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Charity Scribner

Photograph released in 2015 showing a veiled figure believed to be Hayat Boumeddiene at a guerrilla training camp, Cantal, France, ca. 2010.

PARIS, JANUARY 2015. A violent attack on the offices of the satiric weekly Charlie Hebdo results in twelve deaths and many grave injuries. Later, Amedy Coulibaly, an associate of the terror suspects and an alleged supporter of the Islamic State (IS), strikes a kosher supermarket in another part of the city, taking customers hostage and killing four before police gun him down. While broadcasters race to get the story, a cycle of clips repeats on our screens. Assailants maneuvering into getaway cars. Police storming the supermarket. Mourners protesting in the streets.

But within this media surge, it is a pair of photographs of Hayat Boumeddiene, the young widow of Coulibaly, that attract remarkable attention. In one, we see the French citizen veiled in a black niqabat a guerrilla training camp in 2010. She aims a crossbow squarely at the camera. Another shows the couple on vacation. Here Boumeddiene wears a bikini and embraces her husband, smiling for the picture—a typical snapshot, perhaps banal. A month after the attacks, an IS video titled Blow Up France 2 comes out of Syria and makes its rounds. In a key sequence, a line of masked, armed militants confronts the viewer. A woman stands among them, and she is presumed to be Boumeddiene. Besides these images, there is little information about her. Named as an accomplice in the Paris terrorism, she is called “public enemy number one,” the world’s “most wanted woman.”

A militant, a woman, Boumeddiene has been portrayed as a dangerous enigma, not least because of her sex. Staring at us from behind her crossbow, she is a femme fatale for the new world order. The photograph evokes those of Shirin Neshat’s series “Women of Allah,” 1993–97. Neshat’s phototextual project looks back to past revolutions in Persian poetic language and, at the same stroke, looks ahead, imagining a future where militancy might be detached from armed struggle and deployed, instead, on the battlefield of culture. But Boumeddiene’s image is not accompanied by any explanation or interpretation—it remains puzzling. The frequent juxtaposition of the two Boumeddiene photographs suggests that sex sets the terms of this puzzle. In a bikini, a woman embodies liberated, secular sexuality; wearing a niqab, she is an emblem of piety. The figure pictured in both guises is a paradox—such, at any rate, is the unspoken logic behind the pairing.

But is this really a paradox? On a basic level, the bikini and the niqab serve the same function: to mark the female body as feminine, to engender the human as a woman. The deeper tension between the two photographs comes from the ostensible difference between East and West, Orient and Occident. Empires have been built on such cultural opposition, and we see its traces in the recent accounts of women in Islam. Boumeddiene’s composite portrait is a part of this tendency. Her photos are arresting not only because of the weapon she carries but also because of her vexed femininity—a gendering that oscillates between seemingly antithetical worlds, “the modern” and “the Muslim.” Indeed, Boumeddiene occupies a third space, because neither “modern” nor “Muslim” codes of normative femininity can accommodate her crossbow, a signifier of her militancy.

The figure of the militant is contested—a terrorist or a freedom fighter, depending on who is assigning the label. This figure grows all the more unstable, all the more difficult to assimilate, when sex comes into play. Boumeddiene is thus an unnerving avatar of Islamism, a force often understood as an apocalyptic threat. It isn’t just far-right ideologues who organize their constituencies around this perception but also many on the left. Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” the lead article in the March issue of The Atlantic, drew record numbers of readers to the liberal magazine. But as critics noted, whether or not it was Wood’s intention, his assertion that IS is principally motivated by eschatology bolsters claims of a violence inherent in Islam itself. Such assertions elide the political, historical factors that have led some to armed jihad. For example, as Mehdi Hasan pointed out in a rebuttal to Wood in the New Statesman, it was photographs of the torture and sexual abuse perpetrated by American forces at Abu Ghraib that radicalized the Charlie Hebdo killer Chérif Kouachi.

Claims parallel to Wood’s inform the ways in which the Western general public sees militants like Hayat Boumeddiene. “Religious fundamentalism” is a convenient catchall explanation that explains little, but rather obscures the economic and social circumstances that influence the deliberate and difficult choices Boumeddiene has made. Her place in the headlines of early 2015 showed us how representations of sexuality may have the same blurring effect.

