The Roles Of Women In Terrorism
Author: Kristina Yildiz
Department: Women’s Rights Team
When we are talking about terrorism, we should be aware that gender has always been erased from the historical past of terrorism. The assumption that terrorism always involves male actors is quite widespread. This can be explained by the small number of female terrorists, gender stereotypes and because women have not generally participated in terrorism studies (Banks, 2019).
Women and men are affected by terrorism in different ways. Terrorist groups often target women through acts of gender-based violence and sexual abuse. At the same time, women are also the ones who take active roles in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. They make valuable contributions through field work, analysis and policy development (United Nations, 2020).
Recently, more and more attention is being given to women who decide to join terrorist organisations, however, it does not mean that this phenomenon is new. It only confirms one more time that women were not taken into consideration during the last decades of international research on terrorism. In reality, however, women have always played the roles of both supporters and fighters. For example, during the “Anti Colonial Wave” Ulrike Meinhof was one of the co-founders of the Red Army Faction in 1970, in Germany. The organisation used violence to support third-world liberation movements. Vera Zasulich was an important figure of the Russian terrorist organisation “Narodnaya Volya” (People’s Will), which attempted to assassinate the governor general of St. Petersburg in 1878. The organisation included ten women out of 27 members in total (Weinberg & Eubank, 2011). Other terrorist groups in Northern Ireland, Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Shining Path group in Peru, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have similarly not been an exception and were actively recruiting women (Agara, 2015).
Women as terrorists
Initially, Islamic clerics opposed women’s involvement in jihad, and only some of the more progressive clerics acknowledged that women could participate. Nowadays, women’s role in religious terrorism is growing; female terrorists have participated in attacks in Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Chechnya. The female participation in radical Islamic terrorism has even been named the Mujaidaat (Ali, 2005).
Various terrorist groups utilise women as suicide bombers and terrorists. Out of the 21 suicide attacks carried out by the Kurdish PKK group in Turkey, 14 were carried out by women (Cunningham, 2003). Additionally, women account for 30-40 percent of the bombings organised by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. A growing number of acts have been attributed to women based on the mixture of nationalism and radical Islam as the motives for such attacks. The best examples are some Chechen and Palestinian militants. The siege of a Moscow theatre in 2002 included several female extremists, so-called “Black Widows” who wanted to secure Russian withdrawal from Chechnya (Beyler, 2004).
The role of women in terrorism has increased drastically because they enjoy a strategic and tactical advantage as a result of cultural and gendered clichés (Nacos, 2005). Due to these gendered and societal expectations, women are often more committed to the motives behind the attacks compared to men. It also explains why women have not participated in terrorism more actively. Generally, women are not viewed as capable of carrying terrorist attacks. Even in the countries which were affected by attacks carried out by women, they are still treated and viewed differently from male terrorists. Usually, women have easier access to locations in order to carry out acts, where men struggle to gain access, because society has made an assumption that women are not a threat (Davis, 2006).
The evidence may suggest a shift in Islam towards allowing women to participate, but this should not be mistaken as a fundamental shift in attitudes towards women in radical Islam. It does not herald the liberation of women but rather the exploitation of women. There is no evidence that female terrorists will replace the male hierarchy or have contact with senior leaders except to execute an attack. Indeed, while female suicide bombers are elevated to the status of heroines, there remains no change in how women are viewed in Islamic society as a whole (Davis, 2006). Thus, the emergence of female terrorists should not be construed as the emancipation of women – at least not in the Western sense of the word (Ali, 2005).
Women as victims of terrorism
As we saw, women can have the roles of perpetrators and be willing to participate in violence. However, they are also victims and survivors of the worst atrocities committed by terrorists. Same as in other forms of conflict and war, violent extremists use rape and other forms of sexual violence as a tool to control women. For example, around 3500 women were kidnapped and held hostage by the Islamic State in Iraq (Nebehay, 2016). Therefore, these women were subject to forced marriages, sexual slavery, rape and forced conversions. In addition to these abuses, the Islamic State expels women from public life and exacerbates their role in society.
