Women in Terrorism: An Invisible Threat?

In 1849 the world met its first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. Years later in 1903, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie, did so for her outstanding contributions to Physics. How, with many more remarkable achievements behind women, does society continue to hold limited expectations of them? Why does the concept of a female terrorist seem so improbable to the vast majority of the Western world? 

While this perhaps appears a perverse logic; almost rendering terrorism a positive milestone for women, that is certainly not the intention. Instead, I hope to enlighten the reader to the gendered dimensions of terrorism, and to highlight the escalating need to perceive women as potentially equal vessels of terror. 

The BBC series Bodyguard focuses on Police Sergeant David Budd’s protection of Home Secretary Julie Montague in a fast-paced drama. The plot twist in the season finale centres on a Muslim women, who is revealed as the architect and bomb-maker behind the attack. Although some have found this portrayal as troublesome, displaying Islamophobic overtones, Anijli Mohindra, the actress, explains that the role was actually “empowering”. Regardless of these perceptions, it is clear that the ‘surprise’ element manifests itself in the female gender. This sentiment presides outside of the media too, highlighting the potential threat posed by gender limitations. 

Anjli Mohindra playing terrorist Nadia in BBC One’s Bodyguard. (Credit: BBC)

There is an undeniable, and widespread assumption that terrorists are always male. While this assumption could be ascribed to the smaller numbers of women involved in terrorism, it is more likely attributable to embedded gender stereotypes. Such stereotypes perceiving women as maternal and nurturing, but also helpless and passive, are irreconcilable with that of an individual committing acts which knowingly cause death and disruption. In 2015 when women such as Shemima Begum and Kadiza Sultana left East London for the Islamic State, they were depicted as archetypal ‘jihadi bride[s]’ in the media: meek, manipulated and denied of any agency in their decision. Yet, an accurate representation of women in terrorism needs to transcend the constraints of traditional gender constructs.  Although we may be aware of female stereotypes, why do they continue to permeate our understanding of women in terrorism, when we claim to be an equal society. 

The reality of women in terror is quite the contrary of the aforementioned stereotype. In January 2002, Wafa Idris became the first female suicide bomber. Since this date, women have represented over 50% of successful suicide bombings in the conflicts of Turkey, Sri Lanka and Chechnya. In more recent years, the Global Extremism Monitor recorded 100 distinct suicide attacks conducted by female militants in 2017, constituting 11% of the total incidents occurring that year. Moreover, Boko Haram’s female members have been so effective in their role as suicide bombers, that women now comprise close to two-thirds of the group’s suicide-attackers.  

It is perhaps the dominant nature of presiding stereotypes regarding women, which enables them to be so successful in their attacks – presenting terrorist organisations with a strategic advantage. This is illustrated by the astonishing figures proving female suicide attacks more lethal on average than those conducted by their male counterparts. According to one study, attacks carried out by women had an average of 8.4 victims, compared to 5.3 for those attacks carried out by men. Weaponizing the female body is proving successful as society continues to assume women lack credibility as terrorist actors. Needless to say, remaining shackled to entrenched gender preconceptions will undoubtedly continue to place society at risk of unanticipated terror attacks from women.

Emily Glynn, History in Politics President

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