Women and Radicalisation II: Gendering Radicalisation Theory

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by Dr Katherine E. Brown, University of Birmingham



Leila Khalid and Ulrike Meinhof are two of the most iconic female terrorists of the last century. Leila Khalid was a member of the Palestinian Liberation Front and in 1969 was the first woman to hijack a plane. She then underwent cosmetic surgery so that she would not be recognised and could do it again a year later. She writes in her autobiography how she elected to have surgery without a general anaesthetic; because: “I have a cause higher and nobler than my own, a cause to which all private interests and concerns must be subordinated.” Here her extreme belonging and extreme behaviour dominate her narrative and remind us of the importance of belief and the context in which these elements of radicalisation occurred. Khaled was born in Haifa, now on the Israeli coast, but became a refugee with her family at a camp in Tyre, Lebanon, as a toddler in 1948. In an interview with journalist Katherine Viner in the early 2000s, she says she can barely recall a time when she was not politicised: she remembers at the age of four being told by her mother not to pick oranges because they were in Lebanon; the fruit was not theirs, they were not in Haifa now. She lived in a poverty-stricken suburb of Beruit, struggling with an influx of refugees, and subject to violence from all sides (right-wing Christian Phalangists and Israeli forces). Here we see how radicalisation is a process connected to a group struggle and a sense of injustice, reinforced by personal and familial experiences and narratives. As with most cases of radicalisation, many of her siblings and relatives were involved too, and she went on many demonstrations when younger. However, there is also a personal quest for significance and emotional connection that not only recruited Leila Khaled but kept her involved. Leila states in an interview with Eileen Macdonald in the early 1990s, “[M]y work as a freedom fighter has given me happiness; you identify yourself with the struggle. It is the difference between a freedom fighter and an ordinary person.” Her status gave her happiness and a purpose.

A biography of Khaled in 2012 highlights how she went against her mother’s wishes because she didn’t want to be supporting from the side-lines watching her brothers go to fight. Her involvement in the hijackings meant that when the Intifadas happened, it is argued that women were seen as equal participants. But her focus was not women’s rights; in an interview with Sarah Irving she says, “[N]ow which is more dangerous? The one who puts you in prison or your father who will not allow you to choose your partner?” As Cynthia Enloe argues, women’s rights are often promised by resistance movements worldwide – but always after the revolution. Popular narratives of her at the time turned her into a ‘resistance pin-up’, often sexualising her, undermining her revolutionary efforts. She was frustrated by questions about how long she spent in front of the mirror, and by references to her ‘bombs’ (breasts). Some, such as Robin Morgan, have complained however that by resorting to masculine violence, her deferral to male authority and her ‘playing up to’ sexualised media tropes made her complicit in her own feminine oppression, and undermined the Palestinian cause.

In contrast, Ulrike Meinhof’s story is not sexualised in the same way, instead she has been continuously vilified for ‘abandoning her children’. Meinhof went to grammar school, studied sociology, education, and philosophy at university, she is reported to have been ‘outspoken’ (to the point of risking expulsion from school), charming and charismatic. She later went on to have a good job as journalist, became a wife, and a mother to twins. Popular explanations of Meinhof’s radicalisation suggest that she was either traumatised by the deaths of her parents, infatuated with her foster mother, was seduced by Andreas Baader, or was psychologically flawed (after arriving in jail in 1962 an examination of her brain was ordered to see if there was a medical cause for her violence). It is frequently assumed something must have ‘gone wrong’ to have led to her co-found the terrorist Red Army Faction in 1970. What such explanations ignore by denying her o you agency and her politics, is the broader environment in which she was living. Ascherson reports how she was initially a pacifist, how she was condemned by the Student Socialists league for lacking Marxist rigour. However, as Cold War politics and German state support for the actions of the USA in Vietnam and elsewhere continued over time, it meant that she and others on the left felt that peaceful protest was not going to change anything. Elsewhere in the world, other resistance movements and groups were protesting and using violence with seemingly more success. Here we see how vicarious trauma and identification with a collectivist class identity trumped her middle-class university-educated daily existence. Her foster mother writes of Meinhof’s ‘deep sense of injustice’, ex-RAF member Monika Berberich talked of her ‘moral integrity’, and Prinz’s biography describes her as a ‘fallen angel’.

While these are eulogistic reflections, they point to the importance of a coherent world view, moral certainty, and collectivist identity that ideology (and religion) fosters. Overtime in Meinhof’s writings as a journalist and propagandist for the Red Army Faction, the stark line between good and evil became starker, arguments increasingly circular as outsider positions and critique were excluded from consideration. Colvin refers to it as a ‘language trap’ that creates a self-contained identity and reasoning. This is important in a process of radicalisation because it highlights the challenges of de-radicalisation once this closed and binary belief has formed. It was Ulirke Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin who wrote and drove the RAF’s ideology, not Baader; they recruited members through their actions and their words, they were not simply there for ‘love’ of a man or for an insane love of violence. By 1977 over 50% of West German terrorists wanted for arrest were women. Meinhof in her writings made explicit the link between anarchist revolution and women’s emancipation (with the former comes the latter). She frequently critiqued the traditional German role for women as unfairly bound by, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (‘children, the kitchen and the Church’) – a slogan introduced by the Nazis and which represented everything Meinhof and the RFA believed they stood against. She saw the solution not in women’s liberation movements but in overthrowing state violence and oppression. She questioned the limited emancipation offered by the introduction of women’s rights, arguing in 1974, “[F]*ck equal rights for women. We want freedom, we want humanity”.

