Our mad dream is only half realized. Alone, you have created the man. Now, together, we will create—his mate. Yes, a woman. That should be really interesting.” —Bride of Frankenstein
“She has been manipulated, brainwashed into being a terrorist. This is not the woman she is supposed to be.” —Heard at a conference on female recruits to ISIS
“What of my Mary? She is an Angel.” (Bride of Frankenstein)
On the edges of the Mediterranean Sea sits a monastery: the Silesians of Don Bosco. Perched atop the ivory tower is a woman, the Virgin Mary. Her arms are open, welcoming—in a country poised permanently in the shape of a boot.
Like her American ally, she, too, is meant to take the poor, the tired, the masses, yearning for their freedom.
This peaceful, pristine Mary is the image scholars look to as they gather within the walls beneath her to understand a different woman, a Monster who refuses the Virgin’s embrace. I am among the experts invited to a conference titled “Understanding Women Joining the Islamic State.”
It happens very quickly. The sparse surroundings of a monastery morph into a dark social lab filled with pseudo-scientists. Doctors of philosophy prepare to dissect and diagnose the unknown. The findings presented come from pop-up research shops. Erected with the same hastiness as refugee camps, held together by even flimsier material.
A Little Girl in London
She is a child. The language she hears at home is laced with traces of the Homeland. She is on the periphery of conversations about lives left behind.
When I meet her I am the professor and she another student in my college classroom. As the semester progresses she sits closer to me, her memories mimicking my own.
In the suburbs of London, her youth is a passport between the rooms reserved for men and the ones reserved for women, separate but unequal. Her aunt remembers leaving the country of her birth, crossing into a new nation with only her most important kitchen utensils.
Like I did, my student overhears partial personal histories. In Pakistan, someone was fighting, someone else was killed, and several someones have disappeared. Unmanned aerial vehicles quietly slip past border controls into the villages that fill her veins. She grows up online; the media shapes her nascent social consciousness. The legacies of political violence within her have a longer life expectancy than the tribal child struck down (but not targeted).
She remembers her little brother hovering around their mother’s ankles, demanding a toy drone.
“Creation of life is enthralling. Distinctly enthralling, is it not?”
In the lab, the Monster, the female recruit to extremism, is pushed away from us, laid out on the table. They begin by describing her: she might also be a “deviant” or a “sociopath.” Sometimes, in disguise, she “masquerades as a migrant.” A counterterrorism expert explains that her identity is based on a modern engagement with an ancient empire. A criminologist draws on early-twentieth-century research, conducted primarily with young boys and steeped in racist assumptions. The poverty “these people” live in, he tells us, is responsible for poor ethical codes in certain communities. From birth, “they” are set on a trajectory of criminal behavior. The female recruit, he says, is not just “anti-social,” she is “anti-societal.”
The Monster is born from the minds of her makers, both their creation and their enemy.
A Teenager in Tunisia
When I meet the mother in Tunis, she asks me to explain her daughter’s perspective to her. She, the mother, is a member of the Islamist political party. The daughter was born in the shadow of the mother’s activism, and came of teen age in a Jasmine Revolution, when her mother’s formal participation in the Islamist political party was still green. The party fills the void a dictator left behind.
Her mother still felt his presence, inside her and on top of her. Her organs ached with the most natural of movements, her aging skin layered around stitches. The daughter remembers trying to identify the offense, clarify the purpose of punishment, during her mother’s days inside. Had she crossed a cultural barrier as a woman, or a political blockade as an activist? Her mother was captured for an act of dissent, but the uniformed men who raped her reminded her she was a woman.
Her anger, now, ages in the shadow of her daughter’s rage. “I think my daughter wants to join the Islamist group, in the mountains, that is fighting with ISIS,” she tells me.
She rarely sees her daughter’s face anymore. It is hidden, behind the screen of her laptop. Decorative stickers have been carefully placed around the luminescent apple—Arabic graffiti and the outline of an AK-47.
The daughter cannot understand why her mother waits in line, with other victims, outside the tribunal in Tunis. Why go back inside, why speak her truth to the powerful state that tortured her?
A mother whose peaceful protest ended in violence, and a daughter whose political vision begins there.
