Global Human Rights Defence

The Roles Of Women In Terrorism
Women in Syria. Source: Alexas Fotos/Pixabay, 2016.

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.



Agara, T. (2015). Gendering terrorism: Women, gender, terrorism and suicide bombers. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 5(6), 115–125.

Ali, F. (2005). The Bomber Behind the Veil. RAND Corporation. Retrieved on March 13, 2022, from:

Banks, C. (2019). Introduction: Women, Gender, and Terrorism: Gendering Terrorism. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved March 13, 2022, from:

Beyler, C. (2004). Female Suicide Bombers. Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from:

Bigio, J., & R.B. Vogelstein (2019). Women and Terrorism. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved March 13, 2022, from:

Counter Extremism Project. (2017). ISIS’s Persecution of Women. Retrieved March 13, 2022, from:

Cunningham, K. J. (2003). Cross-Regional Trends in Female Terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 26(3), 171–195. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from:


Davis, J. (2006). Women and Radical Islamic Terrorism: Planners, perpetrators, patrons? Semantic Scholar. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from

Dharmapuri, S. (2016). UNSCR 1325 and CVE: Using a Gender Perspective to Enhance Operational Effectiveness. A Man’s World? Exploring the Roles of Women in Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism, 36–54. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from:

Hoffman, B., & Kasupski, A. (2007). The Victims of Terrorism: An Assessment of Their Influence and Growing Role in Policy, Legislation, and the Private Sector. Defense Technical Information Center. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from

Nacos, B. L. (2005). The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in the Media: Similar Framing Patterns in the News Coverage of Women in Politics and in Terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 28(5), 435–451. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from:

Nebehay, S. (2016). About 3,500 slaves held by Islamic State in Iraq: U.N. report. Reuters. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from:

Powell, C. (2016). Women and Terrorism: Victims, Perpetrators, and Problem Solvers. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved March 13, 2022, from:

United Nations. (2014). Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from:

United Nations. (2020). Gender Responsiveness. United Nations: Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved March 13, 2022, from

Weinberg, L., & Eubank, W. (2011). Women’s involvement in terrorism. Gender Issues, 28.

Wulan, L. R. (2015). Enhancing the Role of Women in Indonesia to Counter Terrorism. Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from:



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
Editorial Team Lead

Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Gabriela Johannen
Coordinator & Head Researcher – India

Gabriela Johannen is a lawyer admitted to the German bar and holds extensive knowledge in the fields of human rights, refugee law, and international law. After working for various courts and law firms in her home country, she decided to obtain an LL.M. degree from Utrecht University where she studied Public International Law with a special focus on Human Rights. Additionally, while working as a pro-bono legal advisor for refugees, she expanded her knowledge in the fields of refugee law and migration.

Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

Wiktoria Walczyk
Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.


Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

Jasmann Chatwal
Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.