Samantha Lewthwaite is one of Europe’s ‘most wanted’ women. She was married to one of the 7/7 London bombers – Jermaine Lindsay. Since his death, she has been linked to grenade attacks at non-Muslim places of worship, an attack on those watching football in a bar in Mombasa during Euro 2012, and less convincingly the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack. This track record, albeit one that is more mythological than real, is what has earnt her the moniker, ‘the White Widow’. Currently she is believed to be fugitive in Kenya after entering the country on a false passport – although a few reports allege she is dead and some locate her in Bradford. Her conversion to Sunni Islam is seen as a necessary precursor for her involvement in radical violence as her youth up until that point in her late teens is presented as uneventful. Her conversion is rarely addressed in reports as a question of substantive belief, but one caused by her parents’ divorce and a quest for stronger family values. Conversion alone is insufficient as a cause for radicalisation, indeed the temptation to see converts as more ‘radical’ than ‘born Muslims’ is misleading and risks creating a ‘suspect community’ that is demonised by association. Annabel Inge argues that what is more important is a ‘second conversion’ process to radical violent Islamist ideology. Like Meinhof, Lewthwaite also went to university, in this case the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), to study religion and politics – although she never graduated. She married in her early twenties after meeting Jermaine Lindsay in internet chatrooms and then at a “Stop the [Iraq] War” march in London. At the time of his death, she was pregnant with their second child, and denied all knowledge of his involvement in terrorism. This raises two questions: first, was she radicalised by Jermaine Lindsay? Or were they radicalised together by a third party, such as by charismatic and extremist preachers? This question makes sense if we accept the account of a local politician who had known her as a child and teenager, who described her as, “very innocent, lacking confidence, shy and very easy to get on with. She was a follower, not a leader.” Lewthwaite is said to have visited the extremist speaker Abudullah el-Faisal (Trevor Forrest) while he was in jail in the UK for soliciting the murder of Jews and Hindus in 2003. This approach to focus on the role of charismatic and authoritative speakers denies her agency in her violence – radicalisation is something that happened to her by someone else. Such a narrative also denies her beliefs in the cause, and doesn’t explain her subsequent departure from the UK after her husband’s attack. In 2009 and 2013 she had her third and fourth children. It is rumoured she has now married four times, with each husband becoming a martyr for the extremist cause. In notes seized by Kenyan police in 2011, she had written: “blessed me with the best husband for me. In fact, exactly what I asked for when I made du’a before marriage. I asked for a man that would go forth, give all he could for Allah and live a life of terrorising the disbelievers as they have us.” This last point is important, as it echoes those of other women who have joined Daesh – the unification of a set of ideals about private life and political cause (“terrorising the disbelievers as they have us”). The collectivist identity is also present in this note – she is strongly identifying with the group but with the added moral certainty that Allah ‘is on her side’. To quote feminist Carole Hanisch “The personal is political, and the political is personal”. What is interesting in the reporting and analysis of Lewthwaite is that no-one seeks to explain why or how she was radicalised, it is simply presumed to be because of her marriage(s), yet we are also encouraged to see her as a mastermind of complex military attacks and as able to defy the strict gender norms of Al-Shabab and Daesh that exclude women from leadership roles and offensive [attacking] as opposed to defensive jihad. It is worth noting, as Nelly Lahoud does, that Al-Shabab, Boko Haram and Daesh are very careful in their acknowledgements of terrorist attacks by women, and while celebrating their deaths, other women are subsequently cautioned against following suit, and rarely were the women themselves clearly linked to the organisations.


Gender and women in De-Radicalisation and Countering Radicalisation

Efforts to de-radicalise women and to prevent radicalisation in women in the first instance are fewer in quantity and in scope than those addressing men. Women’s involvement in radicalisation remains a secondary issue for governments and police. Those who do seek to address women’s roles tend to focus on two elements: their power as mothers to dissuade sons (such as Mothers’ Schools run by SAVE) once they’re empowered to do so by these programmes, or as wives (or wannabe wives) of jihadis who have been seduced or ‘groomed’. Although in being trained to ‘spot the signs’ of radicalisation in children can be helpful, and educating young women of the dangers of radical men can prevent harm, the absence of a discussion about women’s politics, their experiences of trauma and oppression, or their quests for significance is telling of the limitations of countering violent extremism efforts so far. Additionally, while efforts to promote women’s rights and empowerment are welcome in their own right, the attempt to link them to counter-radicalisation has been viewed by some communities with suspicion as a less than subtle neo-colonialist move on the part of European states. My earlier research reveals how such effects have meant that local women’s activism within communities is tarnished and viewed as inauthentic (even where they’re grounded in tradition and faith) thereby undermining their efforts. Other research I carried out with Tania Saeed showed the chilling effect of counter-terrorism policies on female university students’ political activism. Laura Zara Macdonald and Basia Spalek’s work shows a similar negative outcome for the safety of women in minority communities when community policing is linked to countering terrorism.


Radicalisation is a process that involves individual level and environmental level factors, and occurs in a non-linear manner. Moreover, these factors are ‘gendered’, that is the way the operate and the impact they have are shaped by gender norms and practices. There is a dynamic relationship between these factors that informs the extreme behaviours, beliefs and belonging of individuals, groups, and causes. The examples I gave demonstrate opportunities to rethink assumptions and to reveal the diverse ways in which the radicalisation of women occurs. In countering radicalisation, at any level, awareness of gender is vital to ensure that gender stereotypes are not perpetuated, that women’s agency is not overlooked, and that the instrumentalisation of women’s rights does not undermine the security of women or that of the state.

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