Name: Claire Lyness
Title: Governing Bodies: Gender and the Politics of Corporeal Weaponization
This dissertation engages with women’s participation in three practices of political violence – suicide bombing, dirty protest and hunger striking. These practices all entail the weaponization of the body in distinct ways and are often placed beyond the scope of acceptable forms of violence. They are associated with “terrorist” subjects and are deployed against the state. I argue that the transgressive quality of these modes of corporeal weaponization is further amplified when the perpetrators are women. Following feminist scholarship on gender and political violence, I attend to the question of agency and consider how it is precisely the erasure of feminine bodies from the space of political violence which may conversely constitute a unique form of political agency.
Female suicide bombers, for example, are often cast as particularly lethal weapons because of their capacity to use feminine embodiment (usually feigning pregnancy) as a disguise. In such representations, women’s bodies carry with them the significations of the private sphere – domesticity, nurture and care – and therefore are not read as violent actors. The association of femininity with the private sphere is what constitutes the deadly “undetectability” of the female suicide bomber. In the first chapter of this dissertation, I argue that the terrorism studies literature that engages with the figure of the suicide terrorist attempts to recapture suicide terrorism as a rational phenomenon with an identifiable strategic logic so that the suicide bomber may be effectively governed. At the same time, however, these literatures produce the female suicide bomber as a singularly risky subject who, because of her feminine embodiment, frequently exceeds attempts to govern her.
In the second chapter I shift to a different comparative site – the period of conflict in Northern Ireland known as the “Troubles.” I argue that this formation can be read alongside the contemporary War on Terror, as many of the techniques and modes of counterterrorist governmentality recur across these two sites. I look at the dirty protest in Armagh prison undertaken by thirty Republican prisoners in 1980. I examine the conditions of historical absence that have constituted the women’s protest as marginal to the men’s protest at the Maze prison, which has since featured heavily in Republican commemorative tropes. I argue that attempts to understand the protest as reclaiming or “seizing control” of the women prisoners’ bodies from the disciplinary regime of the prison often unintentionally reiterate a vision of the subject that is guaranteed by a mind/body dualism. Here the body is read as a passive, inert materiality that is animated only by the lively, willful mind. The problem with such accounts is not only that this dualism has functioned to historically exclude certain groups – including feminized and racialized subjects – from political life, but that it cannot account for certain modes of agency in which the body exerts a force of its own kind.
Finally I engage with the cases of Marian and Dolours Price, two IRA prisoners who went on hunger strike (and were force-fed) in HMP Brixton in 1974. The sisters’ were eventually released in 1980 and 1981 reportedly suffering from anorexia. Finding the co-signification of women hunger strikers with anorexia or eating disorders to be a common one, I consider the feminist literature on anorexia and argue that the case of the Price sisters’ disrupts the distinct boundary between pathology and protest. I argue that this has consequences for our understanding of political agency in hunger striking more generally and provokes further consideration of the agency of the body in such practices of resistance.