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Ruthless women

Ruthless women

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"Men are more naturally lured into terrorism by promises of power and glory"
(Deborah Galvin)



There are more unanswered questions in this area than probably any other topic in terrorism studies. Stereotypes, controversies, and myths are abundant (Talbot 2001). It would be nice if the research literature were settled on this topic, but it is not. It is not even settled in the field of criminology, where the study of female crime has been relatively stalled for decades. There is hope and urgency, however, for at least some emerging consensus. After all, women have long been involved in terrorist movements in significant numbers. During the 1970s and 1980s, many were prominently active in Latin American and European terrorist organizations. Many groups had a disproportionate number of women, such as the Red Army Faction and its sister organization, the Second of June Movement. Women have also been central figures in Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, Italy's Red Brigades, Spain's Basque ETA, the Japanese Red Army, Chechen terrorism, Middle Eastern and African terrorism. In fact, only 80% of terrorist operations in the late 20th century were led and executed by men, while the remaining 20% had female combatants or leaders.

Furthermore, the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 was organized by a woman, and many nineteenth-century revolutionaries were female. More than half the suicide bombers seen around the world since 2002 have been women. In places like Chechnya and Sri Lanka, women constitute at least 30 percent of the fighting force, and by current estimates, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade counts over 300 women in its special unit of highly trained female suicide bombers. Terrorist groups around the world actively seek women converts (from other ethnicities) because such people can carry European passports and evade most profiles. It is clear that women have been involved with terrorism for a long time. What motivates their long-standing and recent involvement?


One hypothesis claims that terrorism is somehow liberating for women. This is probably not true. In point of fact, only three terrorist groups (the German RAF, the Red Brigades in Italy and the Shining Path in Peru) were strongly committed to the cause of women's liberation and/or gender equality. Two women in particular, Ulrike Meinhof of the German RAF and August La Torre Guzman of the Shining Path, are identified by Griset & Mahon (2003) as being instrumental in developing group ideologies that included women. On the other hand, Islamist groups aren't known for their sensitivity to women's liberation, and in fact, Bloom (2005) reports that Islamic women who join terrorist groups because the "enemy" raped someone they know stand a good chance of being raped by their fellow terrorists, along with being used as "cannon fodder." It may be that female terrorists are standing up for their gender in some way, while simultaneously making a statement in other ways, but the reality is much more likely to involve patriarchal exploitation than female liberation. One reason why terrorists seek to use women martyrs is to shame more men into joining the cause. It always seems to be that male purposes dominate. For these reasons, and many more, it may well be that terrorism will always remain a man's sport. However, the times are changing.

Гудрун Эннслин Ульрика Майнхоф Петра Шельм

Gudrun Ensslin

Ulrike Meinhof

Petra Schelm

Cragin & Daly (2009) make the case that women are essential to modern terrorist movements. They serve a psychological function of promoting the terrorist ethos. They do this as recruiters and nurturers of male terrorists (who dominate the ranks of those getting killed), and hence, even as widows and orphans, they serve a valuable purposes. In sum, they "galvanize" a terrorist movement. However, what do we make of female suicide bombers? Surely, they have a different purpose. Probably the best study on this subject is by Speckhard & Ahkmedova (2006), who argue the true purpose is to dominate political discourse. Their psycho-social analysis of Chechen female suicide terrorists found nothing like the "cult of martyrdom" other researchers have found in Palestine (Victor 2003). The Chechen approach involves making songs and pre-event videos for release to the general public after the terrorist attack. The Palestinian approach involves making martyrdom videos for distribution to Palestinian audiences only. While certainly those who embrace martyrdom have a religious component, a political component (liberation or social justice?) may be more prevalent among the motivations for Chechen female terrorism. Speckhard & Ahkmedova (2006) even speculate about a motivation involving "survivor guilt." This is interesting because it suggests that in war-torn, traumatized regions, women feel "dirty, contaminated, or guilty" about having survived, and becoming a suicide bomber can be seen as some sort of "cleansing ritual." There's also a practical, pragmatic aspect (possibly liberating) in the decision over choosing to die versus being killed. In other words, the liberation element may boil down to nothing more than the opportunity to do something active rather than passive. Bloom (2005) makes a similar point that the strongest feminist element may be in the decision to "do something" rather than sit cooped up at home with children.


