Physical Dramaturgy: Ein (neuer) Trend?

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Suffer, fight, become a saint

Excelling at submission has often been a way for women to compete with men. By Jolande Withuis

Muslima terrorism – to many this new word will sound like a contradiction in terms. This is an erroneous and dangerously naive response. The common association of women with peacefulness and harmony is a myth. Although it is quite rare for women to carry out terrorist attacks, the phenomenon is not new.

There were women among the leaders of the Rote Armee Fraktion who committed suicide in 1977 in Stammheim prison. And only recently a prominent female RAF-member who had been involved in at least three murders and an aeroplane hijacking was released from prison. Palestinian women have carried out suicide missions. Chechen widows were involved in the violent hostage-takings in Beslan and Moscow. And in 2005 a young Belgian woman, who converted to Islam when she married a radical Muslim, blew herself up in Iraq.

In 1991 a book was published with the intriguing title "Shoot the women first". The author, Eileen MacDonald, took this title from an international recommendation to security and police personnel: in case they arrested a terrorist cell, they should take out the female members first.

In those days terrorist groups were not extremely rightist, but rather extremely leftist. MacDonald spoke with women from the German RAF, a Korean woman who had blown up an aeroplane with hundreds of civilians on board, a member of the Italian Brigate Rosse. It is difficult to draw a line between leftist and rightist when it comes to terrorism (see IRA, ETA, Hamas), and it is furthermore not the most relevant distinction. The essential (and scary) aspect of terrorism is not the intention, but the intensity of the commitment of the person involved – its extremism.

The advice to shoot the women first was based on the idea that female terrorists, not their male brothers, would be the first to open fire on their adversaries. Whether they actually did remains unclear in the seven interviews by MacDonald. Their stories do teach us, however, that all of these women developed their political engagement in a context in which femininity was at odds with politics.

Regardless of how different their respective cultures were, politics was traditionally the domain of men in all of the cultures. Women were excluded and as they were also considered to have no interest in politics, they had to prove, more than their male counterparts, their commitment and loyalty to the cause. More than that: to be allowed to participate at all, they also had to prove their courage, loyalty and competence to those sceptical and sexist brothers-in-arms, and refute the expectation that they would probably desert or fail. And there you have it: the pathway to taking it one step further.

Moreover, the nomadic existence of the "professional revolutionary" was further from regular female life than from male life. They had to give up more, which made it more difficult for them to retrace their steps. The credo "Nothing left to lose" fosters fatalism, despair and indifference regarding oneself and others – in other words: radicalization.

And what about the radical Muslimas? Are we to assume that they radicalize more readily than their religious brothers? Are women more inclined towards desperado behaviour?

In the Netherlands the importance of women in Islamic terrorist networks is on the rise. We have some knowledge about the Moroccan women around the Hofstad network thanks to the investigative efforts of Volkskrant reporters Janny Groen and Annieke Kranenberg ("Strijdsters van Allah. Radicale moslima's en het Hofstadnetwerk" - "Female Fighters for Allah. Radical Muslimas and the Hofstad-network", Amsterdam 2006). These Hofstad women actively participated in living room meetings, where male group members informed them about radical Islam. In addition, several prominent Muslim women are involved in the dissemination of the radical takfir ideas. They are involved in dawa (conversion, recruitment), disseminate sermons, books and other documents, translate texts and play a role in the radicalization of young people.

In many ways these women resemble Moroccan Muslimas who are attracted not to violence but to radical Islam and who want to live according to the letter of the Koran. They are approximately twenty years old, educated, feel excluded by Dutch society, give Islam a dominant role in their lives and are considered too radical by their immediate Moroccan environment, for example their families. Their hunger for information about Islam stands out. The mosque has little to no importance in their life because it is not puritanical enough or they don't like the doctrine being taught there. Lectures in Dutch, usually in a community centre or other location instead of the mosque, are popular. They also take information from websites that propagate salafism and political Islam.

Political and spiritual female radicalism has a long tradition in which a pattern can be distinguished. Let me introduce you to Saint Lidwina of Schiedam, who lived from 1380 to 1433. In 1395 Lidwina went skating as a healthy and far from saintly girl, fell, broke a rib and subsequently never rose again. The medical profession see Lidwien as a classical hysteric. In the huge pile of hagiographic literature, however, she is considered a miracle. The writings dedicated to her compete to give the most horrific description of her suffering. Abscesses the size of a fist, festering wounds, parts of her body rotting, maggots as large as your little finger crawling from her belly. Lidwina remained bedridden until she died, almost forty years later. She acquired a large following, was buried amid great public interest, and was canonized by pope Leo XIII in 1890.

