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date: 24 July 2024

How Gender Intersects With Political Violence and Terrorismfree

How Gender Intersects With Political Violence and Terrorismfree

  • Candice OrtbalsCandice OrtbalsDepartment of Political Science, Pepperdine University
  •  and Lori Poloni-StaudingerLori Poloni-StaudingerDepartment of Politics and International Affairs, Northern Arizona University


Gender influences political violence, which includes, for example, terrorism, genocide, and war. Gender uncovers how women, men, and nonbinary persons act according to feminine, masculine, or fluid expectations of men and women. A gendered interpretation of political violence recognizes that politics and states project masculine power and privilege, with the result that men occupy the dominant social position in politics and women and marginalized men are subordinate. As such, men (associated with masculinity) are typically understood as perpetrators of political violence with power and agency and women (associated with femininity) are seen as passive and as victims of violence. For example, women killed by drone attacks in the U.S. War on Terrorism are seen as the innocent, who, along with children, are collateral damage. Many historical and current examples, however, demonstrate that women have agency, namely that they are active in social groups and state institutions responding to and initiating political violence. Women are victims of political violence in many instances, yet some are also political and social actors who fight for change.

Gendercide, which can occur alongside genocide, targets a specific gender, with the result that men, women, or those who identify with a non-heteronormative sexuality are subject to discriminatory killing. Rape in wartime situations is also gendered; often it is an expression of men’s power over women and over men who are feminized and marginalized. Because war is typically seen as a masculine domain, wartime violence is not associated with women, who are viewed as life givers and not life takers. Similarly, few expect women to be terrorists, and when they are, women’s motivations often are assumed to be different from those of men. Whereas some scholars argue that women pursue terrorism for personal (and feminine) reasons, for example to redeem themselves from the reputation of rape or for the loss of a male loved one, other scholars maintain that women act on account of political or religious motivations. Although many cases of women’s involvement in war and terrorism can be documented throughout history, wartime leadership and prominent social positions following political violence have been reserved for men. Leaders with feminine traits seem undesirable during and after political violence, because military leadership and negotiations to end military conflict are associated with men and masculinity. Nevertheless, women’s groups and individual women respond to situations of violence by protesting against violence, testifying at tribunals and truth commissions, and constructing the political memory of violence.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence


The ways in which gender intersects with political violence and terrorism are discussed, with a focus on multiple aspects of gender and political violence—genocide, war, and terrorism. Political violence refers to a situation associated with politics in some way in which force is used as a means of inflicting harm on others. A gendered discussion of genocide is presented, examining genocide, the impact of gendercide on men and women, and the way in which rape is used as a weapon of gendercide. Gendered aspects of war and gender and terrorism are covered, exploring the way in which gendered assumptions influence understanding of women as perpetrators of terrorism, women political leaders, and social movement activists responding to terrorism. Gender interpretations of terrorists and political leaders and public opinion are also examined. A variety of perspectives inform the discussion of gender and political violence, including critical perspectives. Taking a gendered approach to examining political violence means taking gender into consideration when examining issues of violence. A gendered interpretation acknowledges that states, political institutions, and even democracies are composed of gendered arrangements of masculinist power and privilege (Beckwith, 2000). Historically, political violence has been viewed as male, with men (masculinity) seen as perpetrators of violence with power and agency and women (femininity) seen as passive and victims of violence without agency. Agency is defined as individual actors having the capacity to process social experience and devise ways of coping with life (Sjoberg & Gentry, 2007). Women are shown to have agency in violent conflicts, but they may become victims of it.

A gendered analysis necessarily brings in discussions of sex and gender. Whereas sex refers to “the categories of male and female and the biological characteristics and properties of bodies placed in these categories,”1 gender is “the assignment of masculine and feminine characteristics to bodies in cultural contexts” (Oudshooen, 2006, p. 8). Gender uncovers how women, men, and nonbinary persons act according to expectations of what is feminine, masculine, and fluid, and it references relations between what is expected of men and women. Gender is in flux as it emerges from assumptions that given cultures attribute to “being a man,” that is, masculinity, or “being a woman,” that is, femininity. In addition, gender is contextual and plural in a given culture in that the “meanings of masculinity and femininity vary across cultures, over historical time” (Kimmel, 2010, p. 114); thus, perceptions of women and actions by women, as related to political violence, will vary across cases (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). Additionally, one’s gender identity interacts with other personal identities—all the while interacting with gender structures.

Genocide, Gendercide, War, and Peace


Genocide is a subset of political violence that escalates to the point of total or nearly total destruction of a group, defined as the intentional murder of people because of their group membership, where group membership can be ethnic, racial, political, religious, or economic (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). During the Holocaust in 1944, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish decent, coined the term genocide, referring to the destruction of an ethnic group. Genos is Greek for family or tribe and cide is Latin for killing. The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) offers a legal and narrower definition of genocide, not considering death of a political group, or politicide as part of the definition. The UN defines genocide as:

any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

(Prevent Genocide International, 2011)

It is also an international crime to plan, incite, conspire, or be complicit in genocide, even before killing starts. Targeted killing of political groups, or politicide, is notably absent from the groups protected under the CPPCG due to the influence of Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union at the time of negotiation, who notoriously eliminated his own political rivals (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). The Dirty War in Argentina (1976–1983) provides a good example of politicide, where many of those disappeared and murdered were targeted because of their intersecting identities of youth, class, and ideology.

There have been several genocides since the Holocaust: Bangladesh of Bengalis (1971), Burundi of Hutus and Tutsis (1972–1993), Cambodia (1975–1979) of ethnic and religious minorities but widespread throughout majority population as well, Iraq of the Kurds (1986–1989), Guatemala of the Mayans (1962–1996), Rwanda of the Tutsis and some moderate Hutus (1994), Bosnia and Herzegovina of mainly Bozniak Muslims but others as well (1992–1995), Darfur, Sudan, of non-Muslim ethnic groups (1994–), and Northern Iraq and Syria of the Yazidis by ISIS (2014–). In most of these genocides, battle-aged men become the mortal victims of the violence at greater rates than women and women often suffer rape, with other forms of sexual violence inflicted upon both men and women.

