lonely, in the thrall of a husband who consumed her entire world.” (Dickey et al., 2005, December 12).

The details and quotes in a New York Times article focused on her dress style as well as past transgressions (Smith, 2005, December 6). For instance, “Her teachers remember her as a well-dressed, well- behaved young woman, even if she was a middling student.” From a prim Catholic girl, in her teens she turned into a motorcycle club member and started wearing a black leather jacket. Her brother died in an accident. Then, she started appearing with a headscarf, and finally in a long black robe and fully veiled, with only her eyes showing (Smith, 2005, December 6).

Degauque fit three of the stereotypes: the “sexy babe with personal issues;” a somewhat less intelligent woman, thus an easy target for brainwashing; and the “technically unskilled” category, since she killed only herself in the detonation.

6. The ‘Black Widows’

Representations of Chechen female terrorists lacked any element of ineptness but fit the other three stereotypes. For instance, an article from The Montreal Gazette (McDonald, 2003, October 24), used direct quotes to describe the so-called “Black Widows” as childless young women who had lost their husbands and were damned to wear mourning dress for the rest of their lives. For instance, the women “had no reason to live,” had been allegedly brainwashed by “special psychologists” and “stuffed full of drugs,” and were “scarier than men,” barking orders and brandishing pistols “alongside their male comrades.” The Gazette story also quoted a source saying one of the terrorists was pregnant. Clearly, these descriptions cast the Black Widows into the stereotypical categories of brainwashed women, “attack bitches” and failed potential mothers. But an Observer article (Groskop, 2004, September 5), offered different viewpoints from siege survivors describing the “Black Widows” as courteous, trying not to frighten the hostages, letting children out of the theatre, crying and talking about their hard lives. Those mostly positive descriptions fit the “brainwashed victim” category.

7. Femininity within Violence

The juxtaposition of femininity and violence as nearly opposite concepts has sometimes led to representations of women terrorists as little more than “sex bombs,” in a literal sense. Some of the analyzed news reports implied that female bombers are frail, submissive and lacking in terrorist qualities because of physiological and emotional differences from men. For instance, an article in The San Francisco Chronicle claimed that Hezbollah, which used female bombers in the early 1980s, later “reverted to using men, apparently because the attacks by women and children were less effective” (Epstein, 2002, April 6). In addition, the same article suggested that Wafa Idris and the next two female Palestinians who followed her example “weren’t successful, compared with some of the horrific bombings in Israel in recent months.” Each of these female bombers killed only a handful of people rather than dozens or hundreds. Using a similar vantage point, Whitaker (2005, December 12), in a Newsweek editorial, described women in the jihad movement as nothing more than tools used to “go where men can’t” and to “taunt potential male recruits.” Also, female terrorists were acting under the influence of men and defining themselves through relationships with men (Whitaker, 2005, December 12).

As if to prove the artificiality of such stereotypes, other news reports cast female terrorists in exactly the opposite light: as tougher, scarier and more dangerous than their male counterparts. For instance, some news reports suggested that women terrorists are often more ferocious than men (for instance, McDonald, 2003, October 24) and even cited an alleged counterterrorism rule to kill the female terrorists before the male ones.

Gendered metaphors and metonymies were also used to transfer sets of gendered associations into a single word or phrase. For instance, the very names of the two existing female terrorist organizations, Palestinian “Army of Roses” and Chechnya’s “Black Widows,” rely on images of flowers and insects, which is consistent with the practice of describing women in trivializing terms (Wood, 2006, p. 121). Also consistent with feminist literature is the use of the word “girls” for adult women, a term that implies immaturity (Wood, 2006). For instance, an article in The Observer opened up with the following lead: “When there is a bombing, Russians are no longer surprised to discover a girl is responsible” (Groskop, 2004, September 5). A letter to the editor from the London Sunday Telegraph described the Black Widows in the Moscow theatre siege as “those terrorist girls in their burqas.”

A common technique in many of the analyzed articles was the juxtaposition of “life giving” and “life taking” to imply motherhood and/or femininity failure, at least by Western standards. For instance, Newsweek’s description of the first female bomber in Iraq (Dickey et al., 2005, December 12), referred to explosive strapped around her womb. In reality, the explosives were likely strapped around her waist, higher than the area of the uterus. The choice of the word “womb,” associated with childbearing, underlined the discrepancy between femininity and violence. A similar juxtaposition was used in the Montreal Gazette (McDonald, 2003, October 24) article, which described the 19 Black Widows who held up hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater as wearing “packs of explosives … just about the size of bread loaves or newborn babies.”

