Reports of women acting as terrorists, especially for the Islamic State (ISIS), have shocked Western audiences, raising questions about the role of women as willing participants in terrorist violence. The flood of Western women to ISIS is helped along by a slew of female recruiters. Further, women act as enforcers in jihadist societies, even commanding their own battalions that operate within ISIS territory, and female suicide bombers have killed themselves for the group in Libya and Iraq. Assuming these women are simply brainwashed or coerced, as some have, is deeply misguided and an impediment to a better understanding of gender in warfare and an effective counterterrorism strategy. In fact, the women in ISIS are part of a long history of female participation in terrorism.
These assumptions are partially in response to societal stereotypes that women are the more peaceful, cooperative sex. Men are supposed to be aggressive, and women are the possessors of ‘beautiful souls’ (elucidated by Professor Laura Sjoberg in her essay “Women Fighters and the ‘Beautiful Soul’ Narrative”). Men fight in wars, while women are protected and are the reward for victory waiting at home. If women ruled the world, the famous saying goes, there wouldn’t be war at all. Women engaging in combat is a shock because it confounds our expectations of women’s role in society and war.
Research shows that people join terrorist groups for many reasons: for power, out of grief or for revenge, looking for belonging and acceptance, for survival, out of loyalty to their family or friends, for adventure, and/or out of fervent commitment to a group’s cause. There is strong evidence that this variety of motivations transcends gender, and that women join terrorist groups for much the same reasons as their male counterparts.
While some female terrorists seem to be coerced into participating in violence, women have played prominent and active roles in terrorist organizations throughout history in groups as diverse in their aims and as widespread geographically as the Sendero Luminoso, the Weather Underground, the Irish Republican Army, the Tamil Tigers, European neo-Nazi groups, the Black Widows, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and al Qaeda, among others. Women have played instrumental roles in these organizations, from carrying out attacks to recruiting new members and acting as founding members and organizational leaders. The Kurdish forces fighting ISIS have also integrated all-female units, bucking the stereotypes of both passive, helpless women, and women in Muslim, Middle Eastern societies.
Women are taking part in the inner workings of the Islamic State too. Umm Sayyaf (an alias), the wife of an ISIS higher-up, was reportedly an essential part of the organization, involved in coordinating ISIS’ human trafficking and slavery operations. ISIS women are not just married off to male fighters or made into sex slaves, though this happens as well.
Female terrorists offer strategic benefits too. Within terrorist groups, women are sometimes chosen as attackers because they can be more effective than men, eluding detection because of gender stereotypes. This includes women acting as suicide bombers. According to terrorism expert Yoram Schweitzer, female suicide bombers make up almost 15 percent of all suicide bombers worldwide. Schweitzer notes the case of a female member of Palestinian terrorist group Fatah eager to be a suicide bomber. She was effective not only because she was overlooked at a security post as a result of her gender, but also because she provided her male counterpart cover since they were able to pose as a couple and avoid suspicion.
Additionally, female terrorists are used in propaganda – as examples of devotion to the cause so deep that even as women they will join the fight, and possibly sacrifice their lives for it. Captured or killed female terrorists are held up as needing to be freed or avenged because of their gender. Al Qaeda routinely cites the case of Aafia Siddiqui, portraying her as a female martyr for being arrested and jailed after attacking U.S. officials. In these ways, terrorist groups also use gender assumptions to their advantage.
It is dangerous to underestimate the agency these women have and view them as unwilling participants in the acts they commit. Overlooking the role that women play in terrorist groups undermines the role of women in global affairs and in daily life by reinforcing outmoded gender assumptions of women as helpless ‘beautiful souls’. It also underestimates the danger that women in terrorist groups can pose as recruiters, facilitators, enforcers, and attackers. Stereotypes of passivity even provide terrorist groups with propaganda opportunities when women join or commit attacks.
Changing our perception of women as participants in terrorism, and women in combat in general, strengthens our ability to confront terrorism writ large. Understanding the danger that female terrorists pose, and their willingness to participate in terrorist violence will better arm us in creating counterterrorism policy that addresses all aspects of the threat.
NOTE: The opinions expressed are those of the author and not his employer.