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Our cultural bias refuses to allow us to see women as terrorists

Published Aug. 28, 2005

This is the story that jump-starts my week: a group of insurgents has threatened to kill three hostages unless Americans release all female Iraqi prisoners. Just female prisoners.

As the first of the grisly beheadings is posted on the Web, I wonder what strategy the spin doctors had concocted for these killers? Do they think the world will see female prisoners more as tender women than as ruthless enemies?

I add this to a story datelined Moscow. The Russian government has revealed that the two female suicide bombers were detained and quickly released before they bribed their way onto the planes.

Did the security forces dismiss the danger because of the dress? Did the corrupt officials assuage their conscience by discounting any risk from the "gentler sex"?

And what of the horrific takeover of the school in Beslan? There were a handful of women along with the two dozen men who took over the school. Yet many reports, especially from Europe, segregated their motives. The men were cold-blooded killers but the women were "black widows," driven to avenge the deaths in their own families.

It was as if there were something unnatural about a female terrorist. The analysts had to explain _ or explain away _ their violence. But violent men needed no explanation.

Since 1999 Chechen women have taken part in at least 15 attacks. In the Moscow theater takeover, 19 of the 41 hostage-takers were female. On CNN the other day, a reporter remarked that the terrorism has a "feminine" face, as if blush and eyeliner were standard issue.

How long will it take us to get over the stereotypes of women as exclusively peaceful, nurturing, empathetic?

I know how deep this cultural bias runs. In the months after 9/11, as I unlaced my shoes again and again at the airport gate, I privately wondered why they were profiling middle-aged women.

Yet the stereotypes that I too carry are useful to terrorists. The leaders count on them when choosing women for their "feminine" ability to get closer to the targets. And they count on them for giving their cause a moral advantage. When the terrorist is a woman, people talk about "why" she did it, not "what" she did.

In 2002, Wafa Idris became the first female Palestinian suicide bomber. The profiles portrayed her as a victim: divorced, infertile, hopeless and an easy recruit to the glory of martyrdom.

As Chechen women turned to violence, there were lurid accounts of women raped and videotaped, blackmailed and brainwashed into suicide. No one knows how many of these tales are true, but cultures tell ever-more-elaborate stories to fit their preconceptions.

"It's a fantasy that women are so much more caring and empathetic than men," says Caryl Rivers, co-author of Same Difference, a book that takes a critical look at innate gender differences. "In all the systematic research, men and women come out about equal."

Indeed, in studies of domestic violence women initiate violence nearly as often _ though not as lethally _ as men. In a Princeton study using video games, men dropped significantly more bombs than women as long as their identity was known. But when promised anonymity _ when "nobody was watching" _ women dropped more bombs than men.

When the social constraints are off _ surely when women are rewarded for violence _ they can mimic the worst behavior of men. So, in Iraq, two of those "female prisoners" were "Dr. Germ" and "Mrs. Anthrax," Saddam Hussein's henchwomen.

In our own country, we now have more women lawyers . . . and more women criminals. We have more girl soccer teams . . . and more girl gangs.

And what more gender-bending icon have Americans seen this year than Pfc. Lynndie England with a naked Iraqi prisoner on a leash. If women can do it all, they can not only wear their country's uniform, they can shame it.

Today in the Middle East there is a new comic book with the first woman Super Heroine. And there is an online magazine recruiting Islamic women to the jihad. It's said that Osama bin Laden is wooing women to suicidal missions. In places where women are by no means liberated, they are being offered the equal opportunity to blow themselves to smithereens.

I am woman, hear me roar. It's not always a pretty tune.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group