In Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores Caron E. Gentry and Laura Sjoberg add to their extensive research into questions of gender and violence in global conflict. In the 2007
edition of this book they argued “that there is an international politics of violent women’s lives and that violent women’s lives constitute international politics”. Here they take this critique further and analyse in depth the traditional gender tropes used in contemporary narratives of women’s violence, from Chechen and Palestinian suicide bombers, to génocidaires in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and war criminals in Abu Ghraib.

Their main contention is that women’s capacity for political violence is no different from men’s and yet perpetrators are treated as somehow helpless or flawed females. This negates their agency. The authors set out to prove that gendered discourses dominate today’s research into, and media coverage of, the field, arguing that women who participate in violence for political ends are reductively “portrayed as ‘mothers’, women who are fulfilling their biological destinies; as ‘monsters’, women who are pathologically damaged and are therefore drawn to violence [Gentry 2006]; and/or as ‘whores’, women whose violence is inspired by sexual dependence and depravity”. These formulas, they suggest, do not take into account women’s autonomy and therefore imply that they are not culpable.

Prominent cases are examined, including those of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko in Rwanda and Biljana Plavšić, a charter member of the Serbian Democratic Party, who both helped to
carry out genocide. The authors contend that their gender was “sensationalised” and drew more attention than their actions. A “relational autonomy framework” (the recognition of human interdependence and of political and social relationships) is “a prerequisite for understanding people and their violent choices in global politics”, they say, before concluding
with a call for “subversive resignification” and further research that explores “sensed experience of conflict, sensed experience of violence, perpetrator narratives and the role of gender in political violence”.

Gentry and Sjoberg are not interested in the how-and-whys of extralegal political violence, but ask, rather: “what is political violence? What are women? What are the relationships
between those concepts?” Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores is a highly academic example of international relations feminism, and, while the questions raised are undoubtedly valuable for those engaged in the field, the book may prove less accessible for the lay reader.

Originally published by the TLS