In an editorial titled “It’s a Woman!”, the Egyptian Islamist weekly Al Sha’ab wrote: “It is a woman who teaches you today a lesson in heroism… It is a woman who has shocked the enemy… It is a woman who blew herself up… It is a woman who has now proven that the meaning of [women’s] liberation is the liberation of the body from the trials and tribulations of this world … and the acceptance of death with a powerful, courageous embrace.”
Terrorism has been called “propaganda of the deed,” however, when women do the deed, the resulting propaganda often has more to do with the individual than with their actions. Few people intuitively associate terrorism with women, even though women have historically been involved in terrorism and political violence. These cultural biases can introduce vulnerabilities. Since it is no longer possible to ignore women as participants in terrorist activity, we must change the lens from which we view gender in conjunction with terrorism.
History leads us to believe that women are the victims and never the agents. In reality, women do not lack agency. Like men, they will engage and when necessary, take up arms. The only thing that has limited the role women play is the local frame of patriarchal control. There are actually compelling political reasons and context that will help us understand why any man or woman would engage in acts that can be described as cold-blooded. Unfortunately, most of those distinctions are not drawn up by wider society, where in fact there are victims on both sides of the conflict. Evaluating women’s terrorism invites us to rethink the partial, biased, and often oversimplified theorizations of what motivates terrorists to act and the degree of agency they have in their actions.
A female terrorist, for many, is a contradictory idea: there are those who believe femininity belongs in a private sphere. In that case, women’s violence must be personal right? Wrong. A male terrorist is seen as a strategic actor and his terrorism as a political phenomenon. Male violent choices are seen as based on complex psychological configurations that include what we would consider personal reasons, terrorist organizations as a whole characterized as politically motivated rational actors. Any student of international relations or philosophy can attest that the very act of defining who is a terrorist and attempting to create a list of motivations is problematic. So if we cannot confine male terrorists to clean and clear boxes, why are we so arrogant as to think we can accomplish this with female operatives? Sex itself is not an explanatory variable; women and men do not do terrorism differently based on their biological makeup.
There is no archetypal female terrorist; her description is varied from her physique to her role within the organization to her psychological makeup. So, it is important to recognize women terrorists as complex actors making complex choices.
The manipulation of gendered cultural norms makes fighting terrorism more difficult. As a consequence of these gendered misconceptions, counterterrorist methods to stopping women from supporting organizations, like the Islamic State, tend to be misguided, because it handicaps both the ability to respond to those women who have joined and available tools to prevent future choices to join.
Potential for alternative interpretations of the concepts, acts, motivations and impacts related to terrorism inspired by feminist theory is rich, and is just beginning to be explored There are few experts and fewer studies that have produced empirical trends; however, paying attention to the sexed and gendered realities of global politics without relying on weak and sensationalized images of women might be the only productive way forward.
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Stack, Alisa. “Zombies versus Black Widows: Women as Propaganda in the Chechen Conflict.” In Women, Gender, and Terrorism, 83. Athens; London: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Turner, Kathleen . “Femme Fatale: The Rise of Female Suicide Bombers.” War on the Rocks. December 14, 2015.
Sjoberg, Laura and Caron E. Gentry. “It’s Complicated: Looking Closely at Women in Violent Extremism.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 17, no. 2 (2016): 23-30.
Milton-Edwards, Beverly , and Sumaya Attia. “Female terrorists and their role in jihadi groups .” Brookings, May 9, 2017.
Sjoberg, Laura. Women, Gender, and Terrorism, 83. Athens; London: University of Georgia Press, 2011.