Of course we can view Lidwina as a typical case of Catholic glorification of suffering. But of the 321 Christian mystics of suffering in Catholic history 274 were female: that is 85 percent! Furthermore Lidwina was held up as an example to Catholic girls far into the twentieth century. And she saw herself as an example too. By suggesting she redeemed the sins of mankind with her illness, she turned her suffering into something useful and special. The more extreme the suffering, the better. She caused herself even more pain by wearing horsehair shirts, and while at first she would occasionally eat a piece of apple, in her final years her diet is reputed to have consisted exclusively of hosts.

In this genre of spirituality, suffering is an achievement: the more humble, the more superior. The manipulative Lidwina, a typical case of gain through suffering, managed to acquire considerable influence on the priests in her environment through her extreme fate. Her illness brought her fame at a time when it was impossible for women to achieve fame or even have a meaningful life through work, science or art. Plus she also escaped an arranged marriage. When an arranged marriage loomed shortly before she went skating, she prayed to God for an illness. Get married, have children and die in childbirth – this was the fate of women. Remaining unwed meant poverty. And so Lidwien found the one door to a public existence that was open to her gender: lying down, suffering, canonization.

It is interesting (and alarming) that historically this Lidwina-pattern is found not only for example among nuns who hurt themselves more severely than the church allowed, but also among left-wing and secular women, although their self-chastisement took different forms. For all those women with their different ideologies, the desire to fulfil a political role clashed with the desire or duty to behave as good women were expected to behave. Their pursuit of a position in the community, outside the limitations of marriage and family life, put them in conflict with their environment. They solved this by taking on extra heavy burdens.

We should therefore not look for this tendency towards suffering or sacrifice in a "female nature", but rather in the awkward position of women in society. The influence that Lidwina, for example, achieved on church life, was unattainable by other, less destructive pathways.

This line of reasoning also explains why these women lacked the weakness and passivity commonly ascribed to their gender. Their "strong" behaviour expresses a compromise, a way of reconciling two identities that were in conflict from society's point of view: traditional femaleness versus a purpose in public life. This self-destructive form of commitment is an alibi to escape the "feminine" quality of passivity. In this way women have created an escape route from their second-class position through martyrdom. Subordination, sacrifice, and zealousness have often been the way for women in political and social movements to be allowed to join in with the men. As inequality between the sexes diminishes, women will have less reason to manifest themselves as martyrs.

In my opinion the analysis outlined above is also relevant to the women of, for example, the Hofstad group. Furthermore the sociological perspective helps us avoid the dilemma of whether Muslim radicalism is a form of emancipation or the opposite? Groen and Kranenberg also struggle with this question. I agree with Belgian journalist and terrorism expert Hind Fraihi, who in a television debate about their book characterized Muslima fundamentalism as "cynical feminism". Cynical because it is just an illusion of equality of women who are actually extremely submissive. As this behaviour is their choice, and at first sight not to their dissatisfaction, those who try to understand them are caught in a fruitless round of "yes they are! no they aren't!": are these emancipated women or victims?

Let us not forget that in the course of history women have forcefully defended anti-emancipatory ideas before. For example: in 1917 some 43,000 Dutch Christian women signed the petition "Do not give us the vote", because they viewed citizenship as incompatible with the domestic fate of women. Fortunately Aletta Jacobs and her followers ignored them.

More productive than an emancipatory or anti-emancipatory judgement is analyzing determining the dynamics of the behaviour and the situation of these young Muslim women.

The ideal Muslim woman is a mother who bears many sons. The lowest of the low in Muslim country are divorced women, followed closely by the almost equally despised unwed women. It is clear that the traditional role model does not offer the life these girls want, but they are also not able to get away from the obligation or the pressure to be feminine as defined by their culture, environment or faith. They do not want to be looked down on as women. They accept the imposed division of mankind into two unequal, totally different types, but they still want another kind of life than the one traditionally allotted to their gender. They display modern and self-conscious behaviour, and feel the desire to be of significance in a religious community that has always been the domain of men. Cloaked in all-covering clothing, they roam the Internet looking for texts that give women the right to join the jihad.

The contradictions in their gender-thinking are illustrated by their names. As is often the case in sects, members discard their own names. To confirm their new identity and their entry into a new "family", they choose a new name. All the Hofstad women are automatically named Oum, which means "mother". This traditional title is followed by a first name of their own choosing. One of the women is named Oum Osama, which expresses that Bin Laden is her role model. So she has combined the mandatory, generic, modest title of mother and the most violent, least modest male name available.

According to the Koran or the cultural traditions derived from it, the desires and ambitions of these girls are inappropriate. But they have no desire for what is appropriate. They also run the risk of being viewed as unfeminine in other ways: they are often smarter, more integrated and more competent than their husbands and the young men in the group. They must compensate or make up for this, and there are different ways to do so, for example by utilizing their talents not for the benefit of their own personal careers and autonomy, but for the cause.

The likelihood of this type of emancipation having a self-destructive or self-subordinating element is high, and unfortunately the risk that radical Muslimas, unlike Lidwina, will take others down with them in their self-destruction is very real. Their potential "suicide"-terrorism includes murder or even mass murder. Here the gender aspect goes to another important element of radicalization: sectarianism.

Modern life is characterized by people fulfilling different roles. Sects and radical beliefs, on the other hand, demand total dedication. Their faith offers radical Muslimas a total identity that is more important than anything else and that is not limited to particular hours or particular occasions. It requires effort and suffering, but at the same time provides satisfaction and peace of mind. Islamic rules that are bothersome or difficult – having to cover oneself, not being allowed to eat many things – become, if you manage to live up to them, sources of self-respect. It is like the anorexic who is satisfied when she manages to go on starving herself, even when it harms her health. So these women can be obsessively engaged in finding out which ingredients are "haram" or "halal", which also fills their days and therefore yields a comfortable feeling of a meaningful life.

This extreme interpretation of being Muslim, which is by no means common, implies exclusivity. Members of sects – and this type of Muslim group can certainly be compared to one – must forego emotional bonds other than those to the group; their commitment must not be thwarted by personal ties; they transfer their connection with their fellow human beings to their faith, and erase their sympathy for outsiders by looking at people with other beliefs as enemies. Radicalization implies that a person's faith increasingly colours (or ruins) her relationships with others. Where faith was at first only one difference, in the process of radicalization it turns into the one essential dividing line. Into a source of conflict or separation, of resentment and hostility on the one hand, and bonds and togetherness on the other.

One of the mechanisms that help sects survive is that the members live in fear of excommunication. Mosques are not quick to excommunicate anyone, but takfiri can expel, disown and even murder each other. The process of radicalization makes people vulnerable, for the farther a woman has gone along on the radical road, the more frightened she will be of being excluded from the group. She has left behind, or even rejected, her old family and friends and there is no honourable way back. She has become financially and emotionally dependent on the group. Because these women do not work, they are sometimes completely separated from society. Few contacts in the normal outside world means little correction, a reduced sense of reality, and also little chance of escape. The more isolated the individual members become, the more powerful the sect.

The informal structure of terrorist networks may further increase the fear of excommunication, because members are never sure of what is "right" at any given time. This gives charismatic persons who act as teachers even more power. In addition there is the temptation to compensate uncertainty regarding the faith with decisiveness. One of the Hofstad girls wanted to divorce her husband because he stood up for a Dutch judge; another spoke with contempt about Samir A. because he had not backed up his words with action.

Members of a sect learn not to empathize with other people or themselves. The loneliness this causes is mitigated by the shared battle against the Western world, which becomes a psychological necessity. And it goes even further in the case of violent sects, where a lack of compassion with non-believers is proof of virtue. Members start competing in inhumanity. Just like Mohammed B. practiced his role as slaughterer, the members of violent political groups train to become insensitive. Mohammed B. was also the one who joined 16-year-old Malika to another "brother" in matrimony. Her wedding night consisted of watching violent videos. This would accustom her to killing and the prospect of becoming a martyr. One girl told Groen and Kranenberg she had watched videos of beheadings until she felt nothing at all.

The mixture of sexism and sectarianism is a dangerous one. In order to be allowed to participate in the male domain, for example jihad, the Muslimas must rid themselves of the gentleness that is traditionally considered part of the female job description. Balance is retained by placing more emphasis on other aspects of traditional femininity. To make up for wanting something they should not want, they will excel at submission, obedience, and loyalty. This is apparent in their choosing the most misogynistic interpretation of Islam, including burkas and polygyny. This bitter pill is gilded with a feeling of superiority.

Superiority is the sweet reward that places the radical women above not only the non-believers, but also their families who lead less extreme lives. Above their uneducated or even illiterate mothers, for example, who are "respected" but who are actually helpless and definitely not able to address Allah or study the holy Koran. Or above their fathers, who command no respect in matters relating to the faith or in their social position. They think they have chosen their own submissive position, which implies a higher state of existence. To less religious or non-believing females these Muslimas will stubbornly maintain that their subservience to their husbands is not subservience to these men, but rather to their own convictions, and it is "therefore" a form of emancipation.

It is a certainty that the radical Muslimas become alienated not only from Dutch society, but also from their own environment. They feel that their families do not live according to "pure Islam" and confuse faith with Moroccan culture and tradition. Family members on the other hand are not happy with a daughter who is hidden inside a burka, whose husband refuses to sit down to dinner at the same table as her mother. The "compromise" I outline is effective not only with regard to their husbands and religious brothers, but also with regard to the parental environment. Even though the girls are doing something that is undesirable, the transgression is in line with the parental religious beliefs. Their godliness knows no bounds, so how can their parents possibly object?

The fact that this strategy both elevates them and cancels out any loyalty problems, adds to the appeal of this pathway. With their desire to join the jihad, giving lectures and studying the Koran, the women defy gender traditions, but they compensate for it by making extreme adjustments in other areas. So although they do struggle with the limitations of the domain allowed to women by Islam, their commitment, unlike the women from "Shoot the Women First", is not accompanied by any criticism of traditional femininity. On the contrary. They profess the most orthodox version of the faith and echo sexist notions: women must cover themselves and may not shake a man's hand.

Samir A.'s wife recently supported in the press his demand to be taken outside separately, not together with female prisoners. Her husband, she said, "was about to explode" – a primitive notion of sex seldom heard these days. The wives agree that men are allowed to have four wives, and among themselves they pretend not to mind. They close informal marriages, solely for the purpose of making sex possible, that offer no protection at all. Their basically promiscuous way of life, which also breaks with the tradition that a marriage only takes place after consent has been given by at least the parents and the family, makes it more difficult to return to the family. This makes women even more dependent on those pseudo-husbands and their fellow believers.

At the same time the women take every opportunity to humiliate their husbands if they are less radical or not decisive enough. The fact that the rule of separate male and female domains makes them a relatively steady group will sometimes turn this competing with and humiliating of the men into a party game for girls. Knowing Arabic and the holy Koran enables many of them to make contact with Allah directly (rather than through a man), which is an innovation that preserves their illusion of emancipation. At the same time this illusion stimulates their radicalization and isolation, because it is an emancipation that consists of obsessively studying the "pure" doctrine (which still comes to them through men).

Finally, these women, like their radical predecessors, will be inclined or feel compelled to challenge the male prejudice that they are too weak, frightened and ignorant, by taking their religious fight further than they perhaps want to. Because they must prove their equality (in decisiveness and religious conviction) as well as their subordination (as a gender), I see a risk that they will be willing to carry out gruesome assignments. Their ambiguous situation makes them vulnerable to recruitment.

The women around the Hofstad group display a mixture of assertiveness and sectarianism. Sect and gender aspects meet in the one thing every sect focuses on: living according to the doctrine and purification of the group. Here also, rivalry with and submission to the men go together perfectly.

More than with the contents of the Koran, however, I have addressed the possible functions of Islam and the social and psychological dynamic that makes and keeps the women radical. We should not overestimate the importance of the ancient texts in order to understand what is going on around us. The answer is not in the texts of Islam, but rather in how they are interpreted and in how they are used. It would be an illusion to think that we can find answers by studying the Koran, and a misunderstanding that we cannot comprehend anything without studying it. As a person radicalizes, the pure doctrine unmistakably becomes an obsession, but never without mediation: it always requires opportunistic interpretations and teachers. Women do not have enough power to push through a new interpretation as pure doctrine.

According to emeritus professor of sociology Bram de Swaan, the literal content of a religion is not very relevant, because one can take whatever one wants from any religious doctrine and from any holy book. Exegetists through the ages have done exactly that: they have taken whatever suited their needs. The contents of religions, De Swaan states in his essay "De botsing der beschavingen en de strijd der seksen" (The clash of civilizations and the battle of the sexes) are determined by social relationships. And he regards the battle for Islam as a worldwide battle for the preservation of male power. Muslim men are confronted in the West (and by globalization) with totally different relations between the sexes, while their self-respect is traditionally based on their masculine "honour". A man's "honour" depends on the behaviour of his wives, daughters and sisters, and he therefore sees it as a right and a necessity that he can impose his will on these women. Masculine honour implies the idea of male superiority as well as the concrete power of men over women. Both have diminished considerably in the Western world.

Muslim fundamentalism is gender fundamentalism. Muslima terrorism is complex in that it concerns a faith that focuses on the global (and also smaller-scale) preservation of patriarchal power, while at the same time there are women who want to use this patriarchal faith to emancipate themselves, and who are even willing to resort to acts of terrorism. Based on the same ambiguity it could be appealing for their male brothers to "allow" their "sisters" to participate in the jihad, i.e.: use the women to aid terrorists or even for suicide attacks.

Submission, in the guise of emancipation, or even more serious, emancipation that implies submission, can be very dangerous.


The article originally appeared in the Dutch newspaper Trouw on May 26, 2007.

Jolande Withuis is a sociologist at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD). Her book "De vrouw als mens. De mythe van het sekseverschil" (Women as human beings. The myth of gender difference) will appear o
n 5 June (Publishing House De Bezige Bij).
This article is an adaptation of the essay "Sekse en Sekte" (Gender and sect), that Jolande Withuis wrote at the request of the Dutch ministry of home affairs for the volume "Radicaliserende vrouwen" (Radicalizing women). Other contributions to this volume were written by professor of group dynamics Roel Meertens and author Nahed Selim. The essays appear on and are available in print:

Translation: Maggie Oates

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