Beyond the “Femininity Taboo”

Recognising Women’s Agency in Violent Extremism

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The material in the Genderhub demonstrates that terrorism and violent extremism are ‘highly gendered activities’ (N’Dungu and Shadung, 2017). Yet the automatic gender association tends to relate this violence to men and masculinity. Our own PERICLES Gap Analysis, conducted at the outset of the project, sketches a situation of violent extremism as a male activity. Most of the people convicted of violent extremism in Europe are young men, under thirty. They serve time in jails which can amplify their radicalisation, as prisons become places full of ‘angry, isolated young men’ (Kudlacek et al 2017). Sociologist Michael Kimmel’s work on violent extremism notes the strong associations between ideals of manhood and a propensity to violence. Young men resort to ‘hate’ fuelled violence because of their thwarted sense of male entitlement and shame at their social position or in search of a sense of belonging to a brotherhood, or desire for ideological certainty and the reestablishment of male dominated, conservative gender norms. Girls and women, on the other hand, are assumed in many societies to be outsiders to this world. Gender roles and norms assert a taboo on women’s violence.

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However, studies of gender and violent extremism do reveal women as supporters, agents, even perpetrators of extremist violence. We know, for example, of women’s engagement in violent attacks. Sometimes women act as solo agents, as in the case of Roshonara Choudhry in the UK, who attacked her Member of Parliament after becoming radicalized online (Pearson, 2015). Others become members of illicit organizations which endorse violence (for example, ETA, as discussed by Hamilton 2007). Some affiliate with rightwing extremist movement, such as the ‘Daughters of Odin’ in Finland (Keskinen, 2018). Other women and girls support extremist causes, through marriage, maintaining family life or offering their labour.

The sway of the social taboo on women’s violence is strong. It implies that when women engage in this kind of direct violence or support of extremism, they are often dismissed as deluded or crazy. Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry explore this dynamic in their study ‘Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics’ (2007). Looking at examples of women’s illicit violence across contexts such as Abu Ghraib, the Middle East and Chechnya they demonstrate that these women are seen as victims of men’s exploitation, mentally unstable or driven by grieving motherhood. They are rarely seen as rational political actors. We see an example of this dynamic in a Guardian panel discussion about why young women become ‘Jihadi Brides’. Former extremist Alyas Karmani, now a counsellor, notes these girls and women are depicted as ‘victims of grooming’ or ‘vulnerable in multiple ways’. Instead he says, it is important to see that ‘women act out of their own agency – like men’ (Witt, 2015). Gender sensitive approaches to countering violent extremism need to recognize these dynamics.


  1. Hamilton, C. (2007) ‘The Gender Politics of Political Violence, Women Armed Activists in ETA’. Feminist Review 86, 132-148
  2. Keskinen, S. (2018) The ‘Crisis’ of White Hegemony, Neonationalist Femininities and Antiracist Feminism’, Women’s Studies International Forum 68, 157-163.
  3. Kudlacek, D. et al. (2017): Gap analysis on counter-radicalisation measures. Hannover: Kriminologisches Forschungsinstitut Niedersachsen. Retrieved from
  4. Ndung’u, I. and Shadung, M. (2017) Can a Gendered Approach Improve Responses to Violent Extremism? Africa in the World Report 5, Institute for Security Studies.
  5. Pearson (2016) ‘The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad’. Policy and Internet 8:1, 5-33
  6. Sjoberg, L. and Gentry, C. (2007) Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics’. London: Zed Books
  7. Witt, J. (2015) Guardian Live: Why do Young Women Want to Join Islamic State?