Chapter 1: Women’s Roles in Terrorism and Violent Extremism

Submitted by Fernando Aguiar on Thu, 07/27/2017 - 14:30

A Brief Historical Overview

To understand current dynamics and how they shift in our contemporary context, we need to take a comprehensive view of history and how its intersected elements evolved over time. Attempts to find a distinctive element to explain the root causes of violent extremism (VE) reads oddly when set alongside with conceptions of gender. Although scholars occasionally admit the importance of including a gender perspective in de-radicalization or preventive efforts on violent extremism (P/CVE), policy-makers find it challenging to systematically channel this vision into security strategies[1].


As research has demonstrated, although extremist identity-based groups have emerged in many different contexts, one element they hold in common is the exclusionary notions of one identity over other[2], prescribing rigid roles of masculinities and femininities. Most recently, however, experts have recognized the interconnections between the phenomenon of violent extremism and concepts of gender, or rather how gender plays a role in the recruitment process of extremist groups. Take, for instance, the continued conception that men are a normative category when it comes to acts of violence, whereas women are very often understood to be outside this scope and victims of these violent acts. Due to this fixed and mainstreamed conception, extremist groups are profiting from this to increase their impacts on the ground.


As a growing body of research and analysis indicates, there is no single cause leading to violent extremism, rather a plethora of variables in different time and contexts. Responses to counter this phenomenon can also be multi-dimensional. But as some experts such as Sara Zeiger and Sahana Dharmapuri have argued, rigid notions of gender norms is one of the factors that limit policy-makers’ attempt to understand in a comprehensive manner the particularities of violent extremism, such as men and women’s different roles, status, needs, priorities and expectations[3]. This limited notion of gender stereotypes has equally led women to be left outside any policy or programmes to counter violent extremism, as they are often understood to hold values that are incompatible with violence.


Across the world, the interdependence between gender and violence was forged contextually, in a myriad of variations, but strikingly connected to one essential feature: rigidness.

Women as Fighters

But women are no strangers to acts of political violence. Throughout history, women were among those who actively participated in the spaces of contention for revolutionary politics. They composed the bulk of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ support networks, providing passage for armed groups to safe heavens and carrying out weapons[4]. Their roles were not only limited to this sphere, they also engaged in frontline activities, such as bank robberies and terror-related plots[5].


Vera Zasulich shooting General Trepoff

History is replete with examples of women and acts of violence. In fact, the very first person to be tried for terrorism was Vera Zasulich, a Russian Menshevik writer and revolutionary, who attempted to assassinate Governor Trepov in St. Petersburg[6]. In 1878, at her trial, she proudly proclaimed herself as a terrorist. But her prosecutors presented the case as a pure act of vengeance, devoid of any political character, despite the evidences[7].


This case brings us back to the concept of gender, which will be worked more thoroughly in the next chapter. But from the case above, it can already be inferred that because the feminine values attributed to Vera Zasulich were outside the ‘violence scope’ (femininity versus masculinity), the expectations towards her were strongly aligned with her role as a women.


Despite the lack of recognition, Zasulich remained active in politics and, as many other women, was a highly critical figure carrying out terror campaigns for the People’s Will, a revolutionary political organization. For her time, Vera was an unusual kind of hero, but who influenced several other female revolutionaries, such as Sofia Perovskaya and Vera Figner, involved in one of the anarchists’ last operations, the assassination of the Russian Czar[8].


Throughout the 20th century, women have been actively involved in many far left political movements in Europe, as well as ethno-nationalist uprisings that have in a way spawned extremist organizations[9]. Even though their acts were not recognized, women’s roles were diverse and ranged from planning operations to disseminating propaganda. As Mia Bloom writes, rather than simple allies, women were sometimes at the center of the stage, playing a greater leadership role[10]. In Germany, for instance, the Baader-Meinhoff gang’s ideological leader, Ulrike Meinhof, was a key organizer of many attacks. Masterminded by female combatants, this faction framed their interventions as acts of ‘emancipation and defense‘ and was responsible for 45 cases of arson and bombings from 1977 to 1988[11].


In the Occupied Territories of Palestine, despite the fact that women played many roles in resistance actions against the Israeli occupation, the image they were most identified with were associated with fragility and beauty.

In the Occupied Territories of Palestine, despite the fact that women played many roles in resistance actions against the Israeli occupation[12], the image they were most identified with were associated with fragility and beauty. One of the most known Palestinian women engaged in this front is Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).


But as in her iconic graffiti and the way in which it is interpreted by a number of articles and newspapers, there is a mixture of beauty and violence that seems to be incompatible with each other, as the former concept is often associated with women and the latter with men.  As The Guardian puts it, Leila has a “delicate Audrey Hepburn Face with fragile hands. Her shiny hair is wrapped in a keffiah”[13]. The problem with this statement is that it marginalizes Leila’s acts of struggle and delegitimizes her agency as a leader from the resistance movement.


From Anti-Colonial Struggles to a Growing Politicized Religious Movements

The dynamics of the 70s and 80s saw the re-emergence of organizations engaged in violent acts with religious justification. Initially, women’s roles were limited within these religious groups holding extremist values, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) and, on several occasions they were described as ‘jihad brides’[14], whereas men were the main actors recruited.


But as the ethos of violence diversified, so did its tactics for expansion. As Mia Bloom argues, ‘It is during this time that we see two parallel developments: the introduction of suicide terrorism, first in Iran and then in Lebanon, Kuwait, and Sri Lanka, and an increasing willingness to employ female operatives’[15]. In the case of Lebanon, for instance, six female members of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) were deployed as suicide bombers to kill Israeli soldiers[16].


Women’s roles were limited within these religious groups holding extremist values, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) and, on several occasions they were described as ‘jihad brides’.

The One-Dimensional Conundrum

According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE):

A women should not be assumed to be more or less dangerous (than a man), nor more prone to peace, dialogue, non-violence and co-operation than a man. In fact, the very image of the peaceful women has been used by terrorist groups to recruit women and claim an innocent and non-violent character by highlighting the involvement of women in their organizations[17].


As highlighted above, this one-dimensional gendered interpretation of the roles of women and men in acts of violent extremism -being the former ‘invisible’ and the latter active  — made women an attractive agent for extremist organizations. It is easily assumed that women are naturally peacemakers and fragile beings, while men are framed as inevitably prone to conflict and violence.


As acts of violence tend to be highly gendered and usually exploit rigid stereotypes about masculinity and femininity to achieve its goals, simply drawing a connection between a person’s gender and their actions prevent a deeper and comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of extremism[18].


Following this very brief snapshot into the history and connections between violent extremism, power relations and gender roles, we will provide a deeper analysis on gender norms and power dynamics in conflict, working more thoroughly on the concept of gender.