According to the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, ISIS has specific regulations that dictate where women may work, what they can or cannot wear, and with whom they may socialise. Women and girls over ten years old must be fully covered if they are outside and are not permitted to be in the company of men if they are not members of their immediate family. In case of failure to follow these rules, women can be severely punished (United Nations, 2014).
It is well known that rape is considered one of the weapons of war, which is not exclusive to the Islamic State. However, their actions received abundant attention from human rights organisations, State governments and the media. According to the “ISIS’s Persecution of Women” report, published by the Counter Extremist Project, “ISIS authorises rape and physical abuse of girls as young as nine years old”. It is also reported that women are subjected to punishments that include beatings and being forced to watch how militants rape their friends and family (Counter Extremism Project, 2017).
Women are not only the victims of violent terrorist groups; they are also seriously affected by counter-terrorism policies that can violate their rights and impact their quality of life. Therefore, it is important to consider their needs, experiences and perspectives when drafting counter-terrorism policies and programmes (Dharmapuri, 2016).
Women as fighters against terrorism
The role of women in preventing and responding to terrorism is receiving more and more attention, however up to date, women remain vulnerable and marginalised from the decision-making process, especially at the high level where counter-terrorism strategies are designed and implemented.
Women and women’s organisations can be the key actors in fighting against terrorism. Such groups as Sisters Against Violent Extremism or Women Without Walls contribute to countering extremism and radicalisation within their communities. It is often the case that the members of those groups are mothers who are aware of the youth who can be susceptible to radicalisation (Powell, 2016).
Women can engage in counter-terrorism measures in different ways. Through their role as the mothers, they are responsible for the formation of their children’s character. Moreover, they often play important roles within the family. They also possess diverse perspectives that can contribute to the work of men and can be used in problem solving (Wulan, 2015).
The victims’ groups that emerge after terrorist attacks have diverse goals and range in numbers. For example, after 9/11 some groups focused on the creation of a proper memorial, some others were focused on the improvement of public policies to prevent terrorist attacks in the future (Hoffman, Kasupski, 2007). After the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia, a group of local women, primarily mothers, established a women victims’ group “Mothers of Beslan”. Up to date, 18 years later, they still seek justice and a proper investigation of the attack. They also significantly contributed to the building of collective memory about that frightening act of terror committed against innocent children.
In order to effectively engage with the gendered dynamics of violent extremism and reverse its growing trend, it is critical that prevention and response efforts prioritise women’s rights, empowerment, participation and leadership — both at the community level as well as in national decision-making. Therefore, the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women can be considered a counter measure to the spread of radicalisation.
As this article has discussed, women’s participation in terrorism is multifaceted. They are one of the main victims of terrorism and until recently we only knew them as such. However, recently there has been an increase in gender-based approaches in the research on terrorism that revealed that women have long been involved with groups engaged in violent extremism. Their roles vary according to each group and can include conducting suicide bombings, participating in women’s wings or all-female brigades within armed organisations and gathering intelligence. Women can also be sympathisers and mobilisers by providing healthcare, food and safe houses to violent extremists and terrorists. Women can also be rich sources of information about terror cells due to their role in fostering extended family networks. Therefore, women need to be regarded as potential perpetrators, and counter-terrorist policy should treat them as such.
The policymakers around the world overlook another important role that women play in the field of terrorism – the role of fighters against terrorism. They have distinctive influence in their communities where they can detect early signs of radicalisation, spread antiterrorism messages in religious institutions, schools and local governments (Bigio & Vogelstein, 2019).
Although targeted violence against the rights of women and girls is receiving more global attention, the promotion of gender equality has been an afterthought in the response of the international community. Thus, it is necessary that all aspects of counter-terrorism strategies and policies are approached from a gendered perspective, understanding what motivates women to commit terrorist attacks. It is also imperative to raise awareness about the various roles played by women, so that the international community can design effective policies that would enhance women’s functions.
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