Masculinity and notions of heteronormativity often intersect with other identities when examining genocides. For example, in Rwanda, ideas of Hutu masculinity and domination of men over women intersected to incite violent action among Hutu men who felt as if Tusti women in more prominent social positions threatened their masculinity. Non-heterosexual individuals have been targeted in several genocides as well. For example, during the Holocaust, gay men were particularly targeted. In 2017, heterosexual men are being targeted in Chechnya and placed into concentration camps.


When genocide is perpetrated in a way that targets a particular gender it is referred to as gendercide, and can target men, women or those who identify with a non-heteronormative sexuality (Jones, 2004, p. 2; Jones, 2006b, p. 474). Mary Anne Warren originally used the term gendercide in 1985 arguing, “‘gendercide’ is a sex-neutral term, in that the victims may be either male or female . . . sexually discriminatory killing is just as wrong when the victims happen to be male” (Gendercide Watch, 2012). Political violence often results in the deaths of more men, with battle-aged men singled out for killing. Men, gendered as fighters and protectors in a “just warrior narrative” are the ones killed in battles or mass graves. Thus, gendercides of men are more common than of women. Jones (2006b) explains,

the most vulnerable and consistently targeted population group [in situations of war and genocide], through time and around the world today, is non-combatant men of “battle age,” roughly 15 to 55 years old. They are nearly universally perceived as the group posing the greatest danger to the conquering force, and are the group most likely to have the repressive apparatus of the state directed against them. The “non-combatant” distinction is also vital. Unlike their armed brethren, these men have no means of defending themselves, and can be detained and exterminated by the thousands or millions. (p. 452)

For example, the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in the town of Srebrenica, fits a textbook case of gendercide where a particular formula was used by the perpetrators of violence. Serb forces would enter a town and separate Serbs from Bosnian Muslims. Battle-aged Muslim men, usually between the ages of early teens and 60s were then separated from women. They were killed on the spot or taken away to be executed. In many instances, the women left behind were then raped and otherwise sexually assaulted (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). In Darfur there are currently (as of 2016) reports of rape happening alongside genocide, and this was seen in the 1994 Rwandan genocide as well. In fact, in most genocides, rape is used as a tactic in addition to killing.

Gendercides are related to power dynamics, usually occur alongside other genocides, and also are the result of intersecting identities (as discussed in the Rwandan case). Men and women are targeted in a gendercide/genocide because of their gendered role within an ethnic or national group.

Whereas gendercide is gender neutral, feminicide (femicide) or gynocide refers specifically to the targeted killing of women and girls (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). For example, in Guatemala at least two women are violently killed every day according to UN statistics. Many of these women are also sexually assaulted before they are killed. A spillover from years of civil war, the targeting of women and girls in Guatemala is the result of homicides, narcoterrorism (terrorism associated with the drug trade), and domestic violence (Villarreal, 2013). The extremity of feminicide in Guatemala prompted the Guatemalan government in 2012 to create a special law and special prosecutor in the attorney general’s office on feminicide. This was after 5,000 women and girls, mainly under the age of 25, were killed over seven years (Cosgrove & Lee, 2016). Because women are gendered as mothers of the nation, and this means that they biologically and culturally reproduce the nation (Yuval-Davis, 1996, 1997), feminicide can be seen as a way to attack nations. Thus, in many cases of feminicide, assaults against women not only physically harm women but they also deride the nationalism of an opponent.

While few academic works have documented non-heteronormative gendercides, Iraq and the aforementioned Holocaust and Chechen examples provide poignant displays of political violence targeting homosexual men and women (Rao, 2012). In Iraq, “emo” youth have been targeted, as they are stereotyped as homosexual even when they may not be (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). Non-heteronormative identities run counter to the strong masculine context of violence. As Jones (2006b) explains, militarism and fighting is the strongest expression of hegemonic masculinity, defined as practices that promote the dominant social position of men and the subordinate social position of women and marginalized men (Connell, 2005). Men who embody hegemonic masculinity are recognized for their toughness, aggression, and ability to act decisively. To feminize a man is to refer to him as weak, a lesser man, and inferior to the aggressor. Men with non-heteronormative identities often are judged as feminine and weak. Similarly, men who do not take up arms, or refuse to take up arms, are considered non-masculine and at particular risk of death in genocide situations.

Rape and Sexual Violence as a Gendered Weapon of War

Rape in wartime situations is also gendered; often it is an expression of hegemonic masculinity. Motives of power and intimidation over another individual are often more compelling than sexual motives, for wartime rapes target old and young, attractive and unattractive women alike (Kressel, 2002; Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). The United Nations defines rape as “sexual intercourse without valid consent”; the World Health organization, takes the definition further, defining rape as “physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration—even if slight—of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object” (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). These refer to rapes of women or men.

Rape, used as a weapon during wartime for as long as war has existed (Jones, 2013), coincides with political violence. First, during times of political violence, anomie—the lack of usual social and ethical standards of a group—increases as citizens of war-torn countries become victims of violence, the society as a whole loses order, and social norms disintegrate. The breakdown of social order leads to an environment conducive to sexual violence as social standards deteriorate (Card, 1996; Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). Second, rape occurs in conflict as a way to threaten masculinity. In areas where women are viewed as property of a male relative, the rape is viewed not as much as an attack against the woman, but as “property damage” against the man to whom she “belongs” (Sharlach, 2000, p. 90). Thus, the target of the rape is the man, and the woman not only loses agency through the rape but also in the aftermath of rape when violations against her become less important than the rape’s effect on the man. In this way, rape is a tool for men to attack other men (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). Rape threatens to emasculate the man because he is unable to protect his woman (Goldstein, 2003) and can challenge the moral integrity of the family, leading to a collective family shame (Sharlach, 2000). Third, rape is used in situations of political violence as a tool to construct the male identity during times of combat (Goldstein, 2003). A notable example of this was seen in Rwanda. Hutu masculinity was compromised before the genocide, as men often were unemployed and felt unsuccessful. Tutsi women were seen as elites and more successful than Hutu men; thus, some Hutu men sought superiority by raping Tutsi women (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). In the Ugandan conflict, reports suggest that men believed raping certain categories of women, like pregnant women, would make them stronger (Sow, 2009). Leaders may also encourage combatants to use rape, particularly gang rape, to create a sense of “brotherhood” among forces.

