Situating Women in Counter-Terrorism Discourses: Undulating Masculinities and Luminal Femininities

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Situating Women in Counter-Terrorism Discourses: Undulating Masculinities and Luminal Femininities*

The preoccupation with the challenges posed by violent actors has long existed for many states whether such actors are characterized as terrorists, insurgents, non-state or paramilitary actors. The events of September 11, 2001 brought a new urgency and vibrancy to state action in the realm of counter-terrorism, illustrated by both the response of national legal systems as well as more concerted efforts to achieve multilateral and multilevel counter-terrorism responses on the international plane.1 From a feminist perspective, it is notable that terrorism and counter-terrorism have long been of marginal interest to mainstream feminist theorizing.2 This is partly because of the sustained absence of women’s voices in the regulation of armed conflict and war, as well as the exclusion of women from the war zone, aptly illustrated in Homer’s pithy phrase that war constitutes “men killing and men being killed”.3 Men remain the domineering military actors in terrorist actions and counter-actions. Particularly in the legal field, men have mostly dominated national security discourses. There is no ‘end of men’ in terrorism or counter-terrorism discourses. Women victims struggle to be visible in the conversations around security, harm and action to enable one and limit the other. Women remain marginal to the conversations in which definitions of security are agreed and generally peripheral to the institutional settings in which security frameworks are implemented as policy and law. Women perpetrators of violence are largely ignored or fetishized. Women scholars have generally not articulated a feminist perspective on the ways in which states respond to violent challengers.4 More particularly, the legal quandaries that result from the use of law as a management tool to address terrorism have not generally garnered a feminist response.

Some recent theorizing around how feminism responds to crisis points to interesting and new territory for thinking about the relationship between “normal” and “exceptional” legal regulation, and what counter-terrorism responses bring for women in the post-9/11 “War on Terror.”5 As Otto rightly notes, “[t]he language of ‘crisis’ has become ubiquitous in international law and politics. Rising to a crescendo with the 9/11 crisis of international terror, ‘emergencies’ now dominate global intercourse”.6 An interesting question is how certain actions come to be defined as terrorism and some do not, and why violence against women is rarely included within the definitional parameters of national security discourses. Recent scholarly work reflecting on femicide as terrorism encourages us to think about the targeted murder of women in political contexts as coming within the definitional boundaries of terrorism discourse.7 Addressing the systematic and targeted murder of Muslim women who unveiled in Uzbekistan between 1927 and 1930, Marianne Kamp argues that:

The male power structure made a brutal effort to enforce an unequal social order (a gender hierarchy) through violence by terrorizing an entire group…even in the 1920s those who described the murder of Uzbek women referred to them as “terrorism,” and defining it as terrorism was important in stopping the murder wave. (2011: 67)

There are some evident caveats to some of my generalizations. A number of scholars have evidenced scholarly and policy interest in the category of female combatants.8 Female terrorists—particularly those associated with the violent politics of extremist jihadist groupings—have also recently incited interest.9 The preoccupation with the violent (and generally presumed aberrational) female is, in itself, the product of an essentialist discourse that requires a critical eye. Such short-term obsessions should not be read as the emergence of women in the terrorism and counter-terrorism terrain to a counter-point of male demise. Historical and essentialist patterns of male combatancy and female victimhood remain alive and well in terrorism and counter-terrorism discourses. It is also worth noting that inquiries as to whether facially neutral anti-terrorist laws have a gendered hue have historically not garnered much attention from either mainstream national security scholars or feminists deconstructing particular parts of the legal apparatus, insofar as it affects women. Drawing on these opening theoretical framings, the first part of this article examines the female combatant/terrorist category, outlining its connection to and presence in counter-terrorist regulation. The analysis seeks to problematize the “presence” of women in the production of violence, avoiding the zero-sum of counting acts of extreme politically motivated violence by women. Rather, I situate my analysis from the documented experiences of women paramilitaries from both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland with parallel comparisons to the experiences of women combatants/terrorists in other jurisdictions.10 I address the experiences of women incarcerated for terrorist-related offenses and examines, among other things, the on-going role that prisons play in the maintenance of state counter-terrorism discourses and political control. The second part of this article attends to the experience of women following the application of anti-terrorism laws. While providing some general comments on the presumptions of neutrality associated with anti-terrorist legislation, I use the Northern Ireland case study as a way to explore the sidelining of gender in the analysis and understanding of the effects of counter-insurgency regimes on multiple societies. I explore the efficiency of counter-terrorism rules given their essentialized assumptions about women’s roles in the production of violence, and address the paradoxical outcomes that may result from paying attention to women in such contexts.

