The Terror of Sex: Significations of Al Qaeda Wives

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

395 Downloads (Pure)


The phenomenon of military wifehood has been examined time and again in the fields of International Relations and Security Studies. In militaries around the world, idealized notions of the model military wife militarize women’s lives, influencing their lifestyles, activities, and political and moral priorities. In turn, those women's militarized lives play crucial roles in the functioning of militaries ideologically, socially, and professionally. As Cynthia Enloe has argued, "patriarchal militaries need feminized military wives." This article explores the question of whether a similar symbiotic relationship exists between marriage and terrorist organizations, specifically Al Qaeda. Is there such a thing as an ideal "Al Qaeda wife"? If so, is that ideal wife a crucial signification for the success and institutional structure of Al Qaeda? Does it differ across the diverse organization? How are the wives of members of Al Qaeda portrayed by the organization itself and by the media that covers them? How are the women with members of Al Qaeda signified? How are they represented? How are they treated? In order to address these questions, this chapter looks at Al Qaeda wifehood through the lens of its "signification"—discursive public presentation and performance in political context. It starts with a brief discussion of its method of analyzing the signification of Al Qaeda wives, interpreting discourses about the women, their roles, and their characteristics through the social and political contexts of their performance. After laying this methodological framework, it identifies three story-lines about wives of Al Qaeda operatives: one about what is termed in this paper as an idealized "terrorized" femininity; another about wifehood as a criminal act; and a third that casts wives as fancied players in an Orientalist story of exotic polygamy. I argue that each narrative identifies and assigns womanhood and cultural membership on the basis of wifehood. Together, narratives of wifehood sustain the discursive representation and organizational capacity of Al Qaeda.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-132
Number of pages34
JournalJournal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Cite this