“Lying here, within this skull, is an artificially developed human brain. Each cell, each convolution, ready. Waits for life to come.”
In the dissection, the Monster’s brain is the first to be discarded. One counterintelligence officer claims that “social media is the strongest and most powerful weapon” that extremists use to “persuade normal women.”
This expert has never met a woman who took up arms. She analyzes Tumblr trends, offering insights from a safe distance. Her findings: “The female extremist is drawn to death by pastel-colored visuals and appealing images of kittens, horses, and Arabic-looking men with flowing locks,” often sitting on horses.
The expert quips, “I must admit, even I find myself attracted to some of these men.” The room erupts in laughter. Sexism offers levity, respite from the weight of terrorism.
The Monster stands upright and steps through the metal chamber. Her arms are cuffed in gold bangles; she feels her own pulse as she removes them. Two sharp beeps. She’s alive.
A Young Woman in India
On the morning before a lecture, I walk past a kitchen table littered with plastic-wrapped magazines from a relative’s recent trip to India. A dark veil is the dramatic backdrop for bold lettering: “The Girl From Pune Drawn to ISIS.”
She is, in fact, a young adult when Indian intelligence arrests her on suspicion of terrorist links, at her parent’s home. According to the article, her interrogator is surprised to find that she has a brain, and tells her so. She is devout in her study of injustice. He is shocked by her ability to connect the foundational concepts of Islam to contemporary political violence against Muslims, by Western nations.
An Indian oil engineer with extremist sympathies is also arrested, for a suspected romantic tryst with the girl. He insists that the online relationship had an intellectual foundation—they were engaged in an analytical debate on interpretations of Islamic texts.
Online news channels depict a society “shocked” that a “good Indian girl” attending a convent school could be prone to violence. An unauthorized mini-biography is quickly crafted and creates the starkest possible contrast: she is from a good family, excelled in science, and wore conservative Western clothing. In her online profile, she goes by the name “Radical Gun.”
Her family cannot see her intellectual curiosity, only her twist toward the traditional, as she begins to cover her head.
“Shall we put the heart in now?”
As the magnifying glass is passed around, body parts take on exaggerated significance. The problem, most (women and men) around the table agree, lies somewhere between her heart and her ring finger.
The Pakistani expert stands intimately close. Close enough to see his reflection in her. He explains that she changes shape to conform to the men around her. He says, “Women are bullied by men in Pakistan; they are subservient. This is why they join radical movements.” She “watches Indian films and online videos” and is drawn by the romance of it all. He reminds us that “a woman who can’t get married has no value for society.” The unmarried woman has, he tells the room, a “negative identity.”
The Monster’s brain has been easily “co-opted” by an even more monstrous man. Her mind is the one occupied territory that is allowed to evoke moral ire.
The feminists behind him tweet in indignation. They must end the practice of #brideprice and #childmarriage. The almost-first-woman president of the United States agrees.
In her role as victim, she is a cultural commodity; she can sustain a billion-dollar industry. Behind the sewing machines sent to save her, she remains politically invisible. Her hands are freed, only to be captured by capitalism.
The Pakistani expert goes digging for treasure. He holds forth the Monster’s still-beating heart.
Behold. The confusion has spread from her head to her heart.
It begins to bleed. Her blood is everywhere. He drops it, in disgust.
A Suicide Bomber in Paris
The TV interviewer will ask me silly questions about why she did it. In the information made public, it is hard to find a serious answer.
The earliest reports contain the easiest assumptions: she did it for her boyfriend. In the police recording, she screams, “He is not my boyfriend!”
The Daily Mail creates a cartoon character. They sketch a “terrorist’s lair.” The Monster emerges, fully formed: wild hair, a chest heavy with explosives, a crazed look.
“She did not look like a suicide bomber,” says her Parisian neighbor. Kentucky Fried Chicken workers are asked about the woman they saw the day before. She often wore jeans and trainers, and was “well-spoken.”
Her head was covered: sometimes by a headscarf, other times a cowboy hat.
After she blows up, her story is fractured into fragments. A childhood in an immigrant community that exchanged war for poverty; a broken education and a series of even more broken homes.