I. Titles Matter: The Woman as Combatant or Terrorist

In traditional narratives, women’s contribution to the activation, maintenance, and perpetuation of conflict and political violence has been vastly underplayed. Various scholarly disciplines are pervaded by the “assumption that women are generally more peaceful and less aggressive or warlike than men”.11 In the main, the quantification of and rationale for women’s political violence is a grossly under-researched arena across academic disciplines.12 The complexity of the social, political, and legal spaces occupied by the female combatant deserves particular attention, given its intersection with state counter-terrorism strategies. First, it is important to be clear about the terminology being addressed. The use of the terms “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism” pose some conceptual and methodological challenges. The term “terrorism” has become ubiquitous in contemporary state conversations to describe the actions and views of those who disavow the state or use violent methods to advance their political beliefs and ideologies. The term is provocative and generally intentionally pejorative, as it places those included within its ambit as outside the realm of acceptable behavior, and signals their exclusion from the agreed social and communal boundaries of the state and the community. The term evacuates deeper conversations about the causalities of violence, as well as reflection on the conditions conducive within the state that beget violent acts.

For feminists, reflection on the ways in which a focus on particular acts of violence (generally to the body and to property) avoids state engagement with structural and pervasive violence ought to give momentary pause on the adoption of the terrorism category itself. At the very least, it might prompt critical reflection on the need to judiciously tease out the category—moving to an emphasis on precision and nuance in application, and a focus on acts of terrorism—specifically in the sense of civilian targeting as the core to which the legal concept should be applied. As a legal matter, the term “terrorism” operates to shut down conversations about legitimate uses of force by nonstate actors in the context of wars of national liberation, occupation, and armed conflicts falling within the protective mandate of the 1977 Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1948. For example, in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom consistently eschewed the applicability of the laws of war legal framework to the conflict, arguing that neither Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions nor the 1977 Protocol II was applicable.13 As a result, the “conversation” about the legal status of the conflict was overwhelmingly debated in the language of terrorism and counter-terrorism. It is unfailingly difficult in any jurisdiction to activate a conversation about how, why, and with what baggage we use the term “terrorism.” Doing so puts one in the category of a seeming apologist for unacceptable acts; not doing so invites intellectual dishonesty and a superficiality of engagement with what is ultimately an “essentially contested concept”.14

The category of women combatants (or even women as tacit supporters of violence) poses particular quandaries for scholars, policymakers, and political processes. Combatancy issues, and their definitional overlap with the category of terrorism, have more obviously arisen in a range of ethno-nationalist conflicts—such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Northern Ireland, and Palestine—than in traditional Article 2 (Geneva Convention 1949) international conflicts. It is evident that the capacity of women to participate as combatants manifests more readily in pro-nationalist movements rather than in institutionalized state settings. In the context of South Africa’s post-apartheid truth process, Goldblatt and Meintjes assert that

[u]nderstanding that women were capable of perpetrating violence enables us to see that women are not monolithic in their outlook as a group and are not bearers of certain essential qualities such as kindness and compassion.15

Understanding the complexity of violence also helps us as feminist scholars to break up the monolithic narratives that have emerged in terrorism and counter-terrorism, inserting uncertainty, tension, and disruption.16

Articulating a women’s combatancy/paramilitary role may not be a viable choice for women.17 For example, the invisibility of women paramilitaries in the post-conflict phase in Northern Ireland is striking.18 In Northern Ireland, during the modern phase of the conflict women were engaged in acts of ongoing resistance to military presence, supportive of armed opposition groups, and involved in acts of violence.19 Few women have been prepared to claim public political space in the post-conflict phase to acknowledge these roles. In adequately assessing such engagement, a feminist analysis should attentively listen to how women describe their activism and activities on their own terms and avoid relying on definitions infused by masculine presumptions. Doing so might result in a widening and deepening of what acts we view as constitutive of combatancy and/or terrorism. It would also help to pry open the narrowness of categorization, and potentially expose the bias and limitations of current thinking in addressing the causes conducive to the production of widespread political violence in many setting. Moreover, the outcomes may produce greater regulatory attention to women, and widen the range of legal acts that ‘count’ as supporting or undertaking terrorist acts.

Country-specific examples, such as Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka, are evidence that women have used and exploited local cultural expectations as a means to advance their military roles.20 For culturally specific reasons in these settings, women are less likely to be highly active in the public sphere and thus are not presumed to be collaborators, informers, human shields, recruiters, providers of sexual internet bait, or perpetrators of acts of destruction and death. Some could argue that stereotyped perceptions create sub-optimal enforcement of anti-terrorism laws. By contrast, a gender-neutral approach sees women as equally capable of violence and might, from an efficiency and enforcement perspective, justify a greater reach of counter-terrorism provisions. In Northern Ireland and other ethno-national conflict settings, this would lead to more direct and confrontational interface between women political actors and the state, rather than the principally indirect interface with state forces that is the contemporary norm for most women. The complexity of this conclusion, in contexts where legitimacy of the use of violence to achieve political outcomes is contested, has thorny implications in practice. In one sense, it could be argued that the cultural presumptions around women’s passivity and purity operate to negate the highly gendered assumptions that pervade the efficient application of anti-terrorism norms.21 The paucity of research on women as violent actors is tied to complex social conventions about their role in the military apparatus of the state, or any roles that women may play within nonstate structures in society. Additionally, “the prevalent view of women as victims…tends to overlook, explicitly or implicitly, women’s power and agency”. 22 This blind spot tends to produce policy and practice that view women as homogeneously powerless or as implicit victims, thereby excluding the parallel reality of women as benefactors of oppression, “or the perpetrators of catastrophes”.23 Moreover, women’s active roles in national or ethno-national military organizations are defined by deep ambiguity linked to resonant debates about the identity of nation, the meaning of citizenship and the complex interface between cultural reproduction and gender roles in any society.24

