Manchester concert attack
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Georgina Callender, pictured with Ariana Grande, was the first identified fatality from the concert attack. Photo: Instagram

Analysis | Did Manchester bomber deliberately target young women at ‘shameless’ concert?

‘It’s very well known that misogyny is deeply rooted in the radical Islamist worldview’

At first, this one looked like all the others: randomly deadly, deliberately brutal.

In the last two years, mass killings claimed or inspired by the Islamic State have become a chilling reality in Western Europe: unexpected and impromptu truck attacks, bombings and shootings, in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin and London. Manchester - where 22 were killed in an assault Monday outside a concert - seemed like just the latest chapter in a deadly saga that has claimed more than 300 lives.

But then there were the details. Among other things, this was a concert meant to celebrate female empowerment, and many of the victims were young British women there to take part. The first identified fatality was Georgina Callender, 18.
A message reading ISIS Coward is pictured alongside a teddy bear and flowers in Albert Square in Manchester. Photo: AFP

If, as claimed, this attack was carried out by an adherent of the Islamic State, the targeting of women could have been intentional.

“It’s very well known that misogyny is deeply rooted in the radical Islamist worldview,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

On the stage Monday night was Ariana Grande, the 23-year-old U.S. megastar - and self-styled “dangerous woman” - famous for lyrics that seek to champion female power and routines that exalt the female body.

Dangerous Woman is among Grande’s most popular hits: “Don’t need permission,” the song begins, “Made my decision to test my limits.”

Grande often appears on stage in cat ears or lingerie. The meaning of her performance - in Manchester, at least - was not lost on her audience.

A message left among tributes in central Manchester. Photo: AP

Melissa Mason, 23, and Rhiana Fitzwilliam, 18, had travelled all the way from Cumbria in the far north of England to see Grande live in concert for the first time. They booked themselves a room in Manchester’s city centre and were looking forward to adventure - at the very least, time away from their cafe jobs.

But the sense of independence Grande so often preached in her music was stolen from them, they said, in an attack that seemed to capitalise on their joy and their youthful devotion to one of their favourite stars.

On Tuesday, what they remembered was that the arena the night before was filled with many women their age, “and Ariana Grande’s age, too,” Mason added. “It seems purposeful.”

“Why us?” she added. “Why this concert?”

Watch: police seek answers in wake of Manchester terror attack

As British police continue their investigation into the motives behind the attack, these are questions that do not yet have clear answers.

In the statement released Tuesday taking credit for the attack, the Islamic State did not mention women explicitly, condemning instead what it called a “shameless concert arena”.

At present, the assailant - identified as Salman Abedi - is not known to have left behind any substantive rationale for to his choice of venue.

For analysts, however, a through-line was clear enough even without a letter of intent: the venue was what it was; the victims were who they were.

“If you go back to early Islamist documents,” Joshi said, “misogyny and cultural hostility have often been two sides of the same coin.”

Flowers and messages of condolence for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack. Photo: Reuters

Further, he said, “There’s a connection between the targeting of a concert like this and the enslavement of young girls in northern Iraq.”

Many of the women who gathered in the vigil of thousands in Manchester’s main town square on Tuesday evening saw it the same way: The attack on the concert was an attack on women.

“It moves you as a woman when there are young women involved,” said Sue Platt, 52, a lecturer at the Manchester School of Art.

“It attacks freedom. It makes people afraid to gather in a crowd.”

There was also, others said, the particular choice of the Grande concert itself.

Polly Ahmed, 23, who works in a pharmacy and has spent her whole life in Manchester - and who wears a veil - said that she had long seen in Grande a role model for maturity.

A woman places flowers on an impromptu memorial at Manchester Town Hall for the victims. Photo: Reuters

“I used to watch her on Nickelodeon when I was in school, because she’s the same age as me,” she said.

“Everyone sees her as this Disney Channel princess. But what she’s doing is to show her transition from girlhood to womanhood.”

For Joshi, Islamist ideology has long used the hatred of women as a starting point for condemning Western society seen as immoral and “decadent.”

The same persecution of “decadence,” he said, could be seen in a variety of “soft targets” since 9/11 - cafe terraces in Paris, a seaside promenade in Nice and a well-known gay nightclub in Orlando.

But Shahera Khatun, 22, an English literature student at the University of Manchester, said the lesson of Monday’s attack, devastating as it may have been, was clear enough.

“I don’t think anyone should feel less empowered because of this,” she said.

“Because of some lowlife.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Targeting females could be intentional