A gendered positioning of the rapist and victim is evident in conflict scenarios. Victims of rape are feminized, and rapists are confirmed in their heterosexual, hegemonic masculinity, irrespective of whether the victim is a man or a woman (Jones, 2006b). Feminine status is assigned to the victim as “passive” and receptive, and masculine status is assigned to the “active” or penetrating aggressor. In the words of Lynne Segal “a male who f*&* another male is a double male” (Segal, 1997). Note, however, that rape in the form of sexual intercourse occurs much less commonly on men than women during times of war and genocide. Sexual torture of men is more common, up to and including castration with the intention of dehumanizing and de-masculinating the victim.

Rape is a strategic, military tactic during wartime (Card, 1996), what Enloe (2000) has called “militarized rape.” Enloe (2000) argues that militarized rape is different from circumstantial rape because it is conducted in a context of institutional policies and decisions. In short, it is a battle tactic promoted by military commanders, used to send a threatening message to opponents. As such, rape is political and used to achieve a political goal that is strategic and goes far beyond the woman being violated. For example, state-backed Pakistani troops used rape as a strategic attack against Bangladeshi women in 1971 (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). Moreover, Serbs reportedly raped Bosnian Muslim women as a way to ensure they had a Serb baby. Thus, rape was a strategic part of ethnic cleansing. Additionally, rape is used strategically to inflict economic violence. If women are cast out of families or communities after a rape, they lose their livelihoods by being cut off from sources of income. This is the case in Uganda, where there are countless reports of women who were abducted and raped by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) only to be ostracized when they returned back to their families because they had been “damaged.” The women have a hard time supporting themselves after abduction and rape by the LRA (Al Jazeera, 2015). Rapists also sometimes commit economic violence against women by stealing their material possessions and seizing control of their labor, thus allowing the rapist to gain assets needed during wartime (Turshen, 2000).

Sometimes rape is referred to as genocidal rape, in that the rape is not just a sexual act but also has genocidal intentions or aftereffects (MacKinnon, 2006). Others argue that forced impregnation increases the genocidal nature of rape (Fisher, 1996). Examples of genocidal rape span time and place, including rapes that occurred during the Yugoslavian conflict, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Partition of India, the Battle of Nanking, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and the Rwandan genocide. Rwanda is a paradigmatic example of a genocidal rape. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the Rwandan genocide in 1993, with two-thirds of Tutsi women raped testing positive for HIV. In Darfur, rape has taken on genocidal proportions as well, with more than 400,000 victims (Jones, 2013; Kaiser & Hagan, 2015).

Responding to Genocide and Gendercide

The international community has prosecuted few perpetrators of genocidal violence in relation to the total number of genocides committed. For genocides before 2002, specially convened tribunals prosecuted crimes. There have been four tribunals since World War II: the Nurnberg Trials (Holocaust), the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia), the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), and the Special Tribunal for Cambodia. The International Criminal Court pursues prosecution for genocides that occur after 2002, as this is the year that the court began functioning.

It is even less likely that perpetrators are prosecuted for rape during genocide and political violence (Jones, 2013). Thus, rape as a gendered wartime tactic is strategic because it is difficult to prove and often not punished (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). On June 19, 2008, the UN passed Resolution 1820 declaring that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” Although the resolution called for an “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians,” it remains to be seen if it will result in more international prosecutions of wartime rapists. According to Halley (2008), most cases rarely evolve beyond the investigation phase. For example, “as of 2008, four individuals in Rwanda . . . ha[d] been convicted of sexual crimes, including rape. This number pales in comparison to the estimated 250,000 to 500,000 rapes during the genocide” (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). However, recent cases before the ICC have demonstrated an “improving trend” in prosecution (Haddad, 2011; Malone, 2008; Jones, 2013).

Some scholars call for alternative forms of justice beyond international tribunals, because tribunals are expensive in comparison to the number of people actually convicted. Moreover, the legal setting of a tribunal prioritizes perpetrators’ narratives over victims’ narratives. The trial is about whether the perpetrator is guilty and not intended as a way for a victim to therapeutically heal or regain agency (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). Tribunals can actually be more damaging to victims as defense attorneys try to discredit them and paint them as non-credible. Additionally, psychologists have found retelling one’s story of violent attack in genocide can induce fear and post-traumatic stress (Brounéus, 2010).

While international trials receive headlines, local efforts are more likely to help the sexually tortured and raped regain agency after political violence. In Kenya, for example, the “karate grannies,” fight back against rapists in the slums in a unique twist on community policing. Truth commissions at a local level in Rwanda, called Gacaca courts, allowed victims to face their accusers, tell their stories, and seek justice. Nonprofit organizations also help victims following sexual violence. For example, Project Air in Rwanda used yoga to help genocide survivors living with HIV/AIDS after genocidal rape. The UN has even given endorsement to the organization as a way to promote post-conflict healing (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012).

Gendered Aspects of Warfare

Women and girls are portrayed as victims of violence during genocide and gendercide; however, women also act as aggressors. Due to norms of hegemonic masculinity and warfare, women’s active participation in violent conflict often is understood in gendered ways.

Women in War

War is typically seen as a male domain, with violence associated with men and not women, who are instead viewed as life givers and not life takers. Thus, when women act violently, in warfare and as terrorists, they act outside gendered assumptions, which can be jarring. Scholars have argued that this causes us to view violent women in three distinct ways—as mothers, monsters, or whores (Sjoberg & Gentry, 2007; Gentry & Sjoberg, 2015). Women are first and foremost seen as mothers—who give life and do not act violently. When they do act violently, they are sensationalized and trivialized as monsters (as a lesser aberration of a woman) or whores (motivated by a twisted sexual desire or for the love of a man). For example, American military women who participated in the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 were considered as more sexualized and demented than their men counterparts (Sjoberg & Gentry, 2007).