As the year went on, coverage of IS was itself written in increasingly sexualized terms. In the summer and fall, major news organizations across North America and Europe published accounts of “sex slavery” in IS-controlled areas. Photographs and interviews documented the rise in crimes against women, especially in Iraq and Syria. Many sources attributed this phenomenon to the latest ultraconservative shifts in sharia law and its enforcement, which have condoned sexual violence and murder. In August, a number of articles on the region reported the abduction and systematic rape of thousands of Kurdish women, members of the Yazidi minority that Islamic extremists consider “infidels.” In October, another stream of coverage relayed news of a series of mass executions of suspected sex workers in Baghdad. Whereas some reports rigorously investigated the crimes, others sensationalized the stories, echoing the “white slavery” chronicles that ran in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tabloids.

Western media outlets and their audiences seem equally interested in stories of Muslim women striking back. One account linked to this narrative gained particular emphasis: that of an Iraqi woman shooting and killing an occupying commander who invoked an IS mandate and forced her into sex. Was her act militancy? Countermilitancy? This line of inquiry raises questions about the relationship of such avengers to the women whom IS strives to recruit, the so-called jihadi feminists, who include militants like Boumeddiene. As others have argued, all of these stories demand scrutiny and analysis, and it might take decades to get a clear picture of the social forces and individual agents that operate in this violence. In the meantime, what is evident is how US political authorities invoke “the Muslim woman” as a double trope to further their objectives; the complicity of American mass media in this campaign is equally apparent. In this regard, the veils of observant Muslim women designate them either as blindered victims to be “saved” from the Islamic world or as terrorists with explosive belts under their cloaks.

Contemporary tropes of sex, gender, and culture convey the complexity and contradiction of Western attitudes toward Islamism (and Islam, undoubtedly) but also toward the West itself. This year’s coverage of sexuality and women in the Muslim world shows us, again, that any projection of the other also reveals repressed aspects of the self. So stereotypes of the Muslim woman—as odalisque, as suicide bomber—simultaneously portray the collective perception of women in the West. The double image of Boumeddiene is an allegory of this mirroring.

Militancy has its own legacy in the West, of course, and yet the violence of this legacy has been largely disavowed. Memories of militant women of the 1960s and ’70s persist, especially in visual culture, but they are demonized or glamorized to the point where they register as trademarks rather than historical agents, as we see in the widely reproduced images of Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, founding members of the German Red Army Faction and perhaps the most famous female leftist radicals. But the militant first-wave feminists who came before them are almost forgotten or, perhaps more precisely, misremembered. The end of 2015 gave us an example of this: Suffragette, director Sarah Gavron’s sympathetic take on women’s fight for the vote in Britain a century ago. The film dramatizes the lives of the Pankhursts and their comrades, relying on the conventions of narrative cinema to transform their history from one of militancy to one of humanism. Suffragette follows a formula that ultimately recuperates the feminist struggle and intertwines it with a conservative account of nation building. Revisions of twentieth-century history have smoothed the sharp edges of certain conflicts, from trenchant divides between workers and capital to the antagonism of colonial possession to battles over sexual liberation. The West’s jagged arc of early feminism has been domesticated.

Yet Gavron’s film, even if it aligns itself with this revisionist tendency, nonetheless gives us a fuller illustration of the past by depicting the militant means that the women found necessary to advance gender equality and social justice. Selected sequences demonstrate the violent tactics that furthered the objectives of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Britain. We see violent protests, hatchet throwing, and lethal bombings. (Disappointingly, we do not see Mary Richardson’s slashing of the Velázquez Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in London in 1914.) Viewers who don’t endorse political violence will find it difficult to consider these characters heroic. But women on pedestals are immobile, as early feminists well understood. In conveying the ethically ambiguous nature of their militancy, Gavron also underscores their historical agency.

The past year opened and closed with images of sex and militancy—first Boumeddiene, then the suffragettes. But if Suffragette aims to bring a kind of closure to the chapter on women’s history in the twentieth century, Boumeddiene’s story resists resolution. Last winter’s photos and videos of her burst onto our screens, like bombs. A comprehensive critical response to her flight from the Paris banlieues to IS territory is yet to come. Meanwhile, her shadow will loom long on the horizon, darkening the troubled terrains of sex and war.

Charity Scribner is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the City University of New York.