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NAU Professor Delves Into World Of Female Terrorists

Northern Arizona University

When you think of a terrorist, who do you think of? That’s the question Lori Poloni-Staudinger puts to her students at Northern Arizona University every year.

Poloni-Staudinger, a professor and the department chair of the Politics and International Affairs Department at NAU, researches the intersection of women and terrorism. She’s the co-author of the forthcoming book, Terrorism and Women: A Gender Analysis of Perpetrators, Responders and the Public.

In it, she and co-author Candice Ortbals of Pepperdine University, analyze women who are terrorists, as well as how women respond to terrorism, how women leaders address terrorism, and how they are perceived.

“When you say the word ‘terrorism,’ a picture of a woman, particularly a Western woman, does not come to mind.” Poloni-Staudinger said.

That is because we are socialized to think about women as life-givers and not life-takers, according to Poloni-Staudinger. So, when women act violently, it clashes with our socializations of what is means to be masculine and feminine.

Though we don’t know the exact number of terrorists, she said, it’s believed that up to 40 percent of terrorists are women.

For example, the wife of the shooter in San Bernadino, California was called into question. But, Poloni- Staudinger said, she was talked about as "the wife" of a terrorist, not as a terrorist herself.

Many people will say that women become terrorists because of a relationship, Poloni-Staudinger said.

“They’re recruited into an organization through a male relative or a boyfriend of husband or something like that,” she said. “And, often, men are recruited into terrorist organizations through friends or relatives in the same sort of way, but it’s not talked about in the same way that it is with women.”

Women combating terrorism

Poloni-Staudinger said it will be interesting to see how the media, in particular, responds to Hillary Clinton as a woman combating terrorism if she’s elected president in November.

She conducted a study on the iconic photo showing Hillary Clinton in the Situation Room with President Barack Obama and other leaders during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. In the photo, Clinton is shown with her hand over her mouth.

In the media, she was described with great emotion, Poloni-Staudinger said.

“You could see everything in her eyes, the emotion [sic] in her face, the anguish that was there, so all of these, sort of, highly emotional words were associated with her,” she said. It came out subsequently, though, that the photographer had taken a lot of photos in succession, and Clinton happened to be sneezing in that frame, Poloni-Staudinger said.

And those perceptions matter, she said, because “if we think that women are interlopers in this male domain of counter-terrorism, we’re missing half of the population that can contribute to counterterrorism policies.”

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.