Women who have fought in the military as regular combatants are referred to as “the ferocious few” (Elshtain, 1987, p. 173). Women across history have dressed as men to fight in combat, and women have participated in guerrilla warfare in significant numbers (Viterna, 2013; Kampwirth, 2002). Throughout the 20th century, women participated not only in support roles in guerrilla movements, but in combatant roles as well, particularly throughout Latin American and Africa. In fact, in the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), women were up to 40% of the group’s fighters. As with women in some terrorist organizations, women’s participation as combatants in guerrilla groups often affords them rights and responsibilities outside the home that they otherwise would not have in patriarchal societies. In a way, women’s participation as guerrilla fighters is interpreted as a form of emancipation from male-dominated societies (Poloni-Staudinger, 2011).

Public Opinion and War

Not only have men been more likely than women to be active combatants in wartime situations, but they are also more likely to support warfare. Eichenberg (2016) found gender differences in support of major wars among Americans between 1982 and 2013, with men generally being more supportive of war than women. That said, the magnitude of the difference in support between men and women varies based upon the salience of the conflict and level of violence. Women tend to be more sensitive to casualties than men, thus depressing their support for war when they hear people have been killed (Eichenberg, 2016; see also Burris, 2008 for longstanding gender differences). In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, men’s sensitivity to casualties increased over time and thus the gap between sexes decreased. The differential support to warfare is not unique to the United States, with the gender gap showing up in other countries as well, such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada (Clements, 2012).

Acceptability of wartime or war-like leaders also can be evaluated through a gendered lens. Women leaders are framed through the media (and through socially constructed expectations) as stereotypes, based upon their private lives as mothers and spouses, their appearance, or their so-called “male” traits when they act decisively (stereotyped as bitchy) (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2014). Feminine traits associated with women are found to be undesirable in these leadership positions, because military leadership is associated with men and masculinity. It should be no surprise, then, that the American public seems unable or unwilling to accept women into positions of head of government or head of defense, and women have yet to occupy these roles.

Women and Peace

Some have acknowledged the historical role of “women as peacemakers” (Karimi, 2015). In fact, the United Nations Security Council passed UNSCR 2242 in October 2015, marking the eighth such resolution on Women, Peace, and Security. These resolutions are predicated on the fact that peace following conflict cannot leave out women or it will never be fully achieved. Recognizing women not only as victims but as perpetrators of violence and as peacemakers is necessary for finding a lasting peace (Karimi, 2015). That said, discussions about women and peacemaking run the risk of essentializing women as more peaceful than men simply because they are women.

Gender and Terrorism

Why Women and Men Terrorists?

Terrorism may be defined as a “political activity that relies on violence or [credible] threat of violence to achieve its ends” (Magstadt & Schotten, 1993, p. 586). Terrorism typically targets civilians and noncombatants in an effort to achieve political goals. As a possible way to figure out how to stop terrorists from conducting future attacks, terrorism studies focus on the identities, motivations, and roles of individual terrorists (Crenshaw, 2000). This line of research is plagued with difficulties, including a lack of research subjects to interview, and consequently a small sample size in many studies, a narrative research approach that tends to report individual stories rather than generalizable themes, and the dangerous nature of fieldwork engaging terrorists. What is known about the identity and psychological profile of terrorists is first, they tend to be men from middle- to upper-class backgrounds and educated (Victoroff, 2005, though note Palestinian terrorists are often younger and less affluent). Some experts have posited that terrorists have troubled family backgrounds or criminal records (Nacos, 2016); however, others argue that terrorists have normal childhoods and are neither mentally ill nor have narcissistic personalities, neither of which is seen as advantageous to a terrorist organization’s mission (Sageman, 2017). In fact, Crenshaw states, “most analysts of terrorism do not think that personality factors account for terrorist behavior, nor do they see significant gender differences” (2000, p. 409). The motives of terrorists include political aims, socioeconomic grievances, ideology, and social relations to others in the terrorist group (Abrahms, 2008; Nacos, 2016). In 2007, Louise Richardson portrayed motivations according to three R’s—revenge, renown, and reaction, meaning that terrorists want political revenge, publicity, as well as an overreaction from their targets. What is clear, however, is that no two terrorists are exactly alike in identity and motivation (Nacos, 2016).

Journalists and scholars are of mixed opinion about whether women’s motivations for terrorism and identities substantially differ from those of men. Women make up as much as 30% of terrorist organizations worldwide (Nacos, 2016), and recent scholars argue that women are motivated similarly to men, in that they have political motives and they seek revenge (Cragin & Daly, 2009; Nacos, 2005, 2016; Cunningham, 2003). Tamil Tiger rebels and women terrorists in Northern Ireland and Palestine, for example, acted due to intense nationalist sentiment (Alison, 2003, 2004; Berko & Erez, 2007). Interviews with failed suicide bombers in Palestine reveal that women and men alike participate in violence “for revenge of the Jews” (Berko & Erez, 2005, p. 611). Women, like men, also engage in terrorism because of group dynamics and social ties, some of which are to male relatives. Lindsay O’Rourke examined all known suicide terrorist attacks between 1981 and July 2008 and found that women’s motivations may be partly individualistic but are geared toward group solidarity, and are not significantly different from those of men (O’Rourke, 2009). As Sjoberg (2009) states, women “participate in terrorism as terrorists . . . who happen to be women” (p. 69).

