[Khadija Othman] Female Jihadists: a new force or a new face?


On November 9, 2005, a Belgium-born convert to Islam named Muriel Degauque ran into an Iraqi police patrol and detonated a bomb that killed five people and injured many others. Degauque’s attack is often reported as a “wake-up call” for forensic professionals not simply because she was the first European female to conduct such an attack, but because she was an educated, reportedly well-mannered young women who came from a supportive family and community. 
(Jacques and Taylor, 2013)

Until there were attacks perpetrated by females, such as the assassination of the Prime Minister of India in 1991 or the siege of Westgate Mall in Nairobi 2013 allegedly involving the organisational skill of the ‘white widow’, there has been limited understanding of gender as it relates to extremists. Conventional wisdom suggests that terrorists and perpetrators of terrorist attacks are uneducated young men who are naïve, lack any self-regulating capacity and join extremist movements in search for purpose. The role and involvement of women in the realm of terrorism was never of notable importance. Their notoriety/significance only came after names such as Thenmozhi Rajaratnam (India, 1991), Muriel Degauque (Belgium, 2005), Dzhanet Abdulayeva (Russia, 2010), Samantha Lewthwaite and (Somalia/Kenya, 2013) revealed a new layer to the jihadist movement. Not only are some of the attackers young, educated and ‘western’, they were also not just male.

The West’s tendency to focus on terrorist violence against women (like Boko Haram’s kidnapping of school girls, or ISIS’s sexual violence and forced marriages), and not by women ignores that women too can and do identify with these groups (Baudin 2015). This shock of the involvement of women in extremist jihadi movements shows that the West still hasn’t understood who they are fighting and what they are fighting for. It also highlights the gendered perspective in which the West has chosen to place understandings of terrorism, that it is a man’s game, and women are too docile to be violent.

It shouldn’t be shocking that educated Westerners will join such movements, because a ‘Western life’ isn’t the pinnacle of the life groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and others want. Extremists are allegedly fighting for their own way to live, without interference, without derogation and without fear. Therefore, by joining terrorist groups women are not a new face to terrorism but a new force. “It is a tactic, not a coincidence” (Blum, 2015) and they are equally as proud as men to participate in the “resistance” against a system they are not happy with. Therefore, there isn’t a fixed template that can explain why women become involved in terrorism, the motivation seems to be the same for anyone who chooses to enjoin the use of terror and violence for political goals. Accordingly, it is important that studies of female terrorists be gender-neutral and place greater value on context and group dynamic.

Terrorist groups reasons for recruiting women

Before women’s increasing role at the frontline of jihad, terrorist groups arguably relied on the Islamists’ interpretation as a guide for the role women should play in jihad. This was conventionally through indirect contributions because in Islam, a woman should ideally never disassociate from her motherly and marital duties (Mostaram, 2009). Therefore most visible contributions by women were only through nursing the wounded and providing emotional support to their male family relatives and acquaintances. Other reasons for the growing trend of female jihad frontliners is in line with several reports that organisations such as Al Qaeda, who were strict in women’s role in the jihad, are weakening. Because of disagreements within the structure, battle deaths and general decreasing support of violent jihad, the group is forced to change strategies (Bloom, 2014). As a result, similar to O’Rourke (2009)’s argument, the prevalence of female terrorists is being propelled by their tactical and strategic effectiveness. That is, according to O’Rourke (2009), because of the specific norms and social prejudices in the societies the attacks take place, women have proven to be the best to get the job done. This is because women generate less suspicion; they are better able to conceal explosives; and they are subjected to more relaxed security measures (O’Rourke 2009). First manifestations of this strategic usefulness was with the Pakistani Taliban in 2007 and in 2009 with Al Shabaab militants disguised themselves as women in order to effectively carry out assassinations. Collins (2012) also notes that female suicide terrorist have a “greater psychological impact on [the]target audience”, because of the social norms and values the West places on women. By using taking women into the agenda, terrorists generate more attention. The involvement of women begins to take on a much larger role when ISIS is considered. Because of the social movement nature of ISIS the socialisation and identity formation element is critical to recruiting and maintaining membership and support. Women play a vital role in this aspect as they are the chief guardians of cultural heritage and the first point of contact in socialisation of young minds in the ways, habits and norms of a given group.As ISIS is a belief and identity based organisation, this means that women have an even greater role to play in spreading the message.

