Too “pretty” for terrorism: women and the identity politics of extremist violence
If you’ve watched The Bodyguard on Netflix, you are already aware of our tendency to cast women as inherently non-violent even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.
“You all saw me as a poor, oppressed Muslim woman. I am an engineer. I am a jihadi,” says the show’s ‘seemingly meek’ woman bomber and terrorist mastermind, Nadia, after her role is uncovered.
Despite negative coverage of the show’s final scene for perpetuating Islamophobic stereotypes, the truth is both men and women are active members of terrorist groups in every corner of the globe.
There are many unhelpful misconceptions about terrorism and terrorists, from how they operate and what they look like to where they’re from.
There isn’t one kind of terrorist and they don’t all operate under the same ideology.
The characterisation of terrorists as ‘foreign’ men – typically from the Middle East – perpetuates a culture of xenophobia and reinforces the notion that men are inherently more violent than women.
While there is limited literature available on the current number and roles of women terrorists, they have a well-documented history in terrorist organisations worldwide.
In 2005, women accounted for nearly a third of known terrorists globally.
A 2016 report from the UK found there had been a year-on-year increase in the number of arrests of women for terror-related offences since 2011.
They’ve had founding roles in terrorist organisations, including The Baader-Meinhof Gang (commonly known as Red Army Faction), named in part after their co-founder Ulrike Meinhof.
Middle Eastern terrorist groups, most notably Al Qaeda and ISIS, actively recruit women.
In Chechnya, there is a sizeable contingent of women terrorists, known as the ‘Black Widows’, who have joined the fight against the Russian Federation for state sovereignty.
While active, the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had a particularly strong women presence, comprising up to 50 percent of LTTE members at one time.
Despite strong trends of self-recruitment among women terrorists, however, their value is directly linked their ability to evade suspicion because of their gender and our ingrained tendency to stereotype women as non-violent.
In an interview with Katherine Lindemann for ResearchGate, Dr Karla Cunningham, Director of Analysis at 2.2 Communications Inc, says that although men in some Islamic terrorist groups have reservations about women’s involvement, their value is too great to restrict participation:
“Of course, we’ve seen Islamist and jihadi organizations wrestle with operationalizing women, but the propaganda value of female attackers coupled with their capacity to often get closer to targets and evade counter-terrorism measures has softened this opposition,” she explains.
Due to issues around impropriety, women are seldom searched at security checkpoints or borders in the Middle East, allowing them to disguise bombs in maternity wear or under traditional burkas.
Existing perceptions of ‘weakness’ are exploited through the use of such disguises, gaining women terrorists access to restricted areas while male terrorists are denied.
Disguises that draw on women’s ability to bear children arguably makes it even more indecent to perform a body check.
While to most people, women’s capacity for motherhood implies that they are ‘programmed by nature to breed and sustain life’, for women terrorists, martyrdom is the ultimate manifestation of the self-sacrificing mother.
Significantly, statistics show that approximately half of all known women terrorists operating during 1985 to 2006 were recruited to be suicide bombers.
While women suicide bombers are promised martyrdom just like their male counterparts, the reality is that suicide bombers are expendable and the materials are cheap, especially in comparison to the potential damage.
Terrorist organisations repeatedly capitalise on this failure or refusal to identify women as security threats, and subsequently cause greater political, social and physical instability in their regions of operation.
“While to most people, women’s capacity for motherhood implies that they are ‘programmed by nature to breed and sustain life’, for women terrorists, martyrdom is the ultimate manifestation of the self-sacrificing mother.”
Despite evidence which demonstrates the motivations of men and women terrorists are fundamentally similar, media coverage reinforces unhelpful – and unfounded – stereotypes through its (overtly sexualised) portrayal of women terrorists as ‘victims’ or ‘deviants’.
Whereas men are typically portrayed as autonomous participants in terrorism, media coverage draws on adjectives like ‘driven’, ‘exploited’ or ‘forced’ to describe how women are coerced into terrorism by their husbands, brothers or other family members.
The implication is that men are rational actors – albeit radicalised – while women terrorists are all vulnerable and victims of ‘brainwashing’.
Muriel Degauque carried out a suicide attack in Iraq in 2005, killing five victims and injuring another five.
After the incident, media coverage fixated on both her gender and Belgian nationality as a terrorist anomaly, leading to a predictable conclusion: her husband was responsible for brainwashing and radicalising her beliefs.
Degauque’s husband, a ‘brown, Muslim man’ of ‘Moroccan origin’, was portrayed as the key architect of the attack because his appearance and religious affiliation was more consistent with stereotypical representations of a terrorist.
The Chechen Black Widows are similarly portrayed as victims even though they are perpetrators of violence.
The group’s name, popularised by Russian media and later adopted by international media, symbolises women terrorists wearing black burkas and carrying out horrific acts of violence, allegedly out of revenge for the for their husbands who were killed in conflict.
Evidence shows, however, that the Black Widows are equally likely to be single or married than widowed.
Even local journalists publish misinformation and misrepresent the nature of women’s involvement, arguing they are forced into terrorism through gender-based violence.
This is disproven by evidence which finds a strong trend of self-recruitment among Chechen women terrorists.
The Black Widow’s inherited name works to depoliticize these women’s use of violence, implying their alleged ‘widow’ status and grief is their primary motivator to participate in violence over a political and/or religious ideology.
This was also the case in the LTTE, where suicide bombers were known as ‘Black Tigers’.
The media instead referred to women suicide bombers as ‘Black Tigresses’ to highlight their gender and, again, depoliticize their use of violence.
Media coverage also often suggests women’s motives for participating in terrorist violence are related to personal grievances and revenge-seeking.
The research, however, shows that men and women terrorists have fundamentally similar beliefs and motivations for participation and demonstrate similar levels of brutality.
In a 2006 survey of 26 women and 8 male Chechen terrorists, results showed that all had experienced personal trauma as a result of conflict.
Although the sample is more representative of women than men, it does find that most terrorists operating in Chechnya are motivated by personal trauma and grief, and that revenge-seeking is a typical response to grief in Chechnya.
There was a similar trend of revenge-based involvement in the LTTE, whose members were motivated by personal grief as well as ideological and nationalist goals.
Women terrorists are also overwhelmingly sexualised in the media, with commentary fixating on their choice of clothes, makeup and overall level of attractiveness.
Media coverage goes as far as to describe some women terrorists as as ‘having the good looks of a Mediterranean film star’, with one article describing an alleged terrorist as ‘an attractive, auburn-haired graduate’.
Regardless of the sentiment of the media’s narratives on women terrorists, their involvement in an act of terrorism is undeniably valuable: in 2007, their participation generated on average eight times more media coverage than their male counterparts.
While women and men have equal capacity to commit terrorist acts, violence—in all its manifestations—is portrayed as the domain of men.
Women terrorists are routinely subject to sexist portrayals in the media and characterised as victims despite evidence that demonstrates women actively seek involvement in terrorism and that men and women terrorists’ motivations for doing so are fundamentally similar.
Our morbid curiosity with deviant women generates such a volume of sensationalist media coverage that their value to terrorist organisations is undeniable.
Most concerning of all, however, is that our tendency to characterise women as inherently non-violent only works to increase women terrorists’ ability to further destabilise insecure regions.