Women and the Woolwich attack

Since the Woolwich attack on soldier Lee Rigby, much has been written and spoken about the courage of Amanda Donnelly, her daughter Gemini Donnelly-Martin and Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the three women at the scene. They were seen coming to the aid of Lee Rigby, as well as speaking to the suspects. In the days after that attack the women were referred to by newspapers as ‘heroic’ and the ‘Angels of Woolwich’. As someone who has never been in such as situation, like many others, I can only imagine the types of thoughts and feelings the women must have been experiencing while interacting with the suspects.

However, the involvement of women in the incident at first glance may not seem an important issue to discuss. Closer inspection, though, reveals interesting parallels in how gender has become a weapon of choice for the media and Islamists in the war over public opinion.

Why speak to the women?

After the murder of Lee Rigby a video detailing the role played in the incident by women was widely replayed on various media platforms. In the video Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, as reported by the Guardian newspaper on 29th May 2013, stated that one suspect that she spoke stated ‘He said he had killed the man because he (the victim) was a British soldier who killed Muslim women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan’. In a Telegraph article published on 22nd of May 2013, it was reported that the suspects were heard saying ‘I apologise that women had to witness this today but in our lands our women have to see the same’. The same article also reports that one of the suspects said ‘only women could tend to the body, not men’. This begs the question, why emphasize what women see and only speak to women? Initially this may seem an odd question, but if we consider the texts and many videos uploaded to the Internet by political and violent Islamist groups, we see that they often refer to the violence endured by Muslim women and children at the hands of Western powers and stress the necessity of defending them. This indicates that gender is an important emotive tool in the discourse of Islamist groups.

The stereotypical representation of women in the British media’s reporting of Lee Rigby’s murder, and in Islamist discourses, is not symbolically important but is worth interrogating. If we strip away the different identity registers of the women the Islamists refer to, as well as those seen attending to Lee Rigby, we see that their gender identities are drawn on for the same purposes. They are used as a vehicle of choice to impart a politics of suffering and pain to those who can identify with the registers of, not only ethnicity, nationality and religion but also ‘womanhood’. The notion of womanhood in this sense is framed through concepts such as ‘mother’, ‘carer’, ‘feminine’ and ‘heterosexual’. Through this use of the women’s gender, the women are dissolved of their personal identities and are propelled into the international politics as vehicles to represent two opposing politics.

The message and the women

It is clear from the footage of the incident that the suspects used the women not only to disseminate their views on British foreign policy but also to convey the feelings of emotional pain that some Muslims have to endure directly in conflict zones and indirectly in non-conflict zones.

The target audience for the suspects is both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, but for different reasons. I contend that the suspects wanted the non-Muslim communities to experience what some Muslims experience in conflict-zones, and for Muslims to remember the suffering of their brethren. The suspects were aware of the role of and high regard for ‘mother’ in Islam and among Muslim communities. Therefore they were also aware that seeing the women tending the body of a dead person would evoke feelings of stress, make them think of their loved ones and compel fellow Muslims to act and help their coreligionists.

Lee Rigby’s murder reveals that both gender and its operationalization by the media, Islamists and governments has become the weapon of choice to impart emotive politics because of its immediate and powerful impact.