Several researchers and journalists, however, stress women’s gender-specific reasons for committing terrorism. It has been argued that male relatives manipulate women into terrorism or that women are seeking a feminist equality to men in death as a terrorist martyr (Victor, 2003). Bloom most prominently argues for women’s gendered motivations to terrorism. She puts forth 4 R’s as motivations, which she believes are key to women’s actions even if they sometimes also apply to men: revenge for the death of a loved one, a relationship with a male terrorist, respect for women who can act like a male terrorist, and rape, resulting in decreased social position and the need for redemption through suicide (Bloom, 2007, 2011). The latter is one reason, among political ones, for women’s participation in the Tamil Tigers. Some Tamil women joined the terrorist group out of anger after experiencing rape by men in the Indian army, whereas other women joined the group to arm themselves and protect against the possibility of rape (Alison, 2003). The actions of women in the Palestinian struggle have been linked to failed motherhood, with the claim that women choose martyrdom when they cannot have children and raise families (see Gentry, 2009). It also may be the case that women terrorists achieve feminist goals during terrorist campaigns even if feminism was not an original motivation of the women. In the course of their activism, women in the Tamil Tigers became aware of social inequalities for women, which led them to stronger stances on women’s liberation (Alison, 2004; Holt, 2010).

Women in ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) offer an example of women varying significantly from men in terrorist organizations. Given ISIS’s ideological orientation toward an 8th-century interpretation of Islam, women’s place in the organization is different from what we see in other terrorist organizations. Women in ISIS are younger than women in other terrorist organizations, perhaps between the ages of 16 and 24 (Perešin, 2015), and they are believed to have less ideological motivations, for, as Nacos (2015) explains, “today’s ISIS girls and women have often little or no knowledge of Islam and ISIS’s use of the Quran as justification for their reign of terror.” Many Western recruits to ISIS are educated, from non-radical families (Perešin, 2015), and are leaving the West to seek adventure, romance, and marriage with men dedicated to the Muslim Ummah, that is, the Muslim worldwide community. Some also want to celebrate their religious identity apart from racist and gender discrimination experienced in the West (Perešin, 2015). Although some women have political motives and may long for and expect to be part of ISIS’s armed action in places like Syria, they are being recruited to support men, be wives, and engage in domestic duties (Perešin & Cervone, 2015). Women are diverse in their response to the traditionally gendered roles expected out of them. It may be the case that ISIS women desire to be in relationships with terrorist men and make a political choice to be a wife. In other words, we cannot assume that all women in ISIS are young and ignorant or confused (Sjoberg & Gentry, 2016). However, evidence also shows that some Western recruits desire to be reunited with their families in the West after finding out that they will lead a passive and domestic existence in ISIS territories (Perešin & Cervone, 2015). Additionally, ISIS uses non-Muslim women, such as Yazidi women, as sex slaves in the effort to purify their territories, a tactic also seen in genocides.

An overemphasis on women terrorists’ feminine motivations of romance and failed motherhood is questionable (Gentry, 2009). Women can easily be seen as “unlikely terrorists” due to their supposed connections to motherhood, families, and peace, and thus, their perceived inability to produce violence (Holt, 2010, p. 365; Gentry, 2009; Auchter, 2012). Women’s political agency in terrorism is diminished if we see them as passive or as victims of terrorist men. What is more, it is common for women in Islam, who are political actors in their own right, to be viewed in the West as “passive victims of sexual urges” of domineering Muslim men (Sjoberg & Gentry, 2008, p. 13). The media contribute to this stereotype, presenting women terrorists as sexually potent, beautiful, or as a “woman warrior” fighting for justice, whereas Middle Eastern men are viewed as fanatics (Nacos, 2005; Berkowitz, 2005, p. 608; Jacques & Taylor, 2009). By pointing out how constructions of women terrorists are gendered in the media and public, critical international relations perspectives challenge gender stereotypes and acknowledge women as political participants.

In reality, women sit at the boundaries of terrorist agency and victimhood (Ness, 2005; Auchter, 2012; Ortbals & Poloni-Staudinger, 2014; Parashar, 2014). Women in violent conflicts are complex actors. With regards to men and women, “a universal terrorist profile does not exist” (Nacos, 2016, p. 148). What motivates one woman terrorist may not motivate the next, and it is possible for a woman terrorist to have political motivations and at the same time be influenced by a man in the terrorist organization or be motivated by motherhood. Women terrorists in patriarchal contexts are not simply victims; they often are politically active, seeking social change through community action and protection of home and family even if they are not combatants (Parashar, 2014; Sharoni, 2001). It is most appropriate then for observers to pay attention to the context of particular cases of terrorism and listen more carefully to individual women’s voices who may claim to be victims as well as actors with political or feminist claims at the same time (Sjoberg, 2009).

Women’s Actions in Terrorism

Although gender difference in motives is questionable, men and women often play different roles in terrorist organizations. Several terrorist organizations employ(ed) women in leadership positions, including groups as diverse as the German RAF (Red Army Faction), Shining Path (Peru), the IRA (Irish Republican Army), LTTE (Sri Lanka), and ETA (Spain and France). Women are often active combatants, and the use of women as suicide bombers has become common since the 1990s, especially so since the early 2000s, when Islamic teachings evolved to allow for women’s participation in the armed struggle of jihad (Cunningham, 2003). Even so, historically and currently, women terrorists more often play a helping role. Al-Qaeda utilizes women in violent operations because of the shock value they bring, but women associated with the terrorist network largely act in the private sphere by encouraging men in their lives toward jihad and helping men and families hide from authorities and live underground. So too, in ISIS, women are recruited to be brides and homemakers of ISIS fighters. Other functions for women in al-Qaeda and ISIS are possible, however. Women are fundraisers for al-Qaeda and have a prominent online presence. For example, Bint Najd, “was the media chief of Al-Qaeda in the [Saudi] Kingdom. She operated more than 800 online clubs and blogs to promote the extremist ideology. . . . She uploaded the extremist web sites with audio and video recordings” (BBC Monitoring Middle East, 2010). Though sometimes viewed as young and passive victims (Sjoberg & Gentry, 2016), women in ISIS also have a strong social media presence and are essential to the recruitment of Western women relocating to ISIS territories. Through social media, “they glorify ISIS’s religious cause, the courage of jihadists and martyrs, and the responsibility of women to marry holy warriors and give birth to and educate future jihadists” (Nacos, 2015). Furthermore, some women in ISIS serve in the Al-Khansaa Brigade. The brigade is an all-female police who punish women, often with lashings, for transgressions of morality, such as not wearing the abaya and niqab and being in public without a male escort.