One of the things related to the idea of liberation is equity, especially occupational equity. Women have to fight constantly for recognition they are equivalent (or possibly better) than men. Occupational equity involves the element of excitement in the tension between aspirations and achievements. While many women aspire to be all they can be, only a few make it to their desired points of achievement. In standard criminological theory (Liska 1971), men are the ones who usually turn to crime because they don't reach their desired points of achievement. Women, however, react differently from men in terms of such frustration. I know this will sound offensive, but frankly, women are more capable of accepting dull, average lives. In more flattering terms, they avoid become double-losers by adding a criminal career to a boring occupational career. The women who turn to crime, therefore, don't tend to come from the ranks of losers. They come from the ranks of winners. They are what criminologists call "able" criminals -- smart, proficient, versatile, and eager to learn. If their excitement can be channeled toward terrorism, it is entirely possible that women will become the more proficient terrorists.

In many cases, terrorists have found that some women respond well to military training. It's unknown how well the nuns (far right) can shoot, but the female members of Hamas, PIJ, and Fatah (near right) are excellent sharpshooters. Clearly the more exciting and prestigious position for women is to carry a gun, as opposed to the less fit women who usually only get to throw grenades or wear suicide belts. Waiting lists are reportedly long for the summer camps set up all over the Gaza strip (and elsewhere around the world) for terrorism groups to send their best female recruits for training. Nobody knows exactly how sophisticated is such training, but the mind boggles at all the advanced tactics they might be taught.


Patty Hearst

Patty Hearst (revolutionary Tanya)


Bernardine Dohrn

A interesting variation of the female liberation approach is the sexual liberation thesis. The article Sexy, Tough, or Inept? examines this "sexy babe with issues" hypothesis, and finds the common stereotype to derive from British fiction, where a typical, sexy, Irish, female terrorist seduces a British soldier and then kills him, the idea of dying at the hands of a gorgeous woman being perceived as the ultimate good time. In the U.S., two violent 1970s groups came close to helping realize these perceptions among the American audience with two American versions of "sexy" female terrorists (pictured below): the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) with its iconic Patty Hearst; and the Weathermen, with its female leader, Bernardine Dohrn.

"Sexy" American Female Terrorists

With the above two examples, Patty Hearst was presumably brainwashed, and it is unknown how much the quest for gender equality motivated Bernardine Dohrn, and likewise, how much her looks helped make her a leader. It may be that the mug shot played into public sympathy in some way (it was kind of like a recruitment poster for left-wing causes back in those days). Granted, the American experience is limited. It might be worthwhile to examine non-American female terrorists for purposes of examining the "sexiness" factor. The Red Army Faction (mentioned above), might quality for a good case study in this regard, since many regard them as having some of the world's most beautiful terrorists (visit Baader-Meinhof.com). Trnka (2007) analyzes the RAF in some detail, from a gendered perspective, noting Gudren Ensslin and second-generation member Margrit Schiller were the real "sexual revolutionaries" in the group, rather than the namesake, Ulrike Meinhof (focused on below). Apparently, the "sexual" aspect of terrorism is a little rough, the favorite read of Ensslin being Marquis de Sade's Josephine. A more "typically" sexualized group (one based on indoctrination more by sex than by drugs and sex) is the Japanese Red Army, led by female leader Fusako Shigenobu (pictured below along with her followers).

"Sexy" Non-American Female Terrorists

Fusako Shigenobu

Fusako Shigenobu

Known internationally as the "Modern Mata Hari," the "Red Queen of Terror," and/or the "Most Feared Female Terrorist," Fusako Shigenobu is indisputably the world's most beautiful terrorist. She was strikingly beautiful in her youth, and worked her way up out of poverty by being a topless dancer. She was also quite ruthless, once having one of her female followers murdered for becoming pregnant and/or passing a napkin the wrong way. Her group, the JRA, was quite successful at raising ransom money and arming themselves throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and they were the only group prior to al-Qaeda to launch an attack against the U.S. on U.S. soil. She is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence after finally getting caught in 2001. Her life story is the inspiration behind the Kill Bill movie series where Lucy Liu plays her as the character O-Ren.


