Why have women war criminals gone unnoticed? This introductory chapter argues that women war criminals are far more common than we think. From the Holocaust to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans to the Rwandan genocide, women have perpetrated heinous crimes. Few have been punished. This is due in part to assumptions that women are always innocent civilians and that they have fewer incentives to participate in armed conflict. Such gender biases prevent us from "seeing" women as war criminals. They also work to prevent post-conflict justice systems from assigning women blame. We argue that women are just as capable as men in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity and introduce four legal cases to demonstrate this: the President, the Minister, the Solider and the Student.
Biljana Plavšić, former co-president of Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina), was the only woman convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Her compliance with the ICTY bordered on submission and included a guilty plea and statement of remorse. At her trial, Plavšić performed for an international audience and framed herself as a reconciliatory figure. In contrast, in her memoir and interviews after the trial, Plavšić performed for a domestic Serb audience. She demonstrated disregard for international criminal law, painted the West as the enemy of the Serbs, and displayed extreme nationalist and racist beliefs. Comparing the performances reveals that Plavšić was a dynamic and strategic political actor who used gender norms to negotiate preferential treatment at the ICTY, which was under political pressure to find a repentant figure.
Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Rwanda's former Minister of Family and Women's Development, is the only woman tried and convicted by an international criminal tribunal for genocide and for rape as a crime against humanity.Despite a very gendered approach by her public accusers and defenders, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) overexerted itself in its commitment to a gender-neutral approach and gave Nyiramasuhuko a life sentence. Nyiramasuhuko's adoption of a gendered defense was ultimately unsuccessful because of the intersection of her gender and her race, including ingrained institutional biases about how African actors behave in conflicts, as well as the political pressure the ICTR faced to further the accomplishments of international criminal law.
Photos of Lynndie England smiling in front of tortured Iraqi prisoners made the U.S. Army Reservist from West Virginia a household name. One of two women subject to a court-martial trial for the Abu Ghraib abuses, England was depicted by the media as depraved. Her legal team argued that her intellectual disability made her vulnerable to pressure from her boyfriend, the ringleader of the abuses. The prosecution argued that England's compliant personality and intellectual challenges did not excuse her behavior or its devastating consequences for the U.S. Army. England's case provides insight into how low-status women are treated by the military justice system and the repercussions of prosecuting the rank-and-file while allowing high-ranking officials to evade justice.
Hoda Muthana was a college student in Alabama when she dropped out to join the Islamic State terrorist group. Calling herself "Mother Jihad", she incited terrorist attacks against innocent civilians on social media. After more than four years in the group, Muthana and her son were among the thousands of women and children who fled ISIS's collapse in December 2018. Uniquely, her case centers not on her alleged crimes but on her citizenship and her corresponding right to be prosecuted in U.S. courts. In this context, Muthana repeatedly stressed her youth and her status as a mother as a basis for redemption. Her case highlights the limits of a gendered defense for terrorism-related crimes as well as emerging legal challenges in prosecuting war crimes committed by non-state actors.
Female perpetrators from all parts of the world and all walks of life employ similar gendered strategies to evade responsibility for their crimes. The conclusion addresses how the ideological commitment, age, race, nationality, religion, rank and institutional membership of the four women we examine influenced their treatment by legal systems and their ability to mount a gendered defense of their actions. It also explores the political context and motivations of the courts that handled their cases and how this influenced the courts' willingness to accept gendered defenses. Justice, ultimately, is not blind to gender.