The terrorism rules are, by and large, assumed to apply to the behavior of men. They stereotype and profile men, seeking to target the optimal group deemed most likely to be terrorists or combatants in any particular cultural setting. Across jurisdictions, though one should not overhype their number or scale, there are consistent examples of women engaging in a range of acts that anti-terrorism law has difficulty “seeing.” Notably, in the aftermath of collective violence, few women are willing to openly discuss their political activities and their roles as violent actors in conflict with the state, further compounding how little we know about the complexities of women’s engagement in violent acts. A range of country-specific examples demonstrate that elements of liberation from highly stratified gender roles may be a motivating factor for violent acts, but equally that for women in highly traditional settings, the consequences of stepping outside traditional care and nurture roles may not be uniformly positive. Damaging outcomes include stigmatization and exclusion from the social and communal benefits of conventionally garnered female status in many traditional societies. Fiona Ross’s groundbreaking study of truth commissions has cogently demonstrated that post-conflict processes, specifically truth commissions, are marked by the absence of women political actors and women who may have been combatants or perpetrators of human rights violations.25 Women who self-identify strongly as political actors, and thus wish to avoid (often despite experiences of harm) being categorized as victims, often choose not to appear before truth or accountability processes. Articulating a combatancy or paramilitary role may not be a viable choice for women.26 For example, the invisibility of women paramilitaries in the post-conflict phase in Northern Ireland is striking.27 During the modern phase of the conflict, women were engaged in acts of ongoing resistance to military presence, supportive of armed opposition groups, and involved in acts of violence.28 Few women have been prepared to claim public political space in the post-conflict phase to acknowledge these roles. In adequately assessing such engagement, a feminist analysis should attentively listen to how women describe their activism and activities on their own terms, and avoid relying on definitions infused with masculine presumptions. Doing so might result in a wider, deeper understanding of the acts we view as constitutive of combatancy and/or terrorism (Reynolds 2007: 667). Actively listening would also help pry open the narrowness of categorization, and potentially expose the bias and limitations of current thinking in addressing the causes conducive to the production of widespread political violence in many settings. Moreover, the outcomes may produce greater regulatory attention to women, and widen the range of legal acts that “count” as supporting or undertaking terrorist acts.

Complex questions emerge as we think about whether women’s engagement as combatants/terrorists and involvement in violent acts should be interpreted as “a sign of women’s newfound empowerment” and simultaneously as “an indication of ongoing gender oppression”.29 In Northern Ireland, the initial move toward conflict resolution and political engagement with political entities defined by the state as terrorist or supportive or terrorism brought a new range of legal actors into political negotiations. Yet female presence has consistently dwindled as the transitional phase extends. The gendered narratives of conflict remain evacuated of a female content, and as the anti-terrorist legislation of the conflict has been subsumed into the ordinary law of the United Kingdom, the result is a complete lack of reference to and knowledge of women’s experiences under counter-terrorism law that framed the state’s response to the conflict as a whole.

II. Ethno-National Conflicts and Women’s Activis

As noted above, the social and political roles women undertook during the Northern Ireland conflict remain appreciably underexplored. While a small number of important academic studies have emerged with assessments of women’s combatancy in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and more recently in extremist Protestant paramilitary groups, such work has largely concentrated on the experiences and motivations of such women and has not investigated parallel intersections with state conflict-management and counter-terrorism strategies.30 The work of Miranda Alison on female Tamil Tiger combatants in Sri Lanka and women members of the IRA in Northern Ireland highlights the empirical reality that women can and do engage in violent acts, and/or may actively support other women and men who carry out such acts in the context of ethno-national conflicts.31 In this context, Alison also powerfully focuses our attention on thinking more critically about what we mean by “combatancy” or “service to the war effort.” This requires us to consider a range of roles women play in facilitating violence not only as direct perpetrators, but also as bomb makers, lookouts, weapon carriers, and protectors of those who carry out direct physical violence. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 percent and one-third of LTTE (the previously most powerful Tamil militant separatist group in Sri Lanka) was composed of female combatants.32 Again, a broader recognition of these gendered roles and the kinds of acts that women, for culturally specific reasons, are likely to undertake may result in greater state regulation of women’s lives in states applying comprehensive anti-terrorist laws.