Лейла Халед

Leila Khaled

Female terrorists are definitely fascinating, as both people in themselves and to observers of them. In conjunction with the sexual mystique of female terrorism, there is also a certain public fear and insecurity that surrounds the issue. Terrorist groups know this, and use it for psychological advantage, but the sexual allure seems to be co-mingled with the newsworthiness. MacDonald (2001:19) argues that "not only do such women take on a masculine role; aggressive, predatory, and political; they also appear to become more attractive as women by doing so." Two cases in particular resulted in the terrorist becoming a world sex symbol: (1) Leila Khaled, the Palestinian hijacker who became a media darling; and (2) Ulrike Meinhof, of the West German RAF, who was mourned by thousands of followers after her funeral in 1976. Female terrorists not only make good media spokespersons, but terrorist groups know that operations carried out by women will garner extensive media coverage. Use of women in terrorism also helps to make the group look less evil. Gender alone is enough to evoke public sympathy. As Nacos (2007) puts it, the use of female terrorism makes terrorism look like it was caused for love. Khaled and Meinhoff each represent nothing more than being the poster child for terrorism in the Middle East and Europe. Take a look at the following pictures of them, and ask yourself if you think they are drop-dead gorgeous or what? The Khaled photo is actually one of the most-adored photos in the Middle East as the Meinhof photo is in Europe. As poster girls, they are emblematic or archetypal of a movement, cause, ideal, or circumstance, but they are even more than that.

The Poster Girls of Female Terrorism

They are gorgeous because the media has conditioned our aesthetics or sense of beauty. The media has also conditioned us into pseudo-knowledge about female terrorism because it is confused about terrorism in general. The new media (like YouTube) has deluded us into thinking better knowledge can be derived from sharing video and pictures with a wider topography of audience. It is a war of aesthetics and personal taste. It is likely that female terrorism will become more of a media issue in years to come. There is market demand for female terrorism. It is likely that female terrorism will proliferate in some media-mediated fashion. Who knows what the future of female terrorism holds? Who will be the next icon? Who knows who will be the next poster girl?


Not likely, but who knows? Although the "natural born killer" and "sneakiness" thesis have long been abandoned in criminology, there is still frequent resurgence of the idea that women are less moral and more ruthless somehow. Women who do bad things must be bad women, it is frequently assumed. Galvin (1983), however, thinks that it's all a myth, for example, stating that female terrorists have almost uniformly been portrayed as "more violent, ruthless and uncompromising than their male counterparts." Holding the position that it's not a myth is Laqueur (1999:38), who argues that women are more fanatical and have a greater capacity for seeing other people suffer. Anecdotal evidence can be found, such as the British experience in the Irish conflict or the German experience in battling the RAF, where MacDonald (2001) points out that women fought more courageously than men. They stood their ground, often firing their automatic weapons in a more unflinching manner.

Вера Засулич

Vera Zasulich

Stack-O'Connor's (2007) examination of the first modern woman terrorist (Vera Zasulich) belies a case which offers a glimpse into a common personality characteristic which may be a defining feature of female terrorism. It includes being unconcerned for normal manners and courtesy. Based on such observations, it might be said that female terrorists lack the social skills to get along in polite company. Whether or not this makes them immoral is another matter. Whether or not it makes them ruthless is out of the question. The "bad mother" or "irredeemable adulteress" story is usually something concocted by counterterrorism authorities to play down the martyrdom aspect when a female terrorist gets killed.


