Women and Terrorism - English

Terrorism, She Wrote

By Charity Scribner11.02.2015Global Policy

When we think about terrorism, we think about men. But there is an increasing number of women taking up arms and bombs. A historical perspective.


Picture this: Hayat Boumeddiene, the woman who helped in the recent Paris attacks, cloaked in a niqab and brandishing a crossbow. Or this: Sajida al-Rishawi, the Iraqi suicide bomber, opening her coat to show explosives duct-taped to her body. We have seen these images replayed in the coverage of both the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the failed hostage-release negotiations between Jordan and ISIS. These photos are prime feed for sensational media. They illustrate the seductive narrative that Muslim women, beneath their veils, are forces of radical evil. But in order to understand and counter the real dangers of Islamism, we need to dispel this myth. We need context and analysis. We need to see alternatives.

The prevailing accounts of these women– radicalized by Islamist ideologues and enjoined into revolutionary violence– have dangerous precedents that call for our attention.

For the past ten years I have studied the representation of female militants and terrorists. Based on this research, I argue that US mass media has done little more than speculate that women like Boumeddiene and Rishawi are “reactionary” or “emotional,” that they are lured into jihad and used as pawns by men who want to keep them submissive. If we rely on such conventional thinking and fail to examine the deliberate choices that each of these individuals has made, we will miss key lessons about the development of political identity. Instead, we should revisit the histories of earlier women who joined and, in several cases, led some of the most brutal terrorist campaigns in recent memory.

No remorse for her victims

Americans of a certain age won’t forget the iconic pictures of Patty Hearst with a machine gun slung across her shoulder, taken during a San Francisco bank robbery staged by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. But a better figure of comparison is Ulrike Meinhof, a founding member of the Red Army Faction, or RAF, the left-wing organization that terrorized West Germany from 1970 until 1998. Over the course of four years, Meinhof was involved in multiple terrorist actions, including the 1972 bombing of the Springer Press Headquarters in Hamburg, which injured thirty-eight people, some gravely. Her goals: to resist the genocide of the Vietnam War, and through this resistance, to avenge Nazi genocide.

Meinhof, a journalist and filmmaker, had abandoned her career and children, committing herself to a program of subversive violence. Publishers and producers ran every shot they could find of her. She committed suicide in prison in 1976, but second and then third waves of RAF militants rolled out and carried on with a terrible hijacking in 1977 and a string of assassinations into the nineties.

Images of radical women are unusually potent. Broadcasters derive enormous leverage from them. At the same time these pictures also attract women to extremist organizations like the RAF, al Qaeda, and ISIS. As the Iraqi-American activist Zainab Salbi argues, they give Muslims a false sense of escape from the strictures of Islamic fundamentalism. They eclipse the important counterexamples of Muslim women who shape the public sphere through their careers in fields ranging from domestic work, to law, to architecture.

The spectacular footage of female militants also makes it hard to see the particular predicament each faces. But we do have fragments of their back-stories. Rishawi lost her closest family in the Iraqi-American conflict in Anbar Province. Records of her trial in 2006 indicate that she expressed no remorse for her victims. Perhaps her personal grief made this impossible for her. In a 2010 interrogation, Boumeddiene, a French national of Algerian origin, condemned “the killing of innocents” by American military campaigns. Before turning to terrorism, both women had bleak work prospects. Boumeddiene was a cashier. Rishawi sold vegetables; she is thought to have been illiterate. These contexts shape political identity and compel some women to make radical, but nevertheless deliberate choices about how to lead their lives.

To be sure, there are substantial differences between the trajectories of Ulrike Meinhof, Rishawi, and Boumeddiene. They were born generations apart and into different social classes. There are also distinctions to be made between the organizations each represents. The RAF inflicted their violence domestically, while today’s jihadists train their weapons on the global horizon. And yet there are crucial links among the women who were drawn into these movements.

The struggle for equality

Comparing these three militants, we can investigate the conditions that produce political conflict. This line of inquiry will break new ground. It will help us to understand the choices of a good number of Muslim women, who, like Rishawi and Boumeddiene, have limited opportunities in the working world. Fortunately, a number of grassroots initiatives have already responded to this need. In the Paris metropolitan region, a woman-led agency called “Emplois Soeurs Musulmanes” helps jobseekers overcome the professional discrimination that keeps too many women of Northern African origin at home. And in Lebanon, the NGO “Basmeh wa Zeitooneh” trains Syrian female refugees to produce and market fine embroidery work. These alternative agendas are underreported.

Alice Schwarzer, a prominent German writer and publisher, has been central to the effort to distinguish feminism from terrorist revolt. In an editorial reflecting on Ulrike Meinhof and other extremists of the 1970s, she raised an important point: Women were already marginal in the male-dominated societies of postwar Europe. Why would they want to give up any of that agency by becoming fugitives? Women’s prospects have brightened, but still the struggle for equality continues across all walks of life, from the secular to the strictly observant, and from the native-born to the immigrant.

The stories of Rishawi and Boumeddiene prompt us to reconsider Schwarzer’s argument and ask how Muslim women might move from the margin to the center of power. There are other avenues to sovereignty, ones that don’t involve taking up arms. But in order to see those possibilities, we need to demand new images–in fact, a whole new vision–from our media.



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