Counterterrorism and Gender

A first step in counterterrorism related to gender is recognizing how women’s unique opportunities to perpetrate terrorist attacks is based on erroneous assumptions that they are feminine and thus cannot be violent. In earlier decades, counterterrorism details did not envision the woman suicide bomber as a possibility, and, due to women’s ability to dress in loose clothing or look pregnant, they could get through security checkpoints with bombing materials. Given that rules of social engagement may prevent men from searching a woman for explosives, female officers have become necessary for identifying women who are attempting terrorist attacks.

Some experts argue that stopping a woman’s participation in terrorism possibly curtails her own radical activism as well as influences the activism of her family and community. Thus, arguably, counterterrorism measures must focus on limiting women’s radicalization because women have the ability to discourage men in their lives from terrorism. Solutions on how to dissuade women from terrorism include providing them educational and economic opportunities. Though research shows terrorists do not commit their acts only out of economic desperation (Piazza, 2007), it is argued that terrorism becomes an attractive option to women in patriarchal societies when they see few opportunities for success. If women are given a chance to succeed in other ways, perhaps through entrepreneurialism and microfinance, they may resist radicalization and also encourage family members to resist it as well (Byrd & Decker, 2008). To engage women in counterinsurgency (Dyvik, 2014), the U.S. military has used Female Engagement Teams (FETs) to interface with local women’s populations in Afghanistan. Women in the military interact with Afghan women in everyday settings related to education and community building, but, at the same time, they see women as a way to gather strategic information about the community. The military views this approach as culturally sensitive, but it could be critiqued as a way of appropriating women’s bodies for the purpose of war (Dyvik, 2014). In a similar way, employing women’s motherhood and family identities as a way to stop men’s radicalization may be thought of as “the state . . . [having] utilitarian interest in harnessing the ‘motherhood’ card to its own political end,” with the result of risking the status and safety of women in their families and communities (Aoláin, 2015).

Counterterrorism strategies, therefore, also can be considered a form of victimization of women who are related to terrorists. Although counter-radicalization programs tend to “construct women primarily as relatives of radicals” rather than radicals themselves (Brown, 2013, p. 42), data show that wives, sisters, and mothers of male terrorists are disproportionately arrested for the crimes of their relatives (Sjoberg, 2009). Prison conditions for those arrested in relation to terrorism are questionable. For example, a study of women in Northern Ireland prisons found that women prisoners under questioning were strip searched in the presence of male guards, regardless of whether they were pregnant or menstruating (Aoláin, 2013). Moreover, interrogations included sexually offensive language deemed to be gendered verbal abuse (Aoláin, 2013). Women and children also become victims of terrorism in the U.S. drone warfare, as they are collateral damage in drone attacks (Deri, 2012; Sjoberg, 2009).

Terrorism Responses by Women Political Leaders

Political positions related to countering terrorism include political executives, such as presidents and prime ministers and cabinet or ministry positions related to defense, state or diplomacy, homeland security, interior, and policing (Ortbals & Poloni-Staudinger, 2016; Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2014). Scholarship about women in these positions is sparse, but thus far indicates that women are not present in these positions to the same extent as men. Jalalzai explains that countries with powerful presidencies and large militaries, and particularly states with nuclear arms, find it the hardest to elect women as presidents (2013). As mentioned, top executive positions tend to be associated with hegemonic masculinity (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2014). Masculinity is associated with strength and the ability to protect, thus making it difficult for the public to perceive of women, who are often portrayed as soft and passive, as being fit for presidential and military leadership (Sperling, 2016). Lawless reports that following the September 11 attacks, “individuals who favor a more aggressive military policy in the ‘war on terrorism’ are more likely to give male political elites an edge on handling terrorism” (2004, p. 483). Furthermore, in political opinion polls, people were slightly less willing to vote for a woman for president in 2002, following 9/11 (Lawless, 2004). The tendency to see military affairs and terrorism as a man’s game arguably resurfaced in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Donald Trump said in early November, “When I look at these great admirals and these great generals and these great medal of honor recipients behind me―to think of her being their boss? I don’t think so.” Trump’s claim came years after Clinton had served as secretary of state. Although Clinton had experience dealing with diplomacy as well as terrorism in that post—including being present in the decision to take out al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden—Trump deemed her unfit for military leadership and broader executive leadership.

While women have not occupied the chief executive position in the United States, in comparative perspective, women increasingly find themselves in ministerial positions, although not at the same rates as men. Almost one-third of U.S. cabinet positions have gone to women since the 1990s; however, women do not have parity representation in most cabinets worldwide, with the recent exceptions of Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Spain (Krook & O’Brien, 2012; O’Brien, Mendez, Peterson, & Shin, 2015). Because women often are perceived through the lens of motherhood or care duties, they are often chosen to lead ministries related to family and social services. These ministries or departments are considered “feminine” (i.e., family, culture, education, and social services), whereas defense, economic, finance, security, and agriculture portfolios are more “masculine” (Escobar-Lemmon & Taylor-Robinson, 2009; Krook & O’Brien, 2012). Though more women are serving in foreign affairs portfolios in recent years (O’Brien et al., 2015), policymaking and enforcement related to terrorism is generally associated with “masculine” ministries, perhaps meaning that women leaders are less likely to engage in this policy area. The military is another institution from which terrorism is stymied, but as discussed, it too has historically limited women’s political agency. Women are “unseen,” constrained, or not equal to men in the military (Cockburn, 2003), though women have long been present in military life, as wives, camp followers, and laundresses (Enloe, 2000). When women occupy high positions in the military, they are expected to convey aggression and independence rather than feminine traits (Connell, 2005). Local policing can also be considered a context in which men leaders tend to dominate. For example, in the Basque regions of France and Spain, women did not played a prominent role in policing Basque terrorism for many decades, though, in 2012, Estefanía Beltrán de Heredia was appointed the Basque regional minister of security in Spain, making her in charge of regional policing (Ortbals & Poloni-Staudinger, 2016). Research, however, has not illuminated the gender influences of women ministers such as Beltrán or U.S. secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. This line of research would be valuable because, as, O’Brien et al. argue, “the appointment of women to high-prestige portfolios . . . represents a highly visible break from traditional patterns of women's marginalization in the executive branch” and provides women with symbolic representation (O’Brien et al., 2015; Escobar-Lemmon & Taylor-Robinson, 2009).