Northern Ireland provides useful, though limited, comparative examples of women’s involvement in politically motivated violence.33 Similarly in this context, the prompt may be to think broadly about what defines terrorist or violent acts. Significant archival and narrative research in the decade following the signature and ratification of the Good Friday Peace Agreement (1998) has demonstrated the depth and complexity of women’s varied engagement with violent political movements.34 Uncovering this complexity requires going beyond state incarceration statistics during the course of the conflict and merely examining the gender ratios for offenses charged using anti-terrorist legislation.35 Using a fundamental tool of feminist research method—namely, “asking the woman question”36 — homing in on narrative accounts of women’s actions gives a far more thought-provoking and vibrant account of women’s engagement in acts of political violence on both sides of the political divide in the jurisdiction. As I have explored in previous work, segregating out phases of the Northern Ireland conflict from militarization (1969 to 1974) through police primacy (1975 to 1980) to active counter-insurgency (1981 to 1994) assists in understanding the dynamics of mobilization during various conflict periods. An important takeaway message is that the state’s use of blunt military force (such as curfews and internment), the crude manipulation of the criminal justice system (through nonjury trials, inquest curtailment, extensive arrest, and detention), as well as the deployment of extrajudicial use of force against suspected paramilitary actors by specialist military units, played contributing roles in perpetrating the conflict cycle.37

To understand women’s engagement in violent acts, a more complex assessment of motive and context is necessary. In a (small) recent study of Palestinian women’s involvement in acts of violence, the authors report that mixed motives were ascertained in women’s decisions to become involved in terrorism.38 Motivation in the context of terrorism also connects to broader literature on women’s engagement with criminal acts, which is not the purpose of the analysis set out here. Nonetheless, there is overlap with theories that suppose women’s criminality is connected to equality discourses and represent a measure of progress in male and female action in the public sphere.39 Activism is also clearly related to the intensification of ideological discourses in particular ethno-national settings, where the political activation of the community invariably involves women, interpolating them as national actors. In parallel, of course, there are difficult questions of coercion and consent.40 What does it mean for women under a highly patriarchal system to choose a course of political action? What are the consequences for women who do so, when the boundaries of culturally acceptable female conduct are rigid? In Northern Ireland, the conflict took place in a highly conservative society where gender roles were highly circumscribed and implicit in all communal and social interactions across both Protestant and Catholic communities. Strong ideologies of motherhood, purity, and female caregiving were deeply embedded in gendered relations. These ideologies permeated women’s political choices, and framed how and in what ways they engaged in or supported political violence. Nuanced anti-terrorism laws that graft onto and “see” these gendered patterns may ultimately spread the net of counter-terrorism norms more broadly.

III. At Once Female and Terrorist or Female and Countering Terrorism

The extent to which the state, through its counter-insurgency activity, targeted women, and the effects of state counter-terrorism policies on women in Northern Ireland, have not been systematically documented. I turn to address the experiences of both female state actors engaged in counter-terrorism as well as the interface of violent female actors as they encountered the national security policies and regulatory frameworks. Evidently, given the broad sweep of emergency laws in the jurisdiction, thousands of women were also indirectly swept up by mass house searches, roadblocks, curfews, and limitations on the freedom of movement at various points through the conflict. In this context, one might conceive of the broader effects of armed conflict as being broadly applicable to both men and women, recognizing some specificity of experience aligning with the particularity of male and female roles in a gender stratified society.

Throughout the course of the conflict in Northern Ireland, women were represented in both the state’s police and military forces. In military and policing contexts, women were part of highly masculine and hierarchical forces. For women police officers in particular, the notion of “front line” was meaningless. As with their male colleagues, there were potentially targets while formally on duty and consistently while “off” duty, and all lived (unlike their military counterparts) in civilian settings, accessible to violent nonstate actors who targeted them both “on” and “off” duty. A total of 300 police officers were killed during the conflict in Northern Ireland, and more than 9,000 were injured. A total of 14 women police officers and military personnel were killed between 1969 and the ceasefires of the early 1990s.41

As police, military personnel, and prison officers, women were on the front line of enforcing the state’s counter-terrorism policies. Given more than thirty years of violent conflict and ongoing refinement of the emergency law apparatus, such policies ranged from detention without trial, extended detention, expansive stop and search powers, strip-searching (in prisons), nonjury trials, denial of access to legal counsel, and internal exile within the United Kingdom.42 Thus, while the “face” of counter-terrorism was predominantly male in the jurisdiction, it was not exclusively so. Women were actively engaged in making, shaping, and enforcing counter-terrorism policies, laws, and strategies—an intersection that feminists should not ignore as we reflect on the intersectionalities that coexist for women in the counter-insurgency sphere, and the varied presence of women in many settings.

Definitional entry points are important in qualifying what counts as activity in nonstate paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland. At its height, the IRA was estimated to have only a couple of hundred active volunteers engaged in violent activities. Of this number, a much smaller percentage comprised women. Evidently, for such a group to sustain itself over the decades of conflict, a much wider social and communal web of support existed. That broader set of “care” and “support” categories may likely have had a gendered hue lending a more complex and dense picture of the scale of support women gave to violent actors, and how we categorize the notion of a violent act. This narrative of action maps onto earlier analysis in this article, reflecting on the gendered nature of what we define as primary and secondary acts of violence or terrorism. More recently, memorialization sites in Northern Ireland by national communities illustrate the perceived contribution of women to the national struggle, documenting both the “hard” side of violent engagement, as well as the “soft” side of support.43

The most notorious and visible point of paramilitary women’s political action came through the collective decision of IRA prisoners and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) to refuse to wear prison uniforms or abide by prison rules in the late 1970s, in protest of the lack of recognition for their stated status as political prisoners. Paramilitary women prisoners in Armagh women’s jail began a parallel “dirty protest” in February 1980. This involved a collective political decision by female paramilitary offenders to refuse to empty chamber pots, wash or clean their cells, or wear prison clothing. The result was an extended period of confrontation with the British state, culminating in the hunger strikes of 1981, in which ten male prisoners starved themselves to death in the Maze/Long Kesh prison. The prison policy was an integral part of the state’s counter-terrorism strategy in which the prisons and their paramilitary populations were viewed as integral to “taming” or managing the terrorist threat, and the mobilization of sympathy for terrorist causes.

Prisons were one of the main points of contentious interface for female paramilitaries with the state.44 The prison regime in Northern Ireland presented a microcosm of broader societal tensions. Throughout the conflict, prisons remained a space of hostility, state challenge, and radical action.45 They were also deeply gendered spaces in which both the state and nonstate agents used the strictures of cultural assumptions around the masculine and feminine as a way to undo the discipline of the institutions (a de facto means to “undo” the state) within the confines of incarceration. As global counter-terrorism discourses have heightened our attention to what occurs within detention spaces, mostly notably in Guantánamo Bay and Bagram, the Northern Ireland experience attests to the mobilization and radicalization that stems from the prison to broader society. It points to the pitfalls for any state when prison becomes emblematic of the larger struggles between the state and nonstate entities, as the vicissitudes of the terrorism-national liberation-occupation triad are played out through the policies of detention, prisoner treatment, and access to and accountability for violations of paramilitary members’ legal rights.
Women who were imprisoned for terrorist offenses in Northern Ireland were subject to a distinctly different prison experience than their counterparts who were “ordinary decent criminals” (in Northern Ireland parlance, ODCs). As a result of long-running disputes between the prison authorities and the paramilitary organizations over the recognition of “political status” for those belonging to paramilitary organizations (e.g., the IRA and the INLA), these prisoners were housed separately and subject to a modified and heightened security regime. Women prisoners were subject to a regime of prison management that had much in common with male paramilitary prisoners. In addition, women prisoners experienced a range of sex-based management techniques, all of which were justified as necessary under the banner of security, as well as to contain the potential hazards of housing female terrorists. The most notable of these actions was regimented strip-searching, including internal cavities, of female bodies following all visits or movement within the prison (or externally to court appearances). Strip-searching was generally carried out in the presence of male guards, and neither menstruation nor pregnancy provided exemption. Allegations were consistently made by female prisoners of verbal abuse, including sexually offensive language and psychological ill-treatment with a sexual overlay. The dirty protest further compounded the alienation and extreme regulation of these women, and resulted in women being almost perpetually confined to their cells and inhabiting highly unsanitary conditions for long periods of time.46 The level of abuse between prisoner guards and female prisoners was intense and protracted as a result of this protest. It also catapulted these paramilitary females into the public domain, further exacerbating their status as aberrational and deviant females, a discourse not unlike the contemporary narratives that attach to female suicide bombers.

Notably, the feminist movement in Ireland and the United Kingdom struggled to adequately and consensually address the women paramilitary prison experience and context. The broader and deeper issues of territory, security, and sovereignty overshadowed all efforts to address the sexual violence and harm the female prisoners were subjected to, and froze the feminist response to one of fracture and dissonance. Counter-insurgency measures should not only be understood as a formal legal lexicon, but as foundational to a broad range of practices adopted by the state and its institutions to address politically nonconformist behavior. The prison was an essential site for such measures, and cemented a triangle of control, agency, and ideology with paramilitary women prisoners central in every sphere. Notably, while the range of sex-based abuses that women paramilitaries experienced was intense, and might (without respect of ideological commitment or agreement) be assumed to draw feminist attention, the opposite was in fact the case. Throughout the course of the conflict, feminists and women activists stepped away from identification with these women, and from the range of state actions being taken against their bodies. The discomfort felt by feminists and women’s rights activists points to an interesting quandary as we consider the interface of counter-terrorism policies and feminist activism. The women who are the subjects of state action in the counter-insurgency plane are not attractive actors to feminists and rights activists. They are viewed as markedly aberrational, unsympathetic, and outside of the realm of compassion, or as independent bearers of rights. Articulating a response to address violations of paramilitary detainees’ rights involves mounting a complex challenge to the state, and risks the advocate being viewed as a “fellow traveller” with those who threaten our security and the common good. Being female does not alter that fundamental dynamic.

There is obviously a continuum in political and military acts of defiance, all of which defy a conventional understanding of women as passive victims of conflict or authoritarian regimes. There exists a complexity to women’s support for extremist politics undergirding the resort to violence in achieving political objectives.47 Acknowledging that women play violent roles in conflict, or support violence, has been a difficult process for many feminists, and is an ongoing conversation for feminist theorists. However, acknowledgment itself should not underplay the extent to which the vision of the violent female terrorist can become a captured space for women in the discourses around terrorism. We see a tendency to move between extremes: Women appear as victims or as violent perpetrators at two ends of one spectrum. There is little room to acknowledge the intersectionality of roles that women adopt and move between, or the essentialism inherent in what gets to count as women’s space in the discourses around violence. Moving beyond the extremes, there is evidently greater capacity to affirm agency and complexity, and more fully to understand how women’s actions and experiences follow from and are linked to violent action, whether by state or nonstate actors. Moving directly to the “counter” terrorism space without fully considering and placing women’s experiences of violence and the state seems too fast and precipitous an action, and one that feminist engagement should avoid.

IV: Emergency Powers in General and In Gender

This section addresses the gendered impact of national security laws, and the gendered effects of national security policies that seem facially neutral. In the context of post-9/11 preoccupations with terrorism, Judith Gardam has noted that “[w]omen are affected by the war on terror to a much greater degree and number than detainees or terror suspects”.48 This broad-brush effect was evident in Northern Ireland, as women were integral parts of broader communities under surveillance, subjected to search and seizure, and directly connected to (generally male) family members who were in direct confrontation with the state.

There were multiple points of counter-terrorism interface projecting women to the front line of contested engagement with the British state. Emergency powers in Northern Ireland have a long and distinguished history. Emergency is no new phenomenon to the jurisdiction, predating the modern period of political instability in Northern Ireland and finding their foundation in the very creation of the state.

The primary emergency laws in force in Northern Ireland throughout the modern phase of the conflict were Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 (EPA) and its counterpart, the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (PTA). Both were initially created as temporary pieces of legislation and were extended on a consistent basis, and both have been consolidated and made permanent. The EPA is an evolved version of a piece of legislation first passed in 1973. Its forerunner repealed the Special Powers Act, which symbolically represented to the minority Catholic community the dominance and undemocratic nature of the state. Paradoxically, the 1973 legislation re-enacted many of the same provisions. Both statutes “are designed to obtain convictions in cases involving those suspected of paramilitary activity, based on confessions obtained through prolonged detention and intense interrogation” (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1993). The 1975 government-sponsored review of the EPA by the Gardiner Committee49 saw some minor adjustments in the legislation, which by 1978 was consolidated with its 1973 parent act into one piece of legislation (1978 EPA). In 1984, another government-sponsored review recommended significant adjustment and expansion of the emergency powers. Government-sponsored reviews were a consistent companion of the emergency regime over the past 25 years in Northern Ireland. However, their mandate never included assessing the gendered implication of the legislation and its impact. In 1987, the EPA was further expanded by the incorporation of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1987, which operated in conjunction with the EPA of 1978. Close to the end phase of the conflict, the EPA was introduced in 1991, consolidating earlier legislation, creating new offenses and bringing in to the EPA’s domain provisions of the PTA that were applied only in Northern Ireland.

By the late 1990s, it had become the British government’s view that, despite the apparent successes of the Northern Irish peace process, permanent counter-terrorist legislation was required—not specifically for Northern Ireland, but for the whole of the United Kingdom50 (Bonner 2006: 122). This view predated the events of 9/11 and was formed on the basis of then-articulated, but as yet unproven, threats from global terrorist organizations. The outcome was the Terrorism Act 2000, which remains in force at the time of this writing. This substantial piece of legislation was designed to be a comprehensive code of the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism law. As Adam Tomkins notes:

[i]t provides the legal definition of terrorism used in UK law; it makes extensive provisions concerning proscribed organizations; it extends the criminal law to deal with a number of specific terrorist offenses; and it confers extended powers on the police, as well as legislating for a range of other matters.51

The Terrorism Act 2000 did not, however, long remain a singular item on the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism menu. Within a few weeks of 9/11, Parliament had passed the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, and in the years since, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the Terrorism Act 2006, and the Counter-terrorism Act 2008 have been added. From a feminist perspective, there are two important elements to acknowledge. First, the seepage of extraordinary law into the ordinary, the ease of slippage from outsider counter-insurgency frameworks into the regular law of the land should pose broader theoretical and practical questions about the construction of the “ordinary,” and what such delineations mean for women. Second, given the absence of a gendered narrative on the experience of women under emergency law over three decades in Northern Ireland, and the wholesale export of these rules to the entire United Kingdom following the Good Friday Peace Agreement, awareness of the gendered impact of counter-terrorism norms is important to tracking and challenging contemporary manifestations of these norms post-9/11 for women.

Various international human rights bodies, including the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and a number of prominent international nongovernmental organizations, have consistently found the operation of Northern Ireland’s draconian legislative measures to be in breach of the United Kingdom’s international human rights treaty obligations. The question of gendered impact was not raised or addressed in any case of external review. This raises a broad question about the limited effect of gender mainstreaming on the work of the international bodies whose function it is to assess whether states deploying extraordinary law have breached human rights norms. As one thinks about the intersection of counter-insurgency measures with international human rights obligations, a minimum step would appear to be the identification of gendered effect, specifically using the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as a point of review. My review of CEDAW Committee concluding reports indicates that the Committee has given little, if any, attention to assessing the gendered effects of counter-terrorism laws to date.52 Where terrorism has been referenced in some country reviews, it has been generally used by states as a basis for excusing a lack of progress on the implementation of women’s rights. In other parts of the institutional human rights community, some inroads have been made on addressing gender and counter-terrorism interfaces, particularly in the work of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.53 He has made multiple recommendations to ensure women are not inappropriately targeted by counter-terrorism policies, including the requirement that states cease detaining and ill-treating women and children “[t]o produce information on male family members suspected of terrorism.”54 His institutional recommendations encourage the Human Rights Council, the CEDAW Committee, and other human rights monitoring bodies,55 as well as the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee to incorporate gender assessment and gender impact in examining the effectiveness, effect, and human rights compliance aspects of state policies.56 Such recommendations are laudable, but in tandem this chapter suggests that there is much knowledge to be gleaned from jurisdictions that have undergone long-term exposure to emergency regulation. The gendered histories of regulating terrorism these jurisdictions including Northern Ireland require greater exposure to inform and frame the analysis and knowledge base that we start from with post-9/11 anti-terrorism measures.

