Femmes fatales

Media images romanticize truth about women warriors

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:13:23 PM

From the US army to the Tamil Tigers, women take up arms to protect their countries, families and ideals. Dorit Naaman is studying media images of women as soldiers, freedom fighters and terrorists to reveal our deeply-held assumptions about women and war.

“War, aggression and even torture by men seems to be understandable, if not always acceptable,” says the Queen’s University film studies professor. “But we can’t seem to deal with women carrying out the same type of violence, and our media coverage reflects that.”

In order to dissect the taboo of the female warrior and promote a better understanding of the Middle East, Israeli-born Naaman, and her Palestinian-born research partner Nahla Abdo, are studying women soldiers and suicide bombers in their respective cultures.

For example, before independence in 1948 Israeli women fought in combat. And this fact, says Naaman, is often cited to show Israel as an early champion of gender equality.

“But the role of women in combat was completely utilitarian: there was a desperate need for combat soldiers. Once the Israeli state was created, army women were reassigned as clerks and nurses,” she says.

Only recently, and begrudgingly, has Israel allowed women to return to combat positions, and yet, says Naaman, the myth of women’s equality and the female war hero is still promoted in media and film.

Images of Palestinian women fighters are just as far from reality. Fighters of the 1960s and 1970s were seen as femme fatales—beautiful, but erratically dangerous.

In 2002, when the first female suicide bombers appeared, Western news stories searched for psychological explanations of how a woman could commit such a horrific act of violence.

“North American media have no problem finding political or religious reasons for male violence,” says Naaman. “Yet for each female suicide bomber from Palestine, news stories circulated that linked her actions to personal ‘failures’ such as divorce or infertility.”

In the Islamic world, where religion forbids suicide, the media took a different approach.

“In general, the women were hailed as heroes, and their actions understood as desperate measures in a desperate situation," explains Naaman. “Often the women are portrayed as martyrs whose heroic deaths make them equal to men.”

But these images do not necessarily reflect the realities of these women’s lives, says Naaman, pointing to the words of 1970s Palestinian freedom fighter Leila Khaled: “Everyone is equal in death…I would rather see women equal to men in life.”

Naaman and Abdo’s next step is a trip to the Middle East to interview female fighters and compare their real-life experiences with the media images that portray them.

Dorit Naaman and Nahla Abdo’s research on media images of women fighters is funded through SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.