 Reasons why women might join extremist jihadi movements

Women join terrorist groups because of a combination of reasons and influences ranging from the operational advantages, to the effects of counter-terrorist measures, and, internal and external group dynamics (Collins, 2012). Mia Bloom (2011) identifies five categories of reasons why women might join terrorist groups; she names, rape, redemption, relationship, revenge and respect. Bloom (2011) explains that revenge is the main driver because many women want to avenge the death of a loved one or against the occupation of foreign forces. Redemption and gaining respect by being a martyr or by just providing logistical support are also important according to Bloom, as some seek to restore honour after they have been raped, or are part of a marginalized group.  An example of this is the women in Chechnya called the “black widows”. These are women who have lost a husband, child or close as a result of their struggle to separate from Russia, and as a result they become suicide bomber on missions to even the score. Bloom (2011) writes that rape and widowhood play significant roles for women in violent jihadist groups, such as the black widows, or even the many unnamed female suicide bombers of Boko Haram. Bloom says that because rape is such a constant threat to women in terrorist  group strongholds, “Suicide bombing becomes an option in these cases, where women are all too often sold or kidnapped into terror rings and thus suicide is often seen as a relatively attractive means to redeem oneself” – an honourable way to die.

Contemporary discussion on reasons for women’s involvement in violent jihadist movements are centred on them being a ‘vulnerable demographic’ (Jacques and Taylor, 2013). That is, that they are generally young, uneducated, unemployed and are structurally isolated to an apex at which terrorism and violent jihadist movements are their only options. Discourse on female terrorists says that they become suicide bombers out of despair, mental illness, or are religiously mandated subordination to men. The case of Wafa Idriss the first female suicide bomber in Israel-Palestine conflict shows perhaps that despair may be a driving factor. She was born in a refugee camp, conditioned to violence by the first Palestinian uprising against Israel, divorced because of her failure to have children, and continuously infuriated as she worked as a volunteer medic, tending to the wounded of the current Israel-Palestine conflict (Bennet, 2002). Her life during the conflict and whilst enduring grievances are sufficient reasons for any person to become radicalize. However, there are also events that are uniquely female that are definitely notable explanations for this extremist act.

This is why Western narratives that seem to fit too neatly into gendered perspectives of women’s role in society and serve only to negate a woman’s agency and ability to be just as “bloodthirsty, disaffected and politically engaged” (Khan, 2015) as the men that join these groups. The media seems to be fixated on the narrative that women are naïve and vulnerable subjects that are either victims of the atrocities committed by violent jihadists, or are innocent bystanders with no agency after they are ‘lured’ in by extremist groups to be ‘jihadi brides’ or concubines for the men. These assumptions are often accompanied by claims that age, education and unemployment are some of the foremost reasons why individuals are alleged to join terrorist groups. In their case study findings Jacques & Taylor (2013) did a study on both men and women who join terrorist groups and found that, while the median age is relatively young (between the ages of 22-39), most female terrorists were in some form of employment, were still in school and the females were more likely to be more educated than the male counterpart. In fact, they found that the only instance where education of female was low, was when there were low cultural priorities put on female education in the particular area being studied. For example, Krueger and Maleckova (2003) in their observation of Hezbollah, found no connection between education and militancy, and therefore raised doubts about poor education being a factor pushing individuals to join terror groups.

Jacques & Taylor (2013) also mention that some explain exposure to criminality as a push factor to terrorism. They write that this is more common with men than women because of different social roles played in the relevant societies and the tendency for young men to socialize in gangs that have been or become connected with criminality or terrorism. They find in one case study that the majority of the male global salafi jihadists they questioned had peer links to terrorism, or became active in terrorist activities through their kin.

