Women and Radicalisation

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by Dr Katherine E. Brown, University of Birmingham

Over the past few years it has come to the attention of policy makers and practitioners that women are also being radicalised and participate in political violence. This is of little surprise to those who have studied terrorism, as women across the world have always done so. Their higher profile today can be accounted for by two factors. The first is the remarkable success of Daesh in recruiting women. Typically, conservative and right-wing leaning groups like Daesh tend to recruit fewer women than those groups which are aligned with left-wing or single issues (such as environmental movements, animal rights groups, or anarchist organisations). Daesh have appealed to men and women alike, and appeared to deliberately target women in their propaganda and recruitment material. Second, since 2005 governments have become concerned not only with those who carry out acts of violence but also with those who support or facilitate them, and their focus has turned to the direct and indirect roles of women in the ‘back-room’ and ‘home-fronts’ of violent organisations. This is partly because one striking feature of interviews of terrorist women is that they appear to be ‘disturbingly normal’ – the woman next door, the work colleague or the neighbour – and so personal biographies tell us little about why ‘this’ woman as opposed to any other with the same profile turned to terrorism. As a result of the inability to predict which individual might become a radical, there has been a policy shift towards countering violent extremism at a societal level with the aim of building ‘resilience’ or ‘immunity’ to ‘radicalisation’.

Radicalisation was once described by Professor Neumann as “everything that happens before the bomb goes off.” A key element of radicalisation for many European governments is explicit and active support for ‘violent extremism’. These are deceptively simple definitions of a very complex process. A report by the University of Amsterdam, one that confirmed findings by the security think-tank RAND, identified over 200 variables that contributed to radicalisation. Additionally, the process should not be seen as linear – with one stage neatly following another – but rather as an oftentimes erratic experience which can go in a variety of directions. As a result, it is insufficient to only focus on the individual. We must also consider broader environmental factors that contextualise the process. In a previous report for the UK High court I highlighted, with Andrew Silke, a number of individual level factors: a quest for significance; support for altruism and willingness for self-sacrifice; mortality salience; self-esteem; and importance of identification with a collective/group. The significant environmental factors we highlighted are: role of family and peers; connections and social bonds within communities; experience directly or vicariously of grievances; and the influence of charismatic on-line or local radical speakers. Collectively, radicalisation is therefore about extreme beliefs, extreme behaviours, and extreme belonging.

Given the emphasis in policy and the media of Islamist violent extremism and those who support them, this paper also prioritises those cases of women from Europe who have joined violent extremist jihadist groups. However, the themes and conclusions are transferable to other groups and individuals – such as the far right or far left. Moreover, these examples are not to suggest that Muslims are uniquely vulnerable, or even more vulnerable, to radicalisation because of their faith. All religions have the capacity for violence and for peace.


Role of gender in radicalisation processes

Women join radical groups for the same reasons as men – a combination of political motives and personal ones. As Sjoberg and Gentry show, there is a tendency in research and policy to ascribe to men rational (albeit falsely arrived at) reasons, whereas women are presented as emotionally driven (such as being seduced by men or victims of rape). Such sexist arguments ignore the interaction between the political and the personal in cases of radicalisation. For example, Stanski’s field research shows that women who joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) did so because of social conditions and ideology – just as the men did. Yet these factors are ‘gendered’ – they appeal to both men and women but they are expressed differently along gender lines. Looking at personal factors, women’s recruitment to radical groups emphasises ‘helping others’ and ‘contributing’ to the cause, whereas for men this is framed as becoming a ‘hero’ and ‘defending’ vulnerable people who belong to the same group as them. Both cases are about ‘self-sacrifice’ and ‘altruism’ combined with a strong collectivist identity but are informed by gender ideologies and experiences.

Women’s agency, or lack of, is often cited as a specific cause of their radicalisation. Zakaria, Rafia in Dissent Magazine arguedthat the lack of women’s rights in some communities is a cause of radicalisation because only in extremist groups do those women find empowerment and emancipation. According to Egyptian activist Mona Eltahawy, Daesh “is using feminism to cut feminism at its knees.” In particular, Daesh challenge local cultural practices that appear to disempower women, such as arranged marriages, insisting on women’s active consent as marriage partner – although a walee(guardian) must give the final approval. The importance of sisterhood and the support they offer individuals, is emphasised more often by women returning from Daesh than the sexualised lure of ‘jihad-hotties’ (mujahedeenfighters for the group) as a factor of their radicalisation. There is an extreme, exclusionary and isolationist, sense of belonging that means that the only people who can be trusted are those within the group. The ‘sisterhood’ is the female equivalent of Marc Sageman’s ‘band of brothers’ hypothesis for terrorism – men fight for and with their friends more than ideology or ‘the cause’.

Nevertheless, ‘the cause’ (extreme belief) cannot be ignored, for the ideology helps explain why an individual joins one group rather than another. For Daesh, a central component of its ideological narrative is the establishment of the caliphate. This narrative of constructing a new political entity that is a safe haven for ‘rightly believing Muslims’ is one of the reasons Daesh have been more successful than other movements in recruiting women. Unlike Al Qaeda or Boko Haram, Daesh is not just a fighting force, it is also a health care provider, a law enforcer, and construction firm for its members. It wanted ‘citizens’ not just soldiers – and these citizens included women who could form the ‘home front’ worth fighting for. What is important then when considering the role of marriage in recruitment propaganda is the desire of women to unite their private lives (being married to a pure Muslim) and their political desires (living in a pure Islamic state). Their ideology is also a claim of group Muslim oppression, of Islamophobia and of denied greatness. Perceived harm done to Muslim women is also a motivating factor, as a document found during a search of an Al Qaeda operative’s home in Manchester, England, declares jihad for, “the sister believer whose clothes the criminals have stripped off. To the sister believer whose hair the oppressors have shaved. To the sister believer whose body has been abused by the human dogs.” Violence against women is a signifier for the barbarism of the presumed enemy.

Why might Daesh seek to recruit women aside from ideology? Looking at other groups, we see that there are a number of strategic, operational and organisational reasons why groups might recruit women into their ranks; such as a failure to recruit sufficient numbers of men, declining male members because of state targeting, greater freedom of manoeuvre for women to evade detection by state security services and therefore higher success rate, and greater media response when a woman carries out the attack. The Tamil Tigers were able to assassinate a former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Ghandi, because a woman, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, was able to circumvent security procedures in a way that a man never could. Even those groups with very conservative and traditional understandings of women’s roles in violence and society, such as Chechen or Palestinian terrorist groups, have revised positions and permitted women’s engagement as a result of operational necessity. Blee’s research on pro-slavery movements, also reminds us of how women’s participation and presence in the lynchings of Black Americans for the far-right in the early twentieth century made the racial murders possible, even in some circles respectable. Additionally, enlisting women has been shown to enhance group stability, increase motivation, and provide an efficient use of the population.

Analysis of women’s radicalisation and involvement in Daesh, or any violent extremist group, must resist reductionist arguments about ideology, emancipation (or its lack), or women’s emotional state. Instead, analysis needs to consider the gendered interaction between the individual, the group, and the overarching cause. Additionally, it needs to recalled that radicalisation is about the combination of gendered extreme belief, extreme action and extreme belonging.


See part two of this post …


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