The Neglected Reality of Female Terrorists – Labour Article
Historically, gender has been erased from terrorism studies. There has been little focus on female terrorists. So, the assumption that terrorists are exclusively male has prevailed.
Where there is attention, it largely surrounds the emotional motives of female operatives and their supposed lack of agency. In reality, though, women play a salient role in most of these organisations. The underestimation of this, along with constant fetishization and/or vilification, poses a greater threat than you may expect.
Traditionally women took background roles within terrorist organisations, whether this was raising future soldiers, recruiting new operatives or organising simple logistics. But the 1970s and 80s saw a huge shift; more and more women moved to frontline combat roles, from the Italian Red Brigades and Japanese Red Army. There was an additional wave of change in the 1990s and early 2000s where terrorist organisations started to recognise the benefits of utilising women as a unique strategical advantage through suicide bombings.
This works because of the element of surprise. After all, women can’t possibly be capable of violence, right? Wrong. Accepting this false narrative allows for the success of such a surprise factor and the increasing number of deaths caused by female terrorists. This narrative persists because ‘women’s’ terrorism is separated from ‘traditional’ terrorism.
So why do terrorists opt for violence? Well, female terrorists are labelled as having personal motivations over ideological reasons. It must be love or passion. A form of anger or liberated feminism. Or at least as a result of a male influence because of the lack of strength to act on one’s own agency.
Separating motivations is the wrong approach. Take Verena Becker of the Red Army Faction as an example. She was involved in terrorist organisations from a particularly early age and there’s little to suggest she was motivated by anything other than political and ideological reasons.
We need to understand and accept that all terrorists have different motives regardless of sex. We can’t afford to make the assumption that emotions are naturally more involved for women. This does nothing towards understanding terrorists. It merely prevents any potential understanding of this and subsequently any attempt to counter this successfully.
If you remove the justification of emotional motives, people turn to vilifying female terrorists. I am definitely not saying we should commend any terrorists. But this vilification stems from misogyny; the fact that female terrorists fail to conform to society’s gender stereotypes. If women offer little remorse the natural conclusion is to assume they are unlike other women who would never think of partaking in such extreme violence. All this assumption is doing is underestimating the involvement of women in terrorist organisations. It’s generalising all female terrorists, obstructing the need for further investigation into the motivations of all terrorists.
And sometimes the opposite of this occurs. Instead of vilification, there’s fetishization. Female terrorists are often hypersexualised as fighters. They’re seen in the media as poster girls and visions of beauty, despite the horrific crimes they may have committed or their evident associations with known terrorist organisations. Leila Khaled, a Palestinian fighter, is just one example of over-sexualising a female terrorist and is suspected to be the inspiration behind Dr Who’s sidekick Leela in 1975.
Speaking of the media, female terrorists are reported on more than their male counterparts. Think about Shamima Begum or Jihadi Jane. A study found that there were considerably more articles about the latter because she was ‘more newsworthy’. So we either neglect female terrorists in research or have greater coverage of female terrorist attacks in the mainstream media simply because they, apparently, make a better story.
It goes without saying that I am in no way approaching this topic with a feminist agenda or trying to defend the actions of female terrorists. Rather, I am trying to demonstrate the importance of recognising the role of women in terrorist organisations for counter-terrorist reasons. So what are the implications?
Despite the growing number of female terrorists, the reality has yet to hit. There is still an overwhelming underestimation of women in terrorism. Their motivations are brushed off as personal, emotional reactions and so there have been limited attempts to combat them. It also means counter-terrorism measures are inefficient as women’s terrorism is treated either as a separate issue or is neglected altogether. This allows terrorist organisations to continue using women to their strategic advantage. They’re allowing this ‘surprise factor’ to continue and it’s becoming increasingly dangerous.
It’s pivotal that female and male terrorists are recognised in the same way. Both are equally dangerous, both have the ability to commit crimes, and both are recognised as vital members of terrorist organisations. Without action, the underestimation will prove even more deadly and costly than it already has.
Written by Chief Labour Writer, Abi Clargo
Point of Information
Gender equality, even for female terrorists – A Conservative Response
The first time I had ever heard about, or even put much thought towards, this topic was actually by chance with the author of this article herself. Terrorists certainly hold the stereotype of being predominately male. No matter the ideology behind the terrorist organisation, the image that always comes to mind is that of a man.
My colleague raises what is, rather alarmingly, an almost undiscussed point. Although I would argue that men being the main combatants within terrorist organisations is logical due to various biological differences between men and women, failing to consider women a threat at all is a grave mistake.
If police in the UK hold preconceived notions to watch out for, say a non-white fighting age male, this then leaves themselves and those they protect vulnerable to attack. Not only is this a worrying thought, but a security risk as you just cannot guess who may be a terrorist.
In the main article above, Abi’s brief history of women and terrorism shows the shift in women’s roles within such organisations. Having done Security Studies as part of my degree it seems almost baffling how the role of women within terrorism has been either omitted.
Whilst I do believe that the majority of terrorist threats in the modern-day do come from their male counterparts, women’s roles still need a mention. If only for the sake of better understanding state security.
Overall, it is a very interesting and under-discussed aspect of security in the modern age. I fervently am against any forms of terrorism as it targets innocents with fear and violence. It is precisely this that stresses the value of what my colleague has written. I think that things should be proportional; as long as men remain the main threat, our armed forces and intelligence services should focus on them. But they should not omit the potential of threats from women whilst doing so. It is a very interesting topic and one I wish I knew more about. Perhaps if more women become actively involved in perpetrating terrorism, we shall be able to learn more about them and their changing roles.
Written by Deputy Chief of Conservatives, Peter Pearce
The patriarchy works both ways – A Liberal Response
I found my colleague’s article intriguing as it taps into an overlooked, yet over sensationalised topic. It’s something I’ve given much thought about, since the portrayal of Nadia Ali in The Bodyguard. In the series, the writers managed to incorporate a string of Muslim women stereotypes and then whiplashed us with ‘terrorist girl boss energy’.
As Abi mentioned, the assumed gender dynamics that are imposed on women have translated into such detrimental assumptions of women’s motivations, abilities, and actions. We’ve moulded them into characters, rather than real women who’ve been perpetrators of real violence.
Though, I think there is merit in paying attention to the disparity of the female and male experience. Although motivations may be the same, the experiences that have led them there are not. Understanding these gendered differences in an unsexist way is paramount to the mitigation, prevention and even rehabilitation of female terrorists.
The article has highlighted a growing problem, that is yet to present itself in full, specifically as Islamic State loses all its territory and the world has to diasporic nature of female terrorism and the uniquely intergenerational problems that may follow.
Written by Junior Liberal Writer, Lucy Severn
I’m Abi! I am a liberal, political enthusiast from the Welsh valleys. Since I was young, I have been captivated by politics. I used to spend so much time watching the morning news before school, and have paid close attention to political campaigns for as long as I can remember. It was a lot later that I decided I wanted to pursue politics academically. Now, I have just finished my second year studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Exeter.
I am going into my second year at the University of Exeter studying a flexible combined honour in Geography and Politics. My interest in politics and geography stems from an interest in current events and the wider world, with geography being the study of all world processes.