When viewed through the lens of gender, the divide between terrorist and political leader is often broken down as media similarly frame them in gendered ways (Nacos, 2005; Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2014; Ortbals & Poloni-Staudinger, 2016). For example, women politicians and terrorists are stereotyped in terms of their physical appearance, with their hair color or sexual appeal noted in the media (Nacos, 2005). Women terrorists and leaders also are discussed in terms of their family connections and as “tough women” who defy traditional femininity. In an analysis of Secretary Hillary Clinton during the Abbottabad raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011, Ortbals and Poloni-Staudinger found that the press framed Clinton in terms of her body posture and emotional appearance in an iconic Situation Room photo. In the photo, Clinton has her hand over her mouth and she is portrayed as gasping out of extreme emotion, to the extent that the media claims that her face displays “‘all the emotion in the room,’ whereas her male counterparts are . . . emotionless or described as stoic” (2014, p. 53). A focus on Clinton’s emotionalism overtakes her policy contribution to this important moment of countering terrorism, and the press continued to question her posture in press conferences many days after, even as she appeared publicly conducting other diplomatic actions related to her job.

Although Trump questioned Clinton’s ability to be a security leader in the 2016 campaign, Albertson and Gadarian (2016) suggest that the public should have taken Clinton seriously regarding terrorism and preferred her message of policy solutions over Trump’s threatening rhetoric. In an experiment, they show that citizens with anxiety over immigration prefer policy expertise when presented with “threats-versus-solutions” (2016, p. 683). Therefore, they extrapolate that anxiety over terrorism might also be met with a preference for solutions, which Clinton demonstrated aptly during the campaign. While Trump showed a slight lead on the issue of terrorism in June of 2016, polling by several news agencies in September 2016 suggested that Clinton had a slight edge (Pew Research Center, 2016; Shepard, 2016), with the public ranking her significantly higher on foreign policy in general and ability to lead during a crisis (like a terrorist attack). Nevertheless, Clinton did not win the presidency, thereby calling into question the degree to which voters actually prioritized her policy experience during their vote.

Social Movements Responding to Terrorism

Women also play a role in or related to political violence in terms of social movement participation and leadership. They do so in a variety of movements, including peace movements (Cockburn, 2012), victims’ rights movements, prisoners’ rights movements, and movements related to political memory. By reviewing these types of movements, women’s agency in the area of terrorism responses becomes even clearer.

Because women are essentialized as more naturally peaceful than men, it comes as no surprise that they garner much attention as they act in peace movements. For example, women in Israel mobilized in Women in Black beginning in 1988, with the goal of advocating for peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The Madres of the Plaza de Mayo, a group protesting politicide from Argentina’s Dirty War (1974–1983), inspired Women in Black to hold silent, nonviolent vigils. Women in Black chapters are now located in other parts of the world. These women activists are self-identified feminists, and they link male violence in war with male violence in the private sphere (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). More recently, in 2016, another grouping of around 3,000 women from Israel and Palestine marched for peace with the slogan, “Right, Center and Left are all calling for an agreement, Women Wage Peace” (Eglash, 2016). These women, as well as women in other peace movements around the world, demonstrate agency by asserting that women make a difference when they stress gender as an important dimension of peace settlements.

Victims’ rights and prisoners’ rights groups in the Basque country, though on opposite sides of the violent terrorist conflict in that region, similarly express concern for family members, thus demonstrating a gendered type of political agency related to terrorism. Victims’ rights groups, though including male members, are led by women who want the Spanish state to prosecute ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) terrorists because they have lost husbands, children, or parents to the group’s terrorist violence. Women in the Association for the Victims of Terrorism (AVT) maintain that ETA prisoners should not receive amnesty even though the group’s terrorist tactics have now ended since the ceasefire of 2011. Moreover, these activists advocate for pensions, housing, and health benefits for survivors or families of victims. Similarly, Mexican women have pressured the state regarding the victims of narcoterrorism, many of whom are young women killed in a “femicide” that has taken place primarily in border communities. Prisoners’ rights groups in the Basque country advocate for ETA operatives or those who having participated in the outlawed political party of Batasuna, as they are in jail, often in faraway parts of Spain, for violent and nonviolent actions. The prisoners’ rights groups invoke the language of motherhood when seeking the return of their children from jail, or at least their placement in jails closer to home (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012; Ortbals & Poloni-Staudinger, 2014).

Mexico and Spain are also good case examples of women’s agency in memory politics. Although memory often highlights men and men’s accomplishments, with memory portraying men as strong, patriotic, and as combatants (Foxall, 2013; Norkunas, 2002), women are leaders in the memorialization of victims of war and terrorism. In Mexico, women’s organizations, through protest and information politics, have kept alive the memory of women who have died as a result of femicide (Staudt & Méndez, 2015). In the Basque Country, the victims’ rights group COVITE has created memorial videos, and the prisoners’ rights group EXTERAT memorializes prisoners with weekly marches in town squares (Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2016).

