I had this same criticism a month or so back, the last time I saw a newspaper headline about female bombers, but I didn’t write about it then. Today, in reading The New York Times, I read: "Female Suicide Bomber Kills 2 in Iraqi Province."
Now, it’s not that I don’t understand the significance of female suicide-bombers in particular. While this story doesn’t address it, past articles with similar headlines have at least mentioned:
Fifteen other women have carried out suicide bomb attacks in Diyala Province, according to General Rubaie. Islamic rules prevent men, including security officers conducting searches, from touching women. Compounding the predicament is a scarcity of female Iraqi police and soldiers who might otherwise fill the gap.
While I am somewhat annoyed when stories, such as today’s, mention a female bomber in the headline, but don’t discuss why that’s significant in the story, I take issue more with the persistent selective gender-naming. Male suicide bombers are reported in headlines as “suicide bombers”; female suicide bombers are “named” as such. I have blogged on this in the past in discussing ex-nomination, and Ashley guest blogging over at Feministe interestingly argues that women’s gender is specified when they perpetrate acts of violence to detract from the reality that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violent acts. The repetition of women’s gender in such reports works to mask violence as a gender-neutral activity. My issue is at a more basic linguistic level. Previously I wrote:
In conversation (your own and others’), watch how people are described. Typically, we use “identity” descriptors only with reference to women, gay men, lesbians, people of color, non-Western ethnicities, (and also non-Christian religions)… in other words, the default category for a “person” is a white, hetero, male. A person is only someone “other” than that when specified.
This is what’s referred to as “ex-nomination” (coined by the semiotician Roland Bathes) -- being ‘unnamed’. What is unnamed is what is seen as a ‘natural’ commonsensical category. Those of us who are not white heterosexual men become those with “marked bodies”-bodies who must be named to be identified. In other words, people who are women, or black are designated as such (as if identifying them according to said label adds particular meaning to who they are as a person), while white hetero men are simply “people,” and are thus permitted to establish meaningful identities in ways not shaped by said societal identity labels.
These headlines bother me for that reason: that it perpetuates the assumption that an individual is a (white, hetero) male unless specified otherwise.
It’s true that we also specify male for characteristics that are deemed “female” (a.k.a. “male nurse”), which could in part account for its usage in headlines–because we assume suicide bombers to be male. But Western assumptions are no excuse for the persistent usage of gendered terms by journalists. Would it really be so hard to say “suicide bomber” in the headline and then to discuss the gender and its implications, if necessary, in the body of the story? Or since gender is in fact an issue, use male and female descriptors in the headlines? Otherwise, we reinforce the notion of male as default.
UPDATE 8/15: Funny that this is a trend I have been seeing, and as soon as I write about it, the NYT changes its pattern: see today's "Bomber Kills 18 on Shiite Pilgrimage in Iraq." The "bomber" is actually a female! Now that's a first!
(Cross-posted to Smart Like Me.)