Can Women Fight?

The Role of Women in Radical Violence

Contact Author

Alexander. Audrey. 2019. “Key Considerations: Forward Thinking About Women, Gender, and Violent Extremism”. George Washington University
Pearson. Elizabeth. 2018. “Why Men Fight and Women Don’t: Masculinity and Extremist Violence.” Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.


Violent extremism is often critiqued as a masculine domain by researchers. Scholars of gender and security studies have highlighted the exclusion of women from the histories of war and conflict. Furthermore, the visibility of women is usually stereotyped as victims, peacemakers and carers. The current researches, which seek to understand female violence, have shown, how women have historically been upfront in the acts of radical violence in the form of combatants, fundraisers, propagandists, and spies across a range of ideologies. The prominent example of this involvement can be seen in their contribution for leftist groups like the Red Army Faction in West Germany, Islamist groups like Hamas, Boko Haram, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Chechen rebels and ethnic separatist groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). From the above stated example, it can certainly be concluded that radical violence by no means is an exclusively male preserve. But women’s exclusion raises an important question for deliberation:

What causes this exclusion?

The answer to the above question is rooted in the gendered history of political violence where the norm of masculinity and femininity are constructed through the power structures in order to create specific roles for men and women in extremist groups. Whereas men and masculinity are associated with activity and aggression, women and femininity uphold the values of passivity and peace. This distinction of men as aggressors and women as passive victims marginalize women’s contribution to political violence. Even after being at the forefront of mobilizing political violence, women are disempowered by referring to them as companions and distant supporters. Having said that, an important aspect that needs special attention is even after being marginalized from the centre of radical violence:

Why do women become radicalised?

One of the main reasons for women’s involvement in the gamut of radical violence is tied down to the same reason for their exclusion – gender inequality. The constant feeling of powerlessness and lack of agency in the patriarchal world often drive them to a desire for action, an urge for power. In addition to this, The Centre on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (CGCC) adds several additional push-factors for both sexes, including socio-political conditions, the intention to derive economic benefits or a desire to create radical societal change. In recent research personal trauma and national honour has also been strong motivations for woman’s involvement in violent extremism. A strong example of these cases is of Leila Khaled who became the poster child for Palestinian militancy as a member of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Khaled was involved in multiple hijacking operations between 1969 and 1970 and became an icon of Palestinian resistance.

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After looking at women’s rampant involvement in radical violence, there is a need to study this aspect from a gender lens and hence the next question to be raised is:

Why it is important to study women’s role in the history of radicalized violence?

The absence of gender and women from the analysis of existing and emerging security studies “creates blind spots that hamper the effectiveness of prevention and counterterrorism policies, undermining stability, security and human rights across the globe. Engaging in study in this field would also instigate an intersectional view to reducing the use of sensationalized misnomers like “jihadi bride” which restrict the understanding of how changing conditions influence the actions of extremist organizations and their supporters.

The intersectional analyses will also call for the understanding of myriad factors that collage together in women’s involvement and their resistance in radical violence. An important example of this paradox can be seen in the context of Kashmir where women have differently mobilized themselves against the hegemonic presence of military and militants. On one hand, Asiya Andrabi the founding leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the nation) has opted a jihadist approach, on the other hand, Praveena Ahanger calls for a non-violent revolution through vigils and protests.

After probing the genealogical factors that contribute to “men-streaming”, the article also identifies effective ways to combat “men-streaming” in the context of radical violence. It names some successful examples like White Ribbon Campaign (Kaufman, 2001) and men’s clubs against violence (Tu-Anh, Trang, & Tam, 2013) that have already played an indispensable role in raising the issue of masculinity and violence. These examples are pivotal because they can act as a role model for their effectiveness in providing a sense of belonging, space for men to deconstruct their preconceptions of masculinity, and/or an opportunity for men to evaluate their harmful behaviors without judgement, all of which are needed to foster true behaviour change. Finally, Ezekilov concludes that inclusive and participatory planning processes can help to identify specific factors that are still unexplored but greatly contribute to the marginalization of young men and hence in their contribution to radical violence.


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