Why is it a surprise that two of the young terrorists in Bel Canto are female? This for me was the most significant detail in chapter four, as I myself could not blame the fictional male characters in Anne Patchett’s novel because I had not considered the idea myself. Patchett is clearly challenging perceptions of what defines innocence and whether females embody this more so than males. It certainly explains some of Gen’s unease with the one pretty terrorist. I also find it interesting that this same terrorist, one of the only two girls, is the one taking such a fascination and protective stance around Roxanne Coss, the only female among the hostages.
The assumption that terrorism, and generally organized crime, is too brutal or corrupt for women to participate really got me thinking. How involved are women in organized crime? Why would women be drawn to this lifestyle? Why don’t people generally expect this?
Interestingly enough, there has been a recorded upsurge in women in international organized crime recently. The predominate theory for this rise in female involvement in crime is the “emancipation theory,” which speculates that women have risen through the ranks of crime in correlation to historical women starting to leave their traditional roles in the household for careers in the workplace (Siegel, p. 5). However, as later noted by Dina Siegel in her article “Women in Transnational Organized Crime,” this seems a little unsubstantiated considering the low statistics of women in crime organizations (p. 5).
Siegel explains that through examining old archives, it becomes apparent, particularly through study of the Italian mob, that despite how wives and daughters of mafia members are portrayed in media, they were often more involved in their husbands’ career in crime than previously believed. Though it is true that many mafia wives perpetuated the social norms and ideas of honor prevalent in mafia culture and were seen as property to display the wealth and power of their husbands, all of them benefitted from their husband’s wealth and status (p. 2). In fact, Siegel cites one wife of influential Odessa godfather Yapontchik who only married him during the economic instability caused by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, after many rejections. In addition, many wives of mafia men acted as messengers, mailwomen, and mediators between rival families (p. 3).
There are some differences among leadership styles of and cultural perspectives concerning historical criminal women. For example, the legendary “La Nacha” of Colombia, who controlled the heroin market in the 1970’s and ordered murders, is sometimes viewed as “a loving mother and a female Robin Hood because of her generosity to the local women”. However, also in Colombia, Mery Valencia is seen as “cold, violent” and intimidating (p. 4).
Various hypotheses speculate why women are drawn to criminal activities. In today’s world, with increased globalization and international trading, the heightened amount of drug and human trafficking could be a reason for more female involvement in organized crime (p. 6). Most of the nations that have seen an upsurge in these illegal activities are what we would consider developing. Indeed, the Western ideals of power, sex, glory, and wealth shown in advertising in many of these areas, and evidenced by local madams or female drug lords, could be an influencing factor (p. 11). This evidences an entirely new facet to organized crime in general, particularly involving women.
I was drawn to not just the socio-economic, but also the biological or psychological, aspects of the possible reasons contributing to why women are drawn to a criminal lifestyle. I decided to do some comparative research on the leadership styles of and issues facing female project managers in today’s workplace. Some characteristics the women in a gender study in a South African electricity company cited as helpful in completing a project fall under inter-personal skills, such as kindness, respectfulness, and regard for others. These are in agreement with some “traditional” female characteristics (Maseko et al., p. 5). However, seemingly masculine characteristics of competent, quick decision-making skills and business skills were also stressed in importance by the women (p. 6).
The division of feminine versus masculine traits is very much comparable to leadership of female crime lords. This sheds some light on the differing views of La Nacha and Mery Valencia of Colombia. The former is celebrated for her traditional feminine characteristics, while the latter is despised for her more masculine qualities. The difficulties facing the project managers included gender-stereotyping and presumptions of men that oversexualize women in higher positions, which is still an issue in criminal markets as well (Maseko et al., p. 5-6).
In addition to these challenges, the project managers also said competition with other women made it difficult to climb the economic ladder (p. 5). This brings to mind the competition among female sex-workers, who sometimes become employed so that they can gain enough wealth and status to become madams themselves in lucrative human-trafficking endeavors (Siegel, p. 12). The role of madam is one I myself seriously have trouble understanding, as it seems to exploit other women for the madam’s personal gain.
My research evidences that Anne Patchett writes of the surprise the men faced at finally seeing females among the ranks of the terrorists because of gender-stereotypes founded in real social and professional dynamics. All of the research I found seems to point to gender-stereotyping, particularly in developing nations, as a huge influence for women involved in both legal and illegal activities.
Maseko, Busisiwe M., and Cecil N. Gerwel Proches. “Leadership Styles Deployed by Women Project Managers.” Gender and Behavior 11.2 (Dec. 2013): 5663 – 72. Ebscohost. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.
Siegel, Dina. “Women in Transnational Organized Crime.” Trends in Organized Crime 17.1 (June 2014): 52 – 65. Ebscohost. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.