Black hair, streaked with white dye. A scan of her brain would glow at points of inflammation: pain produced as a reaction to injury. We are all hardwired this way.
Before the society that created her can call for heads to roll, she sets her own free. It falls from the sky, uncovered, onto the earth.
“You know how lightning alarms me.”
In the final session of the conference, we are asked for answers. The problem-solvers around me suggest solutions, which are splashed onto butcher paper that begins to resemble the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Ways to Save Her (at Bullet Point):
- We must use proven public relations techniques to provide a “positive identity” the Monster can adopt. The gentleman from Pakistan offers a simple formula: “Research + Guerilla Marketing = Success.”
- What if we locked her up in a wireless tower? A Romanian official suggests, “Let’s cut off Internet to the area.”
- A Belgian scholar recommends revisiting collective punishment. It’s ended badly in Europe before, but this time’s the charm? Any woman traveling to a Muslim country should be detained. Proof of crime not required.
- Target the veil in surveillance. Across Europe, little brown girls should be scanned for entry. Even to Disneyland.
- A Muslim scholar suggests that Muslim imams receive mandatory training in democracy. (Lesson 1: Trump’s America.)
- The American government official mentions the generous offer of a luxury car company to defend America, by funding its latest drone. The “Lightning Strike.”
It is a drone developed to locate the Monster, to fill her earthly being with electricity. It’s designed to run through dark hair until it hits a nerve.
An Ex-Combatant in Sri Lanka
“How angry are you now? Do you feel angry enough to throw a glass?” the Sri Lankan government psychologist reads in broken Tamil to an ex-combatant taken captive at the end of the war. No. She doesn’t feel, she later tells me. After the war, detention is the halfway house for others like her: dead inside, but counted among the living.
She considers the question. She was trained in combat, and it seems important to her that anything that is thrown be aimed at a target—but where would she direct her anger? At the guerilla men with whom she shared a battlefield, who now refuse her hand in marriage? At the soldiers who left her wishing she joined the others in a mass grave? At the “rehabilitation” teacher who places reams of fabric before her, forcing her to stich tiny yellow ducks? At him, the psychologist?
He is waiting for her answer: to assess her level of madness, not the depth of her rage.
“To a New World of Gods and Monsters!”
At the conference’s end, a journalist presents an Italian Case Study. Terror close to home. The Monster has a name she chose herself: Fatima.
The Italian journalist marvels that as a Western (white) woman, Fatima found God in Islam, “all by herself.” She’s had a brief Skype interview with Fatima, and she finds it odd that a woman who is “pretty and quite intelligent” would spend time in university libraries studying Islam, rather than “being a normal girl with friends, in a bikini, in the sea.”
Fatima wants to marry a Muslim man who shares her beliefs, and her politics. The first man she meets is “not radical enough.” The second agrees to accompany her to Raqqa, in northern Syria. Before he becomes a policeman in ISIS-controlled territory, her husband watches as she learns to use a Kalashnikov and teaches Arabic to new female recruits from Albania.
On the last evening, the group of scientists leaves the monastery, its walls now padded with butcher-paper prescriptions, to go for a walk.
They stop at St. Mark’s Basilica. On the inside they look up at a golden mosaic of stories around the Virgin Mary, veiled in black.
As they marvel at the Cathedral’s gilded dark beauty, the Monster escapes from captivity.
A Brown Woman in America
“An audience needs something stronger than a pretty little love story. So, why shouldn’t I write of Monsters?”
On November 9, a Virgin American flight takes off. The previous night’s events transition from the imaginary into reality: Donald Trump is president. I wrap my scarf tightly around me.
A white woman weighed down by a silver cross around her neck waits in line for the bathroom. She glares at me, and shakes her head, disapproving of… my existence?
My dark skin burns, my nose ring gleams under her stare. A woman empowered by a misogynist. A tiny dog, in a tiny bag, suddenly makes her smile. The animal deserves her kindness.
Next to me, a white man oblivious to the women just outside of his line of sight reads the latest copy of Femme Fatale. The Kohl-rimmed eyes of the woman on the cover are framed by dark hair; her fair-skinned hands grip a gun.
The Monster exists, somewhere between fantasy and fear.