Vol. 1: Terrorism

Terrorism, Gender Studies and Popular Culture

“Just because you weren’t there, the trauma still carries on and becomes a part of your identity.”

Don Varn Lowman, MA, MBA, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

42: Don Varn Lowman – How does queer theory approach the issue of terrorism?

Don Varn Lowman: First of all, we look at identity. We can also look at the othering of people, where one person or the actions of one person defines the actions of everyone. Othering is a significant theme in queer studies. Within queer studies, we challenge the idea that there is only one identity with the notion that identity is fluid and changing. This goes into what Judith Butler would say – that gender is socially constructed. With regard to terrorism, I would also agree that the identity, or maybe the idea behind certain religions, is socially constructed. If we look at terrorism, it has now become associated with Islam. Of more than a billion Muslims in the world, somewhere around 0.0001% are terrorists or support terrorist actions. The actions of that 0.0001% now define all of Islam. And this has happened repeatedly throughout history.Ibram X. Kendi did very interesting research on history and slavery, and it is also looking back at how rape was reported. Pretty much in every case when it was a Black person who had committed a rape crime, they were convicted, and the numbers served as proof for how all Africans or African-Americans or Black people are bad. When it was a white person, it was simply indicative of a bad trait of that person’s character. You see this with terrorism as well: In 2015 a young man carried out a mass-shooting in a church in the US. In 2011 a number of attacks in Norway claimed a total of 77 lives. Even though these two attackers had connections to Christianity, they were described as “extremists”. If the reports mentioned religion at all, it was by decrying how the perpetrators had distorted what Christianity meant. As soon as it’s a Muslim terrorist, it’s shown that it is a Muslim person, not that they are terrorists first and happen to be Muslim. So this is othering: Enforcing an identity onto someone. That’s where queer theory and terrorism intersect.

42: With regard to terrorist actions: Would you say that violence is gendered?

DVL: If we’re looking at violence as such historically, and if we’re going to make the assumption first that people that are male and female identify as male and female, then the vast majority of reports identify males as being the violent ones. However, there are two sides to this: One, what position do women hold in society and what were they allowed to do? Two, who are the violent ones? This is a male-dominated domain – therefore the males are reporting on it. And even when there were women that came about, who were strong, they were erased in reporting, or highly criticized. Look at Joan of Arc, for instance. Whether you fall on whether she was good or bad, she was very violent. Now this is one person out of hundreds and hundreds of people that are seen as heroes throughout history. In any case, we didn’t have women in violent military campaigns. There were some, but generally they weren’t allowed to join. Women’s position and what they were allowed to do is often erased in the reporting of history.

42: How does this change in reporting history affect the perspective on gender and terrorism?

DVL: You see this more, nowadays: There is a book that came out five or six years ago, called Women, Gender, and Terrorism written by Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry that talks about the connection between gender and terrorism; at the increase in women being involved in terrorism. This had often gone unreported. If we’re looking at Islam – yes, you have women involved in terrorism in some way, for instance in supporting terrorist groups, but their involvement is usually misreported. Because of patriarchy, women were usually removed from historical reports. Either they are pushed into subservient roles as someone helping terrorists or their terrorist actions are not as often included in reports.

42: Could you tell us about an example and how it affects society nowadays?

DVL: You’ve seen this in Palestine: There were some female suicide bombers. However, this is a more recent development, starting in the 1990s to today. Women have become more visible since then. Of course there were terrorist women, but again, because of the patriarchy of many eras, women were subjugated and pushed to the peripheries, or their stories weren’t told. Now you even hear about suicide bombers in the Middle East, that are women. In Chechnya (Russia) for example, there is a considerable rise in women in extremist groups. A few years ago in Germany, you had the terrorist group, NSU, attacking minorities: Two of the people involved in that group were women. Women being the main perpetrators and not behind the scenes, is almost exclusively a Western concept nowadays. With regard to their position in society and what they are allowed to do in the Middle East or in Asia. There, women are pushed to the periphery, also when they are helping terrorists for instance.

42: When women are generally being pushed to the periphery: Are they recognized in the counterterrorism movement?

DVL: Women have also been erased as the ones fighting against terrorism, a largely male-dominated domain. There have been several accounts, throughout history, of women who used their gender to pose as spies, using the idea that women are not “that smart” or that they are sexual objects. They used that prejudice to their advantage. This is the other side of studying gender and terrorism: The role of the woman as a hero.