Berkowitz (2005) discovered similar life-death imagery in a Neiv York Times article that borrowed from an Egyptian daily’s depiction of a bomber: “She bore in her belly the fetus of rare heroism, and gave birth by blowing herself up!” Even a Melbourne Herald Sun article about a new Australian theater performance, titled Woman- Bomb, was built around the same idea. The play’s director was quoted to say: “Women have always been the bringers both of life and death … Even the phrase ‘a bombshell of a woman’ is hinting at that area of someone that is capable of causing destruction” (Barclay, 2005, July 1).

Discussion and conclusions

News stories about female bombers have the difficult task of constructing deviant acts of violence in ways understandable to the audience. The problem is that such deviant acts not only contradict social norms (as do suicide bombings committed by men), but they also starkly contradict traditional views of femininity. Such double deviance has a significant news value; hence, stories about women terrorists are guaranteed prominent placement and sensational headlines. They are also guaranteed to contain juicy personal details, often unprecedented in this era of political correctness and third-wave feminism. It is usual for the media, especially in the United States, to seek details from the personal lives of people who unwittingly throw themselves into the public spotlight, as for instance, happened with the gay man who saved the life of President Ford.

But in the coverage of female suicide bombers, the issue is not so much about digging for juicy narratives as it is the use of a double standard that rarely pays attention to the personal stories of male terrorists. Stories about women terrorists generally conformed to Western gender standards and ideology. They almost always included details about physical appearance, sex life or lack thereof, and motherhood status or inability to have children. Only some articles, and only in passing, mentioned the professional background of Palestinian female bombers. None of the articles about the Chechen “Black Widows” included details about their education and jobs, although many of the terrorists older than 35 likely had professional careers under the Soviet regime. The study found five common frames or stereotypes used in representations of female terrorists. Figuratively speaking, those were “the inept ditz,” the “attack bitch,” the “failed mother,” the “brainwashed victim” and the “sexy babe with issues.” The categories were broad enough to cover most gendered depictions of female suicide bombers. Numerous examples supported these common stereotypes, which often overlapped or were used in combination. I also found multiple examples of linguistic and rhetorical techniques that depicted female terrorists as emotional and immature, for instance, by using trivializing terms or calling them “girls.”

Although the study did not aim to compare gender stereotypes in English-language newspapers from different countries, their approaches were similar and perhaps borrowed from each other’s descriptions of women terrorists. These commonalities in stereotyping may have been related to the selection of sources, such as Israeli and Palestinian scholars and Middle-Eastern newspaper articles. One can hope that the high visibility of women terrorists has had not only a negative effect, in terms of reinforcing Western gender stereotypes, but has also offered a more layered understanding of womanhood.

In her 2002 presidential address to the Eastern Sociological Society, Judith Lorber said that, although imagery surrounding September 11 and the “war on terrorism” was conventionally gendered, female bombers challenged “terrorist machismo”:

“As much as we may have mixed feelings about women militants, I think we must continue to commemorate women heroes and warriors so that we don’t go back to the old stereotypes of men as the rescuers and protectors and women as dependent on men to be their line of defense against domestic and foreign dangers” (Lorber, 2002).

The findings pose many more questions for future research. For instance, a content analysis of stories about both female and male terrorists could provide a quantitative comparison of just how often such reports focus on appearance, sexuality and personal problems. Also, how does the gender of the writer affect the overall tendency to stereotype and trivialize women terrorists in news accounts? Do articles about female suicide bombers use more Christian or more Muslim sources? How do the representations differ based on the affiliations of the sources? How does the presence or absence of historical context in the news articles affect the descriptions of female terrorists? Those questions will only continue to multiply, because complex phenomena involving gender and violence require anthropological and cultural contextualizing that is unlikely to fit any newspaper or magazine page.


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Miglena Sternadori is a doctoral student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where she also earned her master’s degree. Originally from Bulgaria, she worked as a neiuspaper reporter in Sofia for five years before coming to the United States for the first time in 2000 as a visiting professional. She later worked as a research assistant at Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune and associate editor at the Missouri State Teachers Association. Her research interests include text comprehension, nezusgathering routines, gender and media ethics. This paper was originally presented at the 2007 annual conference of the International Cmmunication Association in San Francisco.

Copyright Communication Research Associates, Inc. Fall 2007

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