Gender and Public Opinion Related to Political Violence

Terrorism influences the emotions and mental health of those witnessing it. Americans following 9/11 had more stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD than prior to the attack (Fischer & Ai, 2008, p. 343; Huddy, Feldman, Lahav, & Taber, 2003; Huddy, Feldman, & Cassese, 2009). Fifteen years later, in 2016, and with the rise of new terrorist threats like ISIS, “69% of respondents from the American National Election Studies pilot said that they were worried (moderately, very, or extremely) about terrorism in the near future” (Albertson & Gadarian, 2016, p. 681). Public opinion data show that emotions influence policy preferences, with fear causing citizens to be less supportive of military interventions overseas and anxiety promoting isolationism and less aggressive foreign policy (Brader, Marcus, & Miller, 2011; Huddy et al., 2003). Anger causes citizens to prefer policies associated with force. Media contribute to emotional responses, especially fear, because media sources emphasize the incredibly dangerous nature of terrorism and provide terrorists with a large audience for their extremist messages (Tuman, 2010; Nacos, 2016; Nacos, Bloch-Elkon, & Shapiro, 2011; Nacos, 2005). In experimental settings, inducing fear by way of media leads respondents to be more supportive of hawkish foreign policy (Gadarian, 2010; Mendez, Ortbals, Osborn, & Poloni-Staudinger, 2016).

Public opinion data suggests that women display more fear and depression related to terrorism than men (Huddy, Feldman, & Cassese, 2009) and report more stress and experience more negative emotions following attacks, such as anxiety and anger (see Fischer & Ai, 2008; Huddy et al., 2009). Women report more mental illness in the aftermath of a direct experience of terrorism (see Heskin, 1980 for description of this in an Irish case) as well as more depression as members of the public (Huddy et al., 2003). Social norms may make it more acceptable for women than men to express fear (see for example, Brody & Hall, 2008). Or, as Huddy, Feldman, and Cassese (2009) explain, women are more worried about personal victimization in many aspects of life; thus, they also may feel more victimized by terrorism (see also Mendez et al., 2016).

If women are more emotional in response to terrorism, they may hold more hawkish stances, as “security moms,” seeking to keep their families safe from terrorism (Mendez et al., 2016). For instance, post-9/11, women concerned themselves with security issues (43%) more than men (11%), whereas it was the opposite before 9/11 (Grounds, 2008; Poloni-Staudinger & Ortbals, 2012). On the other hand, as noted, women generally are less hawkish than men in terms of foreign policy preferences, and they prefer less use of force or anti-militarism (Clements, 2012; Gentry, 2009; Huddy & Cassese, 2011; Huddy et al., 2003; Sapiro, 2003; Shapiro & Mahajan, 1986).


Women are present in violent politics in many ways—as terrorists, guerrilla fighters, and as wartime combatants. They also participate in indirect ways, as a support to men fighters or as social media leaders. They respond to violence through activism in social movements, and women are more often becoming foreign policy leaders who address violence through policy leadership. Although media and scholarship occasionally cast women as victims of men and patriarchal, violent contexts, women are agents and can possibly be victims and agents at the same time. Ignoring women as combatants, or sensationalizing their participation, can be dangerous, because doing so allows “terrorists [to] reap tactical, operational, and strategic benefits” (Alexander, 2016, p. 1).

Although a greater understanding of women in violent conflict has developed in recent years, several avenues of research are needed to obtain a fuller sense of gender and conflict. Three considerations are suggested as research goes forth.

First, terrorism studies increasingly emphasize how terrorists leave violent organizations and how terrorists experience de-radicalization (Horgan, 2008). This concern relates to counterterrorism and also points to many post-conflict puzzles related to gender. When leaving terrorist and combatant organizations, participants must negotiate new social networks and find employment (Finke & Hearne, 2008). Violent conflict sometimes disrupts traditional gender relations in favor of gender empowerment, but lessons from revolutions teach that gender relations typically return to traditional arrangements following conflict and that women combatants struggle to reintegrate in post-conflict society (Sørensen, 1998). As a result, it is imperative to continue to study how women terrorists and women guerrillas function in new social and employment contexts after leaving violent groups or at the termination of organizational violence. Political memory also comes to the forefront following the cessation of terrorist or wartime violence. Political science has yet to fully embrace the interdisciplinary study of memory politics (but see Auchter, 2014; Resende & Budryte, 2013), even though memory can be politically contentious for many years, as it implies who was right/wrong and guilty/innocent during political violence. Although there are individual memory projects related to women in war, such as statues erected to recognize the comfort women of Korea, a comparative understanding of gender and memory or memory regarding terrorism does not exist. The Basque case described shows that women are essential actors in the memory process and that memory itself is gendered.

Second, scholars are looking more closely at lone-wolf terrorists, who act autonomously from terrorist groups (Spaaij & Hamm, 2015). Given the gendered argument that women join terrorist organizations because of relationships with men, one might expect to find fewer women lone wolves. In a recent book about lone-wolf terrorists, Simon poses a related argument when asking, “where are the women?” (2016). He explains that men are more likely to be risk takers than women, which he believes partially explains why women do not act alone. More research on this topic is needed because data are circumstantial at this point.

Third, research about violent conflict struggles to employ original, empirical data (Schuurman & Eijkman, 2013; Jacques & Taylor, 2009). Narrative and post-positivist studies have provided the study of international relations with an excellent grasp of how institutions, the media, and society construct gender, as it relates to political violence, and they critique essentialism found in the framing of women terrorists. Empirical work can further engage critical perspectives in an effort to better understand “where and how women participate in political violence” (Sjoberg, Kadera, & Thies, 2016, p. 10). A couple of types of research that generate new data and understandings would promote this field of study forward. The study of gender, war, and terrorism, as argued, includes analyses of women participating in and responding to violence as political leaders and social movement activists. The latter group of women are easier to interview than terrorists, thus researchers should engage with women in social movements and women political leaders to see how they gender their work or respond to gender effects of war and terrorism. What are their motivations for participating in this policy area? How does their status as women impact their ability to act as peacekeepers or policymakers related to terrorism and political violence? Moreover, men and women’s public opinion about terrorism and war in the United States is mixed. It is not clear whether women are less supportive of war and strong counterterrorism measures or whether they are “security moms” who favor strong and decisive actions. Additionally, very little is known about women’s public opinion toward war and terrorism in comparative perspective. As a result, future research should focus on the collection of data related to the public’s (gendered) response to violence.


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  • 1. New research suggests that sex is also not binary, but fluid like gender (National Geographic, January 2017).