42: With regard to the historical and political events in the past 20 years: Do you think gender roles have changed since 9/11?

DVL: Taking the turn of the century into account as a turning point makes sense – you could pick 1999, you could pick 2002: In the last roughly 20 years, yes, gender roles have absolutely changed. There is so much awareness due to queer studies today: If we look at how new queer theory is, as a studies. New research came out of Butler and Foucault, out of feminist theory and feminist studies, which in itself is newish in the grand scheme of critical theory. Things have changed drastically in this respect. If we look first at Western society – going back almost twenty years, the awareness of anything beyond lesbian and gay has increased. I’d say in the last few years, Western societies have become much more aware of queer identities. We’re slowly moving away from this idea that identity is static, that it’s either ‘A’ or ‘B’. Within the ‘heterosexual matrix’ the assumption prevails that you are born with certain body parts and therefore you are ‘this’ and therefore you have a desire that is either ‘A’ or ‘B’, either homosexual or heterosexual. Whereas Butler would say: We have a body. We might perform an identity and we might have desire. Having only one or two identities is not the reality. Identity can change. It’s fluid. Butler says this, as well as many other theorists. There are things that we don’t even know and cannot even put into words yet. In Gender Trouble, from 1990, Butler does not talk about transgender at all, yet years later she has discussed transgender identities extensively. Queer Studies/Theory are always evolving and being rewritten. Needless to say, there is still a remarkable discrepancy between theory and representation of queer people in society. If we look at the media for instance: Historically, queer people have been portrayed as victims or as an evil entity or force. Looking back at the developments of the last 20 years: This representation has changed drastically since 9/11.

42: Do you think gender roles and the phenomenon of othering have changed due to 9/11?

DVL: This is where gender comes into play with the Western gaze upon Islam – which has changed. There have been lots of studies that look at media and TV representations pre and post 9/11. Before 9/11 – not that it was good, but it was a ‘different bad’ – it was this ‘exotic other’. Islam was ‘something different’, it was the idea of Aladdin and his mystical or subservient woman. The ideas of exotic, mystical and ‘other’ go back to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. Post 9/11 – nowadays people often assume that Islam is a terrorist organisation, as a general connotation, even though it is a fraction of a fraction of 1%.

42: How has the concept of othering influenced, and maybe changed, the perspective on gender in conjunction with religion?

DVL: People started to focus on factors that differentiate people. We start looking at the niqab or the hijab as differentiating factors, for example. We can instantly tell that a person is Muslim and that the head coverings are worn by women. Many men, however, wouldn’t be instantly identified as Muslim – even though there is traditional clothing, but not as much as with women. The next association is terrorism. There are all myriad ideas such as “we need to ban the headscarf, because people can hide bombs in there”. It’s ridiculous. Different countries that seem to be the progressive, Western countries, are attacking symbols of religion due to the fact that many people equate this to terrorism now and they are neglecting the symbols that are rife in the culture of Christianity altogether, thus ignoring Christian terrorism. This ignorance has also pushed Muslim women very much into another stereotype of “They are terrorists” or “They are helping terrorists”, they are ‘subservient’. To act out against this ignorance is extremely important.

42: In what way can we speak out against this ignorance, and look at gender from a different perspective in our everyday lives? 

DVL: Some of the language that we use has changed drastically. Being “like a girl” for instance is often regarded as negative. In advertising, some campaigns reflect on and play with the use of everyday language. In one campaign, they made a video in which they told women to “throw like a girl” – they basically dropped the ball and looked silly. Nike invested in an advertisement campaign with a young girl from the little league (baseball) world series: She was one of the best players and she was a pitcher. On the front cover of an advertisement they had her throwing the ball and it said “throw like a girl”. In this case, language in advertisement re-appropriates this saying into something positive. It is something we need to do in our everyday language as well. Changing the language of heteronormativity is something we need to do so that people are not making assumptions based on gender anymore. The awareness of language we use is imperative, and thankfully that awareness is increasing, but we have a long way to go as a society.

42: You are also an expert on comics: How are gender and terrorism represented in this medium and is there a connection between the two?