This narrative seems to have been true in terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. However, cases like that of Malika El Aroud, known as Oum Obeyda, tell a different story. Living now as a twice-widowed cyber jihadist, Sciolino and Mekhennet (2008), write that after she got married (her husband a Bin Laden Loyalist) she was “eager to be a battlefield warrior …alongside her husband in Chechnya”. This was despite her growing up in Belgium and having only recently embraced her religion.  But since, Chechen groups only wanted men, so she took to the Internet to fight her war. Defiantly, to El Aroud declares herself as a female holy warrior for Al Qaeda, for who she preaches in radical online forums for men to join in jihad and rallies women to support the cause. Her story is one of a person who was educated, wasn’t young and lived a seemingly ‘normal life’ but still ended up joining one of the most renowned terrorist groups. Therefore, whilst there may be truth to some of the mainstream reasoning, there is an element of choice in women’s participation; in El Aroud’s case, it was because of her hatred for the West, and a desire to live in a more Islamic world. In total, assuming the only factor women get involved in terrorist movements is because of the men, or in relation to men, trivialises their individual decision-making power to be a part of violent jihadist movements (Khan, 2015).

In sum, the only primary motivation, whether male or female, is the loyalty to their community and the ideology this community is built on. These two serve as level ground for a group’s strategic goals and the attacker’s individual motives to break social and gendered norms to work together. Further, there are significant differences in the reasons different groups join extremist groups, reinforcing the argument that it is important to understand terrorism in non-gendered and context-specific terms. Therefore, we are likely to see lesser and lesser restrictions to why and how women can participate in the realm of violent jihadist movements, and discussions of women’s involvement shouldn’t be a discussion of shock that a woman would act against her assumed inherent peacefulness and docility. Rather, analyses should look at the bigger picture, that women (and men) are joining groups like IS because it promises to provide a new utopia for a certain group of people – participating in jihad and being part of the creation of a new Islamic state (Brown 2014). With this, terrorist groups are likely to continue using women to attack,and indoctrinate because their success represents a weakness in Western values as it pertains to women’s role in society. As the war against terrorism continues and security forces realise this, we can expect to see higher security measures in public spaces and no hold barred against women, children or other ‘vulnerable demographics’. The long range result of this happening is an increased attraction for would be terrorists. Countering violent jihadist attacks might rely on recognizing the root cause for disengagement, despair and marginalisation which leads young men and women believing that involvement with violent groups is a better alternative.


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Bennet, J. (2002). Arab Woman’s Path to Unlikely ‘Martyrdom’. [online]Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/31/world/arab-woman-s-path-to-unlikely-martyrdom.html [Accessed 23 Nov. 2015].

Bloom, M. (2005). Mother. Daughter. Sister. Bomber. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 61(6), pp.54-62.

Bloom, M. (2011). Bombshell. Toronto: Viking Canada.

Bloom, M. (2014). Female suicide bombers are not a new phenomenon. [online]Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/08/06/female-suicide-bombers-are-not-a-new-phenomenon/ [Accessed 23 Nov. 2015].

Blum, R. (2015). Prevalence of Female Attackers in Terror Wave Is ‘Tactic, Not Coincidence,’ Says Israeli Terror Expert (INTERVIEW). [online]Algemeiner.com. Available at: http://www.algemeiner.com/2015/10/12/girls-less-suspicious-more-photogenic-as-victims-says-israeli-terror-expert/ [Accessed 22 Nov. 2015].

Brown, K. (2015). Analysis: Why are Western women joining Islamic State? – BBC News. [online]BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29507410 [Accessed 22 Nov. 2015].

Collins, J. (2012). Explaining Chechnya’s ‘Black Widows’: An Organisational Analysis. [online]Available at: http://thegwpost.com/2012/03/22/explaining-chechnyas-black-widows-an-organisational-analysis/#more-519 [Accessed 22 Nov. 2015].

Jacques, K. and Taylor, P. (2013). Myths and realities of female-perpetrated terrorism. Law and Human Behavior, 37(1), pp.35-44.

O’Rourke, L. (2009). What’s Special about Female Suicide Terrorism?. Security Studies, 18(4), pp.681-718.

Sciolino, E. and Mekhennet, S. (2008). Al Qaeda Warrior Uses Internet to Rally Women – NYTimes.com. [online]Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/28/world/europe/28terror.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 [Accessed 23 Nov. 2015].

About the author: Khadija Othman is currently reading her Masters in Social Development in University of Sussex. 

Guan Huang and Candyce Kelshall also contributed to this article. 

Featured image: Susan Meiselas: Soldiers search bus passengers along the Northern Highway, El Salvador, 1980, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2003.307#ixzz1tBOsklum


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