We don’t know the exact motivation behind Monday’s horrifying terrorist attack in Manchester, England, which killed 22 people, including an 8-year-old girl. And given that the bomber died in the attack, we’re unlikely to ever find out precisely what was going through his head as he detonated that device. But one thing we do know is the demographic he targeted: young girls and women. As is so often the case with acts of violence, misogyny was deeply woven into this attack.
ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the attack, is of course notorious for its ghastly treatment of women and girls – for mass imprisonments, rapes and acts of torture. It’s not yet known if the suicide bomber, whom police have named as 22-year-old British national Salman Abedi, acted alone, or what his exposure to ISIS might have been. Regardless, the symbolism of his attack is clear and devastating. During Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour, Abedi gave the world a sick reminder of the dangers of being a woman in public in 2017, attacking largely female concertgoers for doing nothing but enjoying themselves while listening to music.
These girls and women weren’t just listening to any music, either – this was feminist music. Through her songs and public statements, Ariana Grande has taken a strong stand against sexism and the objectification of women, and she does so kindly, joyfully and without apology.
All of that is threatening enough. But Grande goes even further, daring to embrace sex positivity: the idea that sexuality is healthy, that it can and should be expressed in diverse ways, and that it deserves no shame.
It hardly takes being a member of ISIS to balk at women embracing their sexuality without shame – plenty of Republican lawmakers show their discomfort with the idea by attacking basic reproductive and sexual health for women. Take away shame, and you take away one of humanity’s most powerful tools for keeping women in line; suicide bombs and oppressive laws might put women in their place, but shame is the glue that holds it all together.
Misogyny’s other most powerful tool is protectionism – the idea that women’s freedoms have to be curtailed for our own good. You should cover up because men are lascivious beasts who can’t be trusted. You shouldn’t go out at night because you might get attacked. You definitely shouldn’t go out at night wearing that, because then you’re just asking for it. Come to think of it, better not to go out in public at all, just to be safe.
The Manchester attack was every parent’s worst nightmare, and many might turn to protectionism in response. They might be terrified to let their kids, especially their daughters, go out to a rock concert or a nightclub again. But the best way to fight vicious attacks on women and girls isn’t sheltering them. It’s celebrating them – even, and especially, when it makes us uncomfortable.
When terrorist attacks like the one in Manchester happen, there’s an impulse to try to understand them in clear moral terms – as the work of bad people who want to kill those of us in the West because they hate our freedoms. But for women, those attacks on our freedoms are hardly relegated to suicide bombings. Misogyny keeps women down in every country, every ideology, every religion. Shame and protectionism make women afraid to come forward about sexual assault, afraid of learning enough about our own bodies to have great sex, afraid of living our lives to the fullest, or even unable to imagine what that life might look like.
And when we ignore violence against women, we put everyone at risk. Time and again, men who engage in mass killings turn out to have also been accused of domestic or sexual violence in the past. Women are the canaries in the coal mine for male violence, including terrorism, and too often those warning signs are ignored.
We may not know much about the Manchester bomber’s specific ideology – but when it comes to why he would target women and girls, we don’t really need to.
Manchester Arena concertgoers faced immediate panic and later resilience in the wake of a terror attack on an Ariana Grande concert. Watch everything we know about the horrific attack here.