DVL: Traditionally, comics have been seen as something that’s childish and simplistic. It’s a rather male-dominated domain as well, both in representation and also who is writing and illustrating comics. The male gaze is rather prevalent – you see that when women appear, what they’re wearing, what they look like. The first appearance of an African-American female in a comic, as a superhero – Butterfly – was a stereotyped idea of an African-American woman. She was extremely sexualized as well. In that sense the representation of women is dangerous because it reinforces ideas that many people have in society. Nowadays, comics are experiencing a resurgence of what they can do and what they can mean. Pedagogically speaking, comics are very important for a wider audience. Queer representation has increased significantly: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home for instance is an intriguing example of an autobiography, and where a queer topic is taken seriously. Having this representation of a lesbian female in a comic is very new. Several years ago, this representation didn’t even exist – and to have that available widely, and for so many people to read these things – it gives life and voice to minority groups. That is very powerful. The topic of terrorism, however, has not yet been picked up as much in comics, although the medium lends itself to it.

42: How can comics change the reader’s point of view – especially concerning their view on reality?

DVL: To see the pictures and how the artists are representing themselves or representing their story has a significant impact on the reader. When we look at female superheroes as opposed to the weak one who is being saved, this representation is affecting the reader, in the sense of what it means to be a woman. In the newest release of Miss Marvel you have the protagonist who is also a Muslim. On the one hand, this representation of a young Muslim woman hopefully breaks down the stereotypes for some people and shows Muslims in a different light. On the other, a young woman may recognize herself in a comic, as opposed to just the typical white male within a story. This comic throws many stereotypes in your face about what it is to be a Muslim. One of the characters in there is asking a Muslim character why she is wearing head scarf – is she going to be honour-killed or is her father forcing her to wear it? Her response points to that it is an identity-thing and that there is not only one way to practice Islam, that her father does not want her to wear it and that it is her way of showing her faith. If you look further: Joe Sacco is a famous artist and writer who represents war – for example the Yugoslavian war. His work emphasizes the desensitisation of how many people were killed and how it becomes a statistics game. We see so many pictures of war and explosions, that there’s not a personal aspect to it. Comics have the power to create a personal connection.

42: In what way are comics more emotional and personal?

DVL: There are pictures and there is the emotion – and showing what’s going on – you don’t just have text and what’s happening, but you see these pictures. In one way, it removes us a little from it, because it is a caricature of what is going on. But also, it pulls us in closer because we can imagine it being anyone, as opposed to something that happened far away. All kinds of terrorist activities that are going on within a country lead us into the direction that we need to redefine what terrorism is. It is important to realize that terrorism doesn’t mean that someone from “this” religion is attacking someone because they are different. Reading a comic, helps you to take a step back: You can understand it better and it connects people closer. It creates more awareness of these conflicts that are going on around the world, which people might not know about or might have seen on TV.

42: Judith Butler also addresses the issue of grievability by asking: Whom do we grieve for? She theorizes that we have to grieve for each and every life. Do we not talk enough about the victims of terrorism and only about the perpetrators? What do you think about that and can this be connected to the power of comics and literature?  

DVL: What comics do – and it needn’t be just a comic – they bring horrific actions closer to the reader. There is a novel written by Sara Novic called Girl at War, for instance. It is a fictionalized account of the Bosnian war, but it’s very real and it could have been real. We are not just focusing on either the evil terrorists or the evil perpetrators – we’re looking at genocides that were carried out in Bosnia. Within Bosnia, Islam is the majority religion. In this novel Girl at War, there was a horrific scene that shapes this girl’s life. You don’t just see things from the perspective of “we’re looking at the evil people” but also looking at the problem as a whole, looking at the victims and the perpetrators. The victims are not just victimized as “all of those poor people”, however. While reading, you feel the pain. That’s the power of words and also of pictures. When we’re looking back at Joe Sacco’s work: To see the pain of the victims and understand how this is a generational pain. Just because you weren’t directly there, the trauma still carries on and becomes a part of your identity. Understanding happens through literature, through graphic novels, as a very powerful and important tool to give representation and to show that there are different identities out there and not just to victimize people. In fact, people are no longer to be placed in this binary of good and bad, male and female. The objective is to break down these binaries, to look at the real situations and see how attitudes and stereotypes are actually changing.

42: Thank you for this interview.


Interview: Ina Habermann

Photo: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr


Don Varn Lowman, M.A., MBA
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität