From labels such as ‘jihadi brides’ to ‘Babes of the BNP’ Carys Evans asks why is it so difficult for us to accept the agency of women who seemingly reject our mainstream in favour of extreme ideals or violent behaviour?

In 2009 Vice magazine published a piece on ‘The Babes of the BNP’. In the article a series of questions are put to female members of the British National Party (BNP), the tone of which are facetious at best, overtly rude in all other cases. The questions, accompanied by pictures of the women, some of whom are naked and draped in flags of the Union Jack, focus at times on their interest in the BNP but mostly on their ‘favourite David’ or rumours surrounding Nick Griffin’s sexuality. For one of the women, after being asked a series of ‘and/or’ questions, all of which seem designed only to infantilize her, came the question ‘Plato or Playdough?’ The respondent gave the unsurprising answer ‘Playdough’ – unsurprising only because had her answer been different it seems unlikely it would have featured at all. The piece was written nearly a decade ago, but opening any social media platform today you can see unsettling evidence of the persistence of its underlying tone. There is a pervasive desire to mock the political inclinations of women who engage in extreme ideologies. Using humour at their expense undermines agency in women who engage in extreme politics, making them the butt of an intellectual joke and reducing our inclination to investigate their motivations effectively.

Denying female agency

When you google ‘Shamima Begum’ one of the first suggestions to appear is ‘Shamima Begum memes’. There are thousands, compiled together in YouTube videos, shared on Instagram and liked by various people on your friends list. Each of the images works hard to make comedy of her decision to travel from her home in Bethnal Green, London when she was 15 years old to live, get married and give birth 3 times under the Islamic State. Begum is one of nearly 150 women and girls who left the UK to live in the Islamic State’s Caliphate. She, along with these other women are indicative of a set of deeply rooted, intersecting issues that lead women to join violent extremist groups. Rather than acknowledge the intricacies of Begum’s case, we are presented instead with fervent attempts to undermine her decisions through outright suggestions of her intellectual stupidity. There are many disturbing elements to Begum’s case. Some of the most notable: a frequent denial of her potential vulnerabilities, an unwillingness to investigate her motives by the state in which she was radicalised and the extreme-right sentiment it seems to have stoked. Alongside these, the developing trend that makes Begum the butt of our supposedly clever jokes points to a wider gender issue that runs deeply through our understanding of women who join extremist groups. Why is it so difficult for us to accept the agency of women who seemingly reject our mainstream in favour of extreme ideals or violent behaviour?

Our gendered lens. From hyper-sexualisation to “jihadi bride” tropes

Politically violent women are an unsettling concept because they disrupt our gendered understanding of the world by challenging perceptions of the peaceful. When presented with women who reject our way of life we see attempts to explain away their behaviour (and thus the discomfort it creates) through the circulation of almost Hollywood-style character tropes. The ‘Jihadi Bride’ is the most viciously pedelled of these, whilst the hyper-sexualisation of the women interviewed by Vice is another common and prevailing example. Like these narratives, the intellectual mockery of women like Shamima Begum is designed to leave us comforted – these women are not a threat because they don’t have the intellect to be. This approach is not clever. The decisions of these women were made in the midst of serious, complex and moving factors that we won’t understand unless we enquire.

What can we do?

We need to develop a language that, instead of dismissive ridiculing, allows for engagement with ideas outside of our comfort zone. Our language should be inclusive and inquisitive and when discussing violence we should never assume one gender has a monopoly. As we explore concepts like violent extremism with young people, we need to be very careful not to recycle the gendered language we see across all media, instead questioning why it is there in the first place. What purpose are titles like ‘Jihadi Bride’ and ‘EDL Angel’ serving? Where are we seeing this language? How can we see past it? It starts with asking questions like these. Laughing at people we don’t understand is an age-old coping strategy but, more often than not, it does nothing to help solve the issue at hand. We need to employ the critical thinking strategies we encourage in our young people within educational settings. Doing this will prevent us denying agency in female actors, allowing more effective analysis of every agent’s journey to a violent extremist group.