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Women & Terrorism

The reasons behind the engagement of women in terrorism

Female participation in jihadist terrorist groups has been increasing in recent years. But what is the reason behind this shift? Could it be because Islamist terrorist groups that used to ban women from taking on violent roles have changed their approach? Or is it the opposite; have female jihadists grown tired of being in the background?

Women used to be kept away from violence and their participation in terrorist groups was limited to sheltering fugitives, raising funds, gathering intelligence, oiling machines and hardly ever went beyond that.

Revenge, Redemption, Relationship, Respect and Rape.

Mia M. Bloom, author of Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, argues that female terrorist motivations vary from terrorist group to group. The author identifies five main reasons why women engage in terrorist activities and suicide bombing, namely: revenge, redemption, relationship, respect and rape.

Revenge is a main driver for women to turn to suicide bombing, as they want to avenge the death of a beloved. Reasons such as redeeming themselves or gaining respect also play a role in their decision. Some women resort to terrorist acts to restore their honour after being raped, as they would be seen as a martyr, dying for their cause and therefore restoring their honour.

Gender-neutral, Feminine Honor and Social Structures

Ken Sofer, Associate Director of the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress along with Jennifer Addison (no additional information), argue that radicalization is a gender-neutral process and that it occurs due to a mixture of economic, political, and social factors, including economic conditions, lack of political rights, or military occupation. Factors such as stress and psychology also play a role in turning a radical into a terrorist.

Both authors believe that the incentives for women to carry out suicide attacks are related to their experience within a conflict zone and their desire to redeem feminine honour. Feminine honour refers to their purity and is considered to be very important in communities located in the Middle East and Southern Asia. If a woman’s purity is violated, such as in the case of rape, the shame she feels is shared by her family. Terrorism in the form of suicide is viewed by radicals as martyrdom as a way to achieve redemption and to restore their honour. The inability of having children is also seen as a loss of honour as it leads to divorce. It can also damage a woman’s reputation as she is seen as being “unmarriageable”.

Social structures that encourage inequality and dependency for women also create pressure that would influence a radicalized woman to commit terrorist acts such as suicide. Suicide in this case can be seen as a way to reach an equal social status. Dependency is also a strong factor because many women don’t have access to education and when their husbands die they struggle to maintain their families. Some terrorist groups take advantage of this situation and promise to take care of their families if they agree to commit a suicide attack.

Equal participation, Nationalism and Religion

Lindsey O’Rourke, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in International Security and U.S. Foreign Policy at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, argues in her research that the reasons and conditions that encourage women to become suicide bombers are similar to men’s.

Around 95% of suicide attacks carried out by women were executed against foreign forces that occupy their territory. They want to maintain the sovereignty of their territory for their ethnic group. Lindsey states that the motivation that drives suicide bombers (both male and female) is loyalty towards their communities and grievances against the occupying foreign forces.

Humanitarian Aid, House Chores, Better Life, Supporting Fellows

There are different perspectives and reasons as to why women want to go to conflict zones, such as Syria and Iraq. Some of the women who travel to Syria marry jihadists and fighters. Others go in pursuit of a better life. Many claim that they want to carry out chores for male fighters such as cooking, cleaning and delivering humanitarian aid. These women believe that they are providing support to fellow Muslims.

Media, Lack of Female Security Staff

Female participation in terrorist groups is sometimes encouraged by the leader of a group as women attract more attention from the media. They are being used as propaganda tools to encourage men to join or increase their participation in terrorist activities.

Women are also being used as suicide bombers as they look less suspicious in public areas since they are good for hiding bombs, sometimes under their religious attire or with fake breast implants or pregnancy as they attract less attention. This allows them to be overlooked by counterterrorism measures; for example being able to pass through a security checkpoint in a conflict area without being detected.

Countries need to step up their efforts to counter this increasing threat. They need to hire and train more female personnel to conduct security checks on women, mainly in conflict zones, so that explosives can be detected and an act of terrorism can be prevented. The perception that a woman is weak and incapable of conducting terrorist acts has to be changed. Times have changed not only for women in the West but also for those female jihadists who want to be considered as equals and actively participate in the terrorist organization.

*Cover image ‘Elderly Armenian Woman Guards Home‘ by United Nations Photo


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