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Women’s Role in Terrorism

Courtesy of AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, via Center for American Progress.

More times than not, when we think ‘terrorists’ we do not think ‘women’. Despite all the attention terrorism receives, women’s involvement in acts of terrorism is widely overlooked. The vast majority of images we see of those involved in terrorism are dominated by men. As a result, many of us are perplexed when a case arises where a terrorist group involves (or in some cases, is spearheaded by) women.

Terrorism does not discriminate when it comes to gender. In fact, women’s involvement in terrorism may prove to be more common than many of us thought. It is not a new phenomenon and many terrorist groups began involving women around three decades ago. Sana’a Youcef Mehaidli, a member of the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party, conducted the first known female suicide attack in April 1985. Mehaidli drove a truck filled with explosives into an Israeli Defense Force convoy, killing two soldiers and injuring two more. In addition, 76 percent of attackers from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist terrorist group in Turkey, have been women.

In the eyes of terrorist organizers, women’s involvement in a terrorist group is ideal. Female terrorists are perceived as less suspicious than men, subsequently allowing them to avoid detection or suspicion. This trait is highly valued by terrorist leaders as it increases the success rates of ‘surprise’ attacks.

Gender issues and the role women play in terrorism have rarely been of interest to policy makers and are not the most discussed topics in the debate on terrorism. When incidents of terrorism involving women occur, however, many of us are stunned at the thought. There is just something troubling about the notion of a female terrorist – we typically perceive women to be nurturers, not killers.

Radicalization, however, is largely a “gender-neutral process and is usually in response to some combination of economic, political, and social factors, including economic conditions, lack of political rights, or military occupation”. For many women, the motive for carrying out a suicide attack is often unique to the personal experience of women. For many women, the loss of a loved one fuels their desire for revenge.

Renowned terrorism scholar Mia Bloom provides a few scenarios that help explain why women are increasingly participating in terrorist groups. The Chechen suicide bombing group called the “Black Widows” is among the more threatening of female terrorist groups. While there has been considerable speculation as to what drives these Chechen bombers, the initial explanations seem to point to revenge and hatred of perceived agressors. The Black Widows are motivated by their desire for revengeon those they believe are responsible for killing their husbands, children, or other loved ones. Ironically, Black Widows are a group of grieving widows transformed from victims into victimizers.

Courtesy of Fox News

Marginalization by society is another central factor that motivates many women to join terrorist networks. While marriage to a would-be martyr seems romantic at first, the Black Widows often find themselves marginalized after a husband’s death. Left without any support from their deceased husbands or from the state, the women are further propelled towards radical Islam as a way of banding together to support one another.

Furthermore, women’s desire for gender equality in the Middle Eastern society proves a major motivation for woman to participate in the most extreme of terrorist attacks. Women in this society are often oppressed by their leaders and their profound desire to prove equality with their male peers is frequently exploited to achieve goals often contradictory to the original aims of the women.

Bayyinah Melhem, a researcher at the Prince Naif Chair for Intellectual Security, indicates that Al-Qaeda has been recruiting women since 2003. Al-Qaeda has recognized that Islamic Society views women as nurturing beings, and Melhem explains that women do not undergo the same kind of search and scrutiny that men are subjected to. Terrorists take advantage of the way men and women are treated differently in Middle Eastern societies.

Regardless of what drives women to join terrorist groups, male leaders of terrorist organizations take advantage of the women’s desire for equality and their devotion to the organization, and, as research has shown, women involved in terrorist organization are just as destructive as their male counterparts.

Samantha Di Santo
Samantha Di Santo is a recent graduate from Ryerson University where she received her Bachelor’s Degree. She majored in Criminology and went on to specialize in Security Studies in her fourth year. Her main interests are in international security and counter-terrorism. She is currently interning as a Counter-terrorism Research Analyst at the NATO Association of Canada. Samantha hopes to pursue a career with a focus on international security issues.