It's both, about equally. Eager (2008) points out that many women terrorists have been attracted to right-wing groups, and Martin (2008) insists that many women are attracted to left-wing groups. Ethno-nationalist terrorism appears to be a common attractor for females, but so are religious movements. It may be the case that left-wing terrorism attracts more women interested in leadership positions or leadership decision-making, since those leftist groups are more likely to tolerate female leadership. Right-wing groups, on the other hand, may attract more women followers. There is usually something more hateful about right-wing groups, and sometimes, female involvement there is explained by a presumably longer sense of grievance, hate, and desire for vengeance. Studies have found that women who commit violent crimes are more likely to hold traditional/conservative views than liberal ones (Eager 2008), but there is little evidence of a greater capacity for grievance, hate, or vengeance.


A few are, probably, but there are limits to how far one might want to press this "feeblemindedness" or "dumb blond" thesis. According to Galvin (1983), a significant number of "women are recruited into terrorist organizations by boyfriends ... [and] a significant feature that characterizes the involvement of the female terrorist is the male or female lover/accomplice scenario." In fact, one of the most reliable predictors of a women's involvement in terrorism is her relationship to a former or current terrorist in that movement.

It is, of course, always possible that what appears to be duped behavior is actually self-directed behavior. According to experts like Yoram Schweitzer (2006) and Farhana Ali (2005), women tend to be motivated by reasons that are more "personal" than those that influence men. Mia Bloom (2005) summarizes these as the four R's: Revenge, Redemption, Respect, and Relationship, and she gives the following examples:

- The loss of a loved one (usually the dominant male in their life—their husband, father, or brother)
- A need to reinvent themselves because of alleged or real sexual misconduct
- An inability to conceive children or being considered not marriageable
- A desire to improve the status of women in their society
- Proof that they are just as dedicated as the men to the Cause
- Being the sisters, daughters, or wives of well-known terrorists

It is clear that a number of motivations as well as roles exist for women in terrorism. A representative sample of this diversity is reflected in the Griset and Mahon (2003) typology (below) which identifies four major roles played out by female terrorists:

(1) Sympathizers -- provide support and resources, but are not involved in particular actions
(2) Spies -- serve as decoys or messengers, though they are not usually engaged in violence
(3) Warriors -- participate in violent activities, but are not decision makers
(4) Dominant Forces -- hold leadership roles, make decisions for the group, engage in violence, and safeguard and interpret the group’s ideological stance


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Now, clearly there is a difference between terrorist leadership and political leadership, but after all, there are only a certain number of well-known pathways for women to rise to top positions. Garance Franke-Rute, who blogs at thegarance.com gives us the rundown on these pathways (as follows). They are instructive in the sense that rising to the top of a political organization (or the head of a country) is similar to the process of rising to the top of a terrorist organization.

(1) the Outsider-Savior -- this type rises to power after some major national crisis and usually represents a platform of healing and renewal. Their rise is assisted if men have made a hash of things. Real-life examples include Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was elected president of Liberia in 2005 after a 14-year civil war, and Johanna Sigurdardottir, elected prime minister of Iceland in 2009 after the previous government fell to protesters. In both cases, and especially with the lesbian prime minister of Iceland, their platform included the charge that men are just genetically too violent.

(2) the Warrior-Defender -- this type has usually served in the military or in some defense minister capacity, or at the very least, is an expert in security or international affairs. Real-life examples include Michelle Bachelet, elected as the first female president of Chile in 2006, or more prototypical, the original “Iron Lady,” Golda Meir, who became prime minister of Israel in 1969.

(3) the Legacy -- this type is by far the most common pathway to leadership for women. It is the oldest and surest route. It requires that they be the widow, daughter or wife of a famous leader. Real-life examples include Hillary Rodham Clinton, Corazon Aquino of Philippines, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina. There are many other examples.
(4) the Party Leader -- this type consists of women who have been successful at political fund-raising, lobbying, or mass communications in terms of being a media personality. Real-life examples include Angela Merkel, who became the first female chancellor of Germany in 2005 after leading its center-right Christian Democratic Union into a larger parliamentary coalition, and Margaret Thatcher, who did something similar with the UK Conservative Pary in 1975.

Women as terrorists
Criminal Justice Megalinks
October 16, 2010

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