Radical Violence and Femininity - ArticlesBack to Gender Hub

Can Women Fight? The Role of Women in Radical Violence

Alexander. Audrey. 2019. "Key Considerations: Forward Thinking About Women, Gender, and Violent Extremism". George Washington University
Pearson. Elizabeth. 2018. "Why Men Fight and Women Don't: Masculinity and Extremist Violence." Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Keywords: Women and Radical Violence, Gendering Violence, Intersectional Analysis

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Violent extremism is often critiqued as a masculine domain by researchers. Scholars of gender and security studies have highlighted the exclusion of women from the histories of war and conflict. Furthermore, the visibility of women is usually stereotyped as victims, peacemakers and carers. The current researches, which seek to understand female violence, have shown, how women have historically been upfront in the acts of radical violence in the form of combatants, fundraisers, propagandists, and spies across a range of ideologies. The prominent example of this involvement can be seen in their contribution for leftist groups like the Red Army Faction in West Germany, Islamist groups like Hamas, Boko Haram, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Chechen rebels and ethnic separatist groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). From the above stated example, it can certainly be concluded that radical violence by no means is an exclusively male preserve.

But women’s exclusion raises an important question for deliberation:

What causes this exclusion?

The answer to the above question is rooted in the gendered history of political violence where the norm of masculinity and femininity are constructed through the power structures in order to create specific roles for men and women in extremist groups. Whereas men and masculinity are associated with activity and aggression, women and femininity uphold the values of passivity and peace. This distinction of men as aggressors and women as passive victims marginalize women’s contribution to political violence. Even after being at the forefront of mobilizing political violence, women are disempowered by referring to them as companions and distant supporters. Having said that, an important aspect that needs special attention is even after being marginalized from the centre of radical violence:

Why do women become radicalised?

One of the main reasons for women’s involvement in the gamut of radical violence is tied down to the same reason for their exclusion - gender inequality. The constant feeling of powerlessness and lack of agency in the patriarchal world often drive them to a desire for action, an urge for power. In addition to this, The Centre on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (CGCC) adds several additional push-factors for both sexes, including socio-political conditions, the intention to derive economic benefits or a desire to create radical societal change. In recent research personal trauma and national honour has also been strong motivations for woman's involvement in violent extremism. A strong example of these cases is of Leila Khaled who became the poster child for Palestinian militancy as a member of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Khaled was involved in multiple hijacking operations between 1969 and 1970 and became an icon of Palestinian resistance.

Graffitti Pics Credit - Daily Maverick

After looking at women’s rampant involvement in radical violence, there is a need to study this aspect from a gender lens and hence the next question to be raised is:

Why it is important to study women’s role in the history of radicalized violence?

The absence of gender and women from the analysis of existing and emerging security studies “creates blind spots that hamper the effectiveness of prevention and counterterrorism policies, undermining stability, security and human rights across the globe. Engaging in study in this field would also instigate an intersectional view to reducing the use of sensationalized misnomers like “jihadi bride” which restrict the understanding of how changing conditions influence the actions of extremist organizations and their supporters.

The intersectional analyses will also call for the understanding of myriad factors that collage together in women’s involvement and their resistance in radical violence. An important example of this paradox can be seen in the context of Kashmir where women have differently mobilized themselves against the hegemonic presence of military and militants. On one hand, Asiya Andrabi the founding leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the nation) has opted a jihadist approach, on the other hand, Praveena Ahanger calls for a non-violent revolution through vigils and protests.

The Hindu Pics Credit - The Hindu Rising Kashmir Pics Credit - Rising Kashmir

These two contrasting examples of women's participation in and against radical violence exemplifies the need for an intersectional sensitive gender analysis to assess the nuances of deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration. Raising questions about masculinities and femininities early and often in a productive way could forward our understanding of "how gender affects recruitment, radicalization processes, operational roles, sentencing, and rehabilitation—for both men and women." (Alexander, 2019. p.52)