V. Stop and Search Powers

In the context of considering counter-terrorism measures, a range of powers could be considered, given their breadth and scope. However, for the purposes of this article, I commence by a review of stop and search powers under the United Kingdom’s emergency law framework. As noted above, in earlier work on the application of emergency laws to Northern Ireland, I identified three phases to the conflict: militarization, normalization, and active counter-insurgency.57 The reliance on law to “manage” the conflict varied in these phases, but the use of certain powers was consistent and dependable. Stop and search powers fell into this category and were regulated by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the Emergency Powers Act (EPA), as discussed above.58 Stop and search powers were exercised in geographically and spatially limited ways. They were largely directed at the Nationalist (Catholic) community, and used not merely as a means to locate individuals and devices (guns and bombs), but also as a means to exercise control over and access particular communities.

There were fairly consistent patterns in the exercise of stop and search powers. For home and property searches, the operations took place in the early mornings, when individuals and families were likely to be off guard and would be disoriented by the arrival of large numbers of military troops in their homes. During the course of house searches, an effective form of house arrest was exercised for families, containing them (often for hours) to one room or one portion of the home.59 Recent studies addressing the mobilization and radicalization of paramilitary actors point to the catalyzing effect that house searches had for a number of paramilitary actors.60 House searches involved accessing the most intimate parts of a home, sometimes destroying parts of it or damaging it (e.g., removing floors, breaking walls or partitions). Verbal abuse, often sexualized, accompanied the presence of young British soldiers in the home of perceived Irish nationalists. Although few, if any, direct sexual assaults were reported, the intimacy of presence in the home and the destruction and vulnerability associated with home stops and searches clearly fell more acutely on women and children than on men. Vivid and gendered images of the Northern Ireland conflict involved the practice of women banging heavy tin dustbin (garbage) lids on the roads leading to various housing estates to warn of the impending arrival of soldiers and the searches that were likely to follow.

A significant feminist literature has emerged addressing the effect of home disruptions on women in conflict sites. As I have noted in other contexts, when harms or effects are measured, there is a marked emphasis on public, not private, acts for the purposes of recording as well as constructing a societal and legal narrative.61 What generally matters is what occurred in streets, public spaces, and formal institutional settings. Violations within the home or close to private, intimate spaces that women describe as central to their experiences of vulnerability, lack of security, and violation are deemed to fall within the “private” domain in most legal and social systems, and frequently outside the circle of notice and accountability. Much of the existing literature examining the experience of trauma or violence for women in extremity suggests that traumas are not externally located but rather are most acutely felt in how “violation came to be incorporated into the meaning and feeling of structures in relationships between husbands and wives; between mothers and sons; and between women themselves”.62 What follows from this is another important understanding that when violation is thus internally incorporated, it is neither time-specific nor singular in effect. Rather, its effects can far exceed the original moment of the violence itself.63 This should give us pause as we think about where and how the effects of counter-insurgency measures harm women, and how we undertake the measurement of those harms.

It also tells us that the sites of violation are not external and may not (especially for women) be experienced in the myriad public or institutional spaces that have overwhelmingly defined the locales of violence and intrusion by the state for public male actors. Rather, the spaces of violation are the private contiguous spaces that women consistently inhabit, out of public (and legal) sight and unnoticed by the legal processes that frame the notion of the public and of spaces of harm in many societies.64 Moreover, shattering the security of the home space is not an isolated act, but one that for many women is experienced as a continuous presence, the influence of which lingers literally and emotionally.65

Aside from home searches, other forms of stop and search included individual search at permanent or ad hoc military and police checkpoints in particular geographical locales in Northern Ireland, and at airports and ports’ entry points (for which specific powers of stop and search had been enacted under the emergency legislation). “It’s Part of Life Here,” an empirically based study by a leading NGO in Northern Ireland, documented the experience of harassment resulting in large part from the use of stop and search powers.66 The subjective experiences of humiliation and the internalization of profiling are evident. The following extracts provide illustration:

Name and age asked to delay me. Car searched. Police called or no reason by the Army. Stopped because of a Catholic name and going to a Catholic area. (Working Class Catholic Woman: Newry and Mourne)

