Yes, Women Too. A Glimpse at Female Terrorism

Eva Herschinger

Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen in the department of political science and international relations.

Is female terrorism one of the characteristics of the ‘new’ terrorism? Since the 1990s there have been some that believe a ‘new’ terrorism is on the rise. This ‘new’ terrorism, in a nutshell, is religiously motivated, organised as a network or in loose cells and prepared to engage in heinous actions like suicide attacks, even at the cost of alienating its own constituency. In contrast, ‘old’ terrorism was secular, hierarchically organised, and it relied on conventional tactics and weapons.

This seemingly neat distinction has been rightly criticized for its inadequacy, as in practice there is more continuity than change between the terrorism before and after the 1990s. Yet, one aspect is largely overlooked in this debate: female terrorism. Roughly since the mid-2000s, female terrorism is widely acknowledged as being on the rise and no longer restricted to the passive (and less interesting) roles in terrorists groups. Hence, shouldn’t at least female terrorism be considered a new phenomenon, and, therefore, potentially a distinctive feature of the ‘new’ terrorism? Aren’t it predominantly women of a particular faith – vulgo Islam – joining terrorist groups today? Like the women travelling to Syria, being either married to an IS-fighter or planning to become a wife of one? Or the ones that blow themselves up in Israel or Iraq?

There are three points to consider here, one of them right, two of them wrong. First, whatever media accounts might say, female terrorism isn’t new and not rare. A long list of names – Reem Riyashi, Samantha Lewthwaite, Sally Jones, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, Shigenobu Fusako, Nathalie Ménigon[1], to only cite a few – testifies to the involvement of women of all faiths, cultures and from various regions in the world before and after the 1990s. Thus, there is more continuity than change.

Second, there is still the assumption that if women are involved, then this happens not on their own initiative. They are drawn by the prospect of marriage or naively stumbling into things that are way over their heads – just like the wives of the IS. However, research has shown that the stereotypical assumption that women are only seduced, are prey to the ‘real’ terrorists – and thus not fully responsible for their deeds – doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. As a matter of fact, women have appeared in all sorts of roles, from leaders to suicide attackers, from caretakers to fighters. Again we find more continuity than change.

Third, and this is the tricky part, research has also shown that things are complicated when it comes to the motivations of women. Many media accounts and some research inquiries into the participation of women in terrorist activities depart all too often from a historically derived and anthropologically different relationship between politically violent men and women. Somehow there must be specific conditions that motivate the political violence of women. These specific conditions are said to reside in personal reasons. In addition, personal reasons have received most attention because of the irritation caused by the involvement of Muslim women. Their motivation has to be personal since Islamic societies relegate women to the private sphere, allowing only limited public participation.

It is not as straightforward. Many critics have remarked that the reasons for women to become terrorists cannot be searched only in reference to personal issues but have to take external conditions, and thus a whole bundle of potential reasons – personal, ideological, contextual etc. – into account. Just consider one recent example in support of such multi-faceted explanation: ‘Jihad is an individual obligation on every Muslim man and woman, but the path of combat is not easy for a woman. (…) However, we must support our religion in many ways (…) even with martyrdom-seeking acts.’[2] The quote is taken from the letter of Umayma Hassan Ahmed Muhammad Hassan, the wife of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, written in December 2009 to her Muslim sisters. Without stretching the limits of interpretation too far, it seems fair to say that she discourages women from pursuing an active role in jihad, but thinks there are specific situations in which a women has to put her life on the line to support her religion by acting in the service of the mujahedeen. Hence, women can be religiously motivated when they engage in political violence, even including suicide attacks. Religiously motivated, it is worth underlining, in the sense of religion being a justification for violence (and not its cause).

Now, this observation could support the conclusion that female terrorism today is religiously motivated, giving credit to the distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ terrorism. But the group who has the notorious privilege of pioneering female involvement in actual fighting (and suicide attacks) has been a separatist group, and thus secularly motivated: the Tamil Tigers. In addition, research has shown that the conflictive context women live in seems to be an additional stimulus for their acts.

In light of overall more continuity than change it seems time to accept that female involvement in terrorism is neither new nor rare, and that it cannot be explained by personal reasons only. This is particularly important for developing adequate counter-terrorism measures. Gendered misconceptions like viewing women as seduced, naïve and manipulated youth fails to address the specific motivations of these women to join groups like the IS in the first place.


[1] Riyashi blew herself up for Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in 2004; Lewthwaite, dubbed the ‘White Widow’ (in analogy to the Black Widows of Chechnya), is allegedly part of the Al-Shabaab militia in Somalia, whereas Jones joined the IS, both are UK citizens; Meinhof and Ensslin were part of the leading team of the German Baader Meinhof Gang or Rote Armee Fraktion; Fusako was founder and leader of the Japanese Red Army; Ménigon co-led the French Action Directe.

[2] http://news.siteintelgroup.com/blog/index.php/about-us/21-jihad/227-translated-message-from-zawahiris-wife-to-muslim-women (16.6.2017).

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