Women and violent extremism

10 August 2016

Do women engage in terrorism for a cause or for the sake of violence?

If recent reports are to be believed, Islamic State may be on the decline. After sowing chaos in the region with its deadly mix of terror and unrelenting combat, news that its territory is shrinking suggest that the organisation is on the run from a combined effort by US airstrikes and Iraqi troops. This does not however mean the demise of ISIS.

The likely scenario is that the group will disperse to conduct more terror worldwide and the organisation will continue to occupy cyber-space as it has done since its inception. Furthermore, what I call ‘brand ISIS’ will continue to inspire lone-wolf attacks as it has already in France and Germany.

One other way ISIS will continue to plague us is in a glaring gap in our understanding of terrorism – the role of women in armed insurgency. The use of women by terrorist organisations in modern times is calculated: women attract less suspicion from security services, their acts tend to get more media attention, they are a useful recruitment tool, and in some cultures, the organisation may believe women’s participation will shame men into taking up arms. The media has reported the migration of women to ISIS territory as something new. It is not – women have been involved in violent insurgency for centuries – think Boadicea, the Celtic queen who led an uprising against the occupying Roman Empire in AD 60/61.

Terrorism as it turns out has never been a strictly male province, but until very recently the study of it has treated it that way. As such, there is a great deal that we don’t know about women and terrorism.

Media explanations of why women have flocked to ISIS are insufficient and extremely Islam-centric. First and foremost Islamic terrorist organisations are not the only terror organisations out there to make use of women. So simplistic explanations are not only dismissive, but also deeply unhelpful if we are to understand why women sign up to such groups and are prepared to engage in violent acts.

Anyone who has ever delved into the murky world that comprises the study of terrorism will have swiftly learned of the global inability to agree on a definition of the concept – studies and research into terrorism are by-and-large descriptive and not predictive. What is involved in the transition from sympathiser to activist is the research question that the academic literature has so far failed to answer. Research on women and terrorism reveals even less as there simply has not been enough of it. A review of the literature in 2009 found only 54 articles from 1980 to 2006, although this situation is beginning to change.

The question is whether women are motivated differently to men, and if so, how important is the cause or means? Research is unclear on this point. Motivations put forward for women’s involvement in terrorism are varied and range from a desire for gender equality, strong beliefs in a cause (religious or political), revenge, as a result of a traumatic incident, to satisfy her material needs or due to social isolation. The relationship between these motivations however has been unexplored.

What research can tell us is that the ideology of the organisation is important in terms of what it permits women to do. Women’s activities in listed terrorist organisations ranges from sympathisers, spies, engaging in armed combat, organisational leaders and suicide bombers. What is possibly counterintuitive is that Islamic organisations have permitted women to engage in extreme violence like suicide bombing as much as secular ones, for example Kurdish, Algerian and Palestinian groups.

What makes ISIS perhaps different to other insurgencies is the nature of the violent acts it commits. The brutal killings of hostages (both Western and Arab); the murder of those accused of witchcraft and homosexuality by immolation; and the stoning of women.

To the Western mind this kind of violence, which is up close and personal, must require a particular form of brutality and this is generally not something we associate with women. So are these women engaging in violent acts for the sake of violence, or do they really believe in the cause to such an extent they think the ends justify the means?

What researchers so far have unable to determine is whether women are in fact different to men. Do we even need to look at women differently when it comes to understanding their role in terrorist acts? Some scholars argue that women are motivated in the same way that men are. However, the story must be more complicated than this because if this is the case, why is it that only 4.3 per cent of violent crime is committed by women worldwide (as pointed out by the International Centre for Prison Studies)? If women are no different to men, then surely the crime rates would also reflect that?

For me there is something different about why some women are prepared to engage in highly violent acts – perhaps not once they have committed to the cause – but prior to that. Figuring out how and why women make the decision to turn to violence is key. Once they are in, it would seem they do not have any reservations about the use of violence. Why they turn to it in the first place may be different to men.

What is becoming clear is that security forces cannot assume that they only have to worry about one gender when it comes to making security precautions.

Vanessa Newby is a research fellow in the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and presented at The Australian National University’s one-day conference on ‘Women and Violent Extremism’ on Friday 29 July.

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