  1. Alisa Stack O’Connor, “Picked Last: Women and Terrorism,” JFQ, issue 44, 2007, NDU press, p.95.
  2. Ahall, Linda. 2012. The writing of heroines: Motherhood and female agency in political violence, Security Dialogue, 43(4), 287-303.
  3. Bloom, Mia. 2016. The changing nature of women in extremism and political violence. Retrieved from http://f3magazine.unicri.it/?p=1093
  4. Chowdhury Fink, Naureen, Zeiger, Sara and Bhulai, Rafia eds. (2016), A Man’s World? Exploring the Roles of Women in Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism, Hedayah and The Global Center on Cooperative Security, p. 11 referring to OSCE (2013), Women and Terrorist Radicalization, Final Report Vienna. Available at: http://www.osce.org/secretariat/99919?download=true
  5. Elizabeth Pearson, "Why Female Suicide Bombers Mean the End of ISIS’s Caliphate Dream", Newsweek, 18 July 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/why-isis-female-suicide-bombers-mean-end-caliphate-dream-637892
  6. Elizabeth Pearson, "The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad", Policy & Internet 8, no.1, 1 September 2015, https://doi.org/10.1002/poi3.101
  7. Gentry Caron E. & Sjoberg Laura. 2015. Beyond Mothers, Monsters and Whores: Thinking About women’s violence in global politics London: Zed Books
  8. Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  9. Karen Jacques and Paul J. Taylor, "Female Terrorism: A Review", Terrorism and Political Violence 21, no. 3 (June 2009): 508, https://doi.org/10.1080/09546550902984042
  10. Michael Kimmel, "Almost All Violent Extremists Share One Thing: Their Gender", The Guardian, 8 April 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/08/violent-extremists-share-one-thing-gender-michael-kimmel
  11. Powell, Catherine, and Rebecca Turkington. 2019. “Gender, Masculinities, and Counterterrorism.” Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/blog/gender-masculinities-and-counterterrorism
  12. Philippa Eggert, "Women Fighters in the “Islamic State” and Al-Qaida in Iraq: A Comparative Analysis", Journal of International Peace and Organization 90, no.3-4, 2015: 363-380; Susan G. Mahan and Pamala L. Griset, Terrorism in Perspective, Third Edition (Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2013).
  13. Pearson, Elizabeth. 2015. The case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for theory on online radicalization, ISIS women, and the gendered Jihad’ P&I, 8(1), 5-33.

Beyond the "Femininity Taboo": Recognising Women’s Agency in Violent Extremism

The material in the Genderhub demonstrates that terrorism and violent extremism are ‘highly gendered activities’ (N’Dungu and Shadung, 2017). Yet the automatic gender association tends to relate this violence to men and masculinity. Our own PERICLES Gap Analysis, conducted at the outset of the project, sketches a situation of violent extremism as a male activity. Most of the people convicted of violent extremism in Europe are young men, under thirty. They serve time in jails which can amplify their radicalisation, as prisons become places full of ‘angry, isolated young men’ (Kudlacek et al 2017). Sociologist Michael Kimmel’s work on violent extremism notes the strong associations between ideals of manhood and a propensity to violence. Young men resort to ‘hate’ fuelled violence because of their thwarted sense of male entitlement and shame at their social position or in search of a sense of belonging to a brotherhood, or desire for ideological certainty and the reestablishment of male dominated, conservative gender norms. Girls and women, on the other hand, are assumed in many societies to be outsiders to this world. Gender roles and norms assert a taboo on women’s violence.

Michael Kimmel

However, studies of gender and violent extremism do reveal women as supporters, agents, even perpetrators of extremist violence. We know, for example, of women’s engagement in violent attacks. Sometimes women act as solo agents, as in the case of Roshonara Choudhry in the UK, who attacked her Member of Parliament after becoming radicalized online (Pearson, 2015). Others become members of illicit organizations which endorse violence (for example, ETA, as discussed by Hamilton 2007). Some affiliate with rightwing extremist movement, such as the ‘Daughters of Odin’ in Finland (Keskinen, 2018). Other women and girls support extremist causes, through marriage, maintaining family life or offering their labour.

Michael Kimmel

The sway of the social taboo on women’s violence is strong. It implies that when women engage in this kind of direct violence or support of extremism, they are often dismissed as deluded or crazy. Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry explore this dynamic in their study ‘Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics’ (2007). Looking at examples of women’s illicit violence across contexts such as Abu Ghraib, the Middle East and Chechnya they demonstrate that these women are seen as victims of men’s exploitation, mentally unstable or driven by grieving motherhood. They are rarely seen as rational political actors. We see an example of this dynamic in a Guardian panel discussion about why young women become ‘Jihadi Brides’. Former extremist Alyas Karmani, now a counsellor, notes these girls and women are depicted as ‘victims of grooming’ or ‘vulnerable in multiple ways’. Instead he says, it is important to see that ‘women act out of their own agency – like men’ (Witt, 2015). Gender sensitive approaches to countering violent extremism need to recognize these dynamics.

  1. Hamilton, C. (2007) ‘The Gender Politics of Political Violence, Women Armed Activists in ETA’. Feminist Review 86, 132-148
  2. Keskinen, S. (2018) The ‘Crisis’ of White Hegemony, Neonationalist Femininities and Antiracist Feminism’, Women’s Studies International Forum 68, 157-163.
  3. Kudlacek, D. et al. (2017): Gap analysis on counter-radicalisation measures. Hannover: Kriminologisches Forschungsinstitut Niedersachsen. Retrieved from https://project-pericles.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Pericles-D1.2-Gap-Analysis-Report.pdf
  4. Ndung’u, I. and Shadung, M. (2017) Can a Gendered Approach Improve Responses to Violent Extremism? Africa in the World Report 5, Institute for Security Studies.
  5. Pearson (2016) ‘The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad’. Policy and Internet 8:1, 5-33
  6. Sjoberg, L. and Gentry, C. (2007) Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics’. London: Zed Books
  7. Witt, J. (2015) Guardian Live: Why do Young Women Want to Join Islamic State? https://www.theguardian.com/membership/2015/jul/27/guardian-live-why-do-young-women-want-to-join-islamic-state