At its height, the Islamic State (IS) posed not only imminent security challenges but also brought to light the role of media, propaganda and technology in terrorist recruitment efforts. A significant focus has been placed by academics on understanding (and censoring) the use of media technology by IS and other terrorist organisations, yet relatively little attention has been directed towards the analogue end of the media spectrum. The portrayal of individuals linked to terrorism in the print media, especially the gendered narratives surrounding them, is a crucial aspect to consider when examining the media’s influence on public opinion regarding those who join terror groups, and the subsequent impact of these portrayals on social media platforms.
In a recent journal article in Terrorism and Political Violence, I analysed and evaluated the gendered media narratives surrounding two high-profile individuals. The following two research questions were answered:
- How are male and female jihadists framed in domestic newspapers in their respective countries of origin and which frames are the most dominant?
- How do these gendered news media representations tap into existing gender stereotypes concerning terrorism and political violence, and how do they reflect or challenge social and cultural hierarchies in discourses on gender and terrorism?
Through a comparative qualitative content analysis of news coverage centred on two domestically and internationally well-known European individuals associated with IS, British woman Shamima Begum and German man Denis Cuspert, this Insight reveals that gendered stereotypes are prevalent in news coverage; however, the individuals are constructed in fundamentally different ways.
Shamima Begum was a minor when she joined IS in 2015 and, subsequently, had her citizenship revoked by the UK in 2019. In British news coverage surrounding her case, Begum was depicted as a foreign and deviant woman. Continuous references were made to her appearance, her decision to leave the UK for terrorism-related activities, her potential return as a burden on British society, her posing a security risk, and her being a bad mother and evil woman who betrayed her femininity on multiple levels: “Speaking hours after her third baby was delivered in a refugee camp…unrepentant Begum told of her desire to raise him in the UK and brazenly admitted she had initially had a ‘good time’ under Islamic State’s so-called caliphate”.
On the other hand, Denis Cuspert, the German radical Islamist who joined IS in Syria in 2014 up until his death in 2018, was primarily portrayed as a highly influential figure among German youth. German news coverage highlighted his hyper-masculinity and celebrity status, making frequent references to his former days as a prominent figure in the German rap scene before his involvement with IS. Cuspert is described in a Der Tagespiegel as a “macho hero…ex-rapper and today’s terror agitator”.
Through an analysis of this news coverage, two key differences come to the forefront. First, Cuspert’s gendered and hypermasculine traits are used to naturalise his attraction to or involvement in violence. On the other hand, Begum’s choice to engage in a violent context is portrayed as going against her femininity and viewed through the lens of motherhood. It is a long-standing assumption that terrorism is a male domain and that men have a natural tendency towards violence, while females engaging in violent activities must be ‘explained away’ through ulterior motives, external forces or mitigating circumstances. Previous studies have identified similar issues with the media’s portrayal of females associated with jihadist terrorism and the reliance on a reductive narrative rooted in gendered stereotypes. These types of narratives may contribute to the perception that female terrorists lack agency, resulting in a diminished perception of their dedication, conviction, and commitment to their political, ideological or religious cause.
Second, the use of narrative techniques in the portrayal of Begum raises questions about her British identity and reduces her character solely to her choice to become a mother while involved in a terrorist organisation. Meanwhile, references to Cuspert’s strong ties to Islamist subcultures in Berlin and Kreuzberg render him a central figure in the German Salafi-jihadist scene. Hence, there are distinct differences in how domestic news media represent and depict men and women associated with terrorism, not least in terms of collective identity and gendered attributes. These representations guide the preferred reading and how the audience should understand Begum and Cuspert respectively.
The effects of journalistic coverage on shaping public opinion are evident in the portrayals of two individuals who were at the forefront of international and domestic political discussions around terrorism and radicalisation during similar periods. News coverage of terrorism often assumes a polarised and dramatic tone during and in the immediate aftermath of violent attacks. However, this Insight reveals that broader coverage of individuals, although not as dramatic, can still influence the wider societal conversation, particularly with regard to gendered aspects of these conversations. While the coverage may not be as rapid, it is clear that individuals, particularly women are often reduced to their gender. It is, therefore, necessary to also analyse news coverage surrounding both male and female individuals linked to terrorism and violence to grasp how gender influences their broader portrayal of individuals in terrorism beyond the coverage of attacks.
The widespread coverage of the Shamima Begum and Denis Cuspert cases on social media contributed significantly to the shaping of public opinion and perception around individuals involved in terrorist activities. It is therefore crucial to analyse how gendered stereotypes manifest in the media, how they differ for men and women, and the impact this has in society’s conversations about terrorism. This research seeks to challenge the gender biases perpetuated by the media and their profound effects on how subversive women are perceived. By adopting a comparative perspective, it sheds light on how society positions individuals within the constructs of masculinity and femininity and aims to deconstruct these stereotypes and emphasise their importance in shaping public opinion.
Despite global concerns over terrorism as a security issue, and growing awareness of how gender stereotypes are employed in news coverage of individuals involved in terrorist activities. This Insight reveals that gendered stereotypes are deeply rooted tools in journalistic storytelling. In a fiercely competitive market of news journalism, reporters and editors rely on recognisable gender stereotypes, as these stereotypes and representations align well with the dramatic nature of terrorism, violent women, and organisations such as IS. The critical concern lies in the potential to overlook the complex motivations, agency, and dedication of women involved in terrorism. Focusing on stereotypical portrayals of femininity could result in a lack of comprehension regarding the ideological commitment of female terrorists, and therefore limit our understanding of the complexities of terrorism overall.
Olivia Caskey is a final year ESRC South Coast DTP-funded PhD candidate at the School of Area Studies, Sociology, History, Politics and Literature, University of Portsmouth, UK, researching the phenomena of female jihadism and media representations of jihadists. Twitter: @CaskeyOlivia