On Thursday 11 March, 1 was walking home and the British Army were on the streets stopping cars. I was walking, minding my own business, when a soldier said to me, ‘Hello, Sexy’. I felt embarrassed and wouldn’t look at them. Then he replied, ‘Don’t speak to us, the ‘Ra might hear you’. This kind of abuse happens every day in our Catholic community. (Working Class Catholic Woman: Derry)

Until a few years ago there was a checkpoint on our school bus route and almost everyday soldiers would get on the bus and walk to the back, pointing their rifle at people. We were all afraid of them and it was unnecessary intimidation for children! (Catholic Woman: Fermanagh)

In my area, the British Army always set up checkpoints on all routes to our local chapel just before Mass time, so that a reasonable proportion of the congregation arrives late. Always feeling uneasy while the British Army are present on the streets when I’m walking is another pressure. They frequently shout unpleasant comments and leave me feeling very threatened and vulnerable. (Working Class Catholic Woman: Dungannon)

As we consider the gendered effects of counter-terrorism measures in the stop and search context, the graphic power disparities played out at closed checkpoints between women and armed military and police are laid bare. A notable dimension of these interfaces arises from women’s particular care responsibilities. The data documenting harassment at checkpoints notes the particular tensions that arise for women who are stopped and searched while they have children in tow.67 This experience can double the effects for women. The layering of vulnerabilities results from the concern that children will be targeted or negatively affected, with the burden of responsibility falling on the mother who is present to protect or limit the impact of the interface for the child. For many women, these tensions were particularly evident around their sons, as young men were far more likely to experience the blunt edge of interaction, with the worry that radicalization or push to paramilitary engagement might follow.


Counter-terrorism discourses and norms must be important to feminist theorizing and feminist advocacy. If we pay attention to the gendered construction of security discourses we may avoid simplifying the landscape so as to avoid ‘ping-pong’ between a telling of male and female experiences of violent conflict and/or terrorism. Equally an assumption of neutrality in the narratives that frame our assessments of security, terrorism and counter-terrorism should be put aside in any thoughtful reflection. To this end, paying close attention to the experiences of women as the subjects of counter-terrorism norms underscores the unique vulnerabilities that women face when their lives intersect with powerful patriarchal institutions and interests. The long history of emergency law regulation in Northern Ireland offers exemplary illustrations of the complexity of the terrorism terrain, the contestation over terminology and legitimacy, and the ways in which women’s lives and experiences are excluded in the narratives that emerge from both state and nonstate entities. There is a critical need to reinsert women in the conversation, not merely as subject/victims of counter-terrorism regulation, but to make visible the complexity of their interaction with violence and violent actors, and to reassess the categories that are deemed to fall within the “action” sphere of legal regulation. Such an approach has its gendered pitfalls, but it encourages a feminist engagement that is fulsome and willing to see the entirety of the female form in the land of counter-terrorism, not merely selected highlights.

** Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Visiting Professor Harvard Law School, Dorsey & Whitney Chair in Law, University of Minnesota Law School & Associate Director Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. Parts of this paper draw on my essay Close Encounters of the Female Kind in the law of Counter-Terrorism in Gender, National Security and Counter-Terrorism: Human Rights Perspectives (Margaret Satterthwaite & Jayne Huckerby eds.) (2013). My thanks to Mary Rumsey for research support on this work and to Feras Sleiman for research assistance. All remaining faults lie with the author.

1 Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Assessing the Human Rights Dimensions of International Legal Responses to September 11th Israel Yearbook of Human Rights 63 (2003).

2 But see, Judith Gardam, War, Law, Terror, Nothing New for Women 32 Australian Feminist Law Journal 61-75 (2010); Symposium: The Gender Dimensions of Terrorism, 31 Women's Rts. L. Rep. 258 (2010); Hoglund, War on Terrorism, Feminist and Ethical Perspectives 35(2) Security Dialogue 155-171; S. N. Herman, Symposium Presentation: The Gender Dimensions of Terrorism: Women and Terrorism: Keynote Address, 31 Women’s Rights Law Reporter 258 (2010)

3 K. L. Gaca, Girls, Women, and the Significance of Sexual Violence in Ancient Warfare, in E.D. Heineman (ed.) Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights, 76 (2011).

4 I note that my own work in the area of national security and emergency laws has generally fallen into this category. See, e.g, Oren Gross and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin Law in Times of Crisis (2006)

5 Diane Otto, Remapping Crisis Through a Feminist Lens in S. Kouvo and Z. Pearson (eds.) Feminist Perspectives on Contemporary International Law: Between Resistance and Compliance? 75 (2011);

6 Hilary Charlesworth, International Law as a Discipline of Crisis, 63 Modern Law Review 377 (2002)

7 M. Kamp, Femicide as Terrorism: The Case of Uzbekistan’s Unveiling Murders 56 in Elizabeth D. Heineman (ed.) Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights (2011)

8 Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (1995); L. Ryan & Margaret Ward, Irish Women and Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags (2004).

9 Janny Groen & Annieke Kranenberg Women Warriors for Allah: An Islamist Network in the Netherlands, trans. R. Naborn, (2010); Nacos 2005: 435

10 The primary source used is the recently released Armagh Women’s Jail narratives. Online. Available HTTP:

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