Female Experience Matters in Security Studies


by Aleksandra Gasztold

 The basic goal of scholarship within the heterogeneous feminist movement is the advancement of a theory based on the female experiences and using the language of women. Moreover, the purpose is to ask questions that were previously ignored or avoided. In doing so, the emotional involvement of the researcher is permitted, in contrast to the artificiality of male objectivity and distance. In this conception, the research process is intended to shape the consciousness of both the object of research and the researcher. They are meant to reflect practical knowledge, which, among other things, is conditioned by their experiences in everyday life. The research  in field of security studies should take into account women’s experiences. However, it is questionable whether awareness-raising features in scholarship are actually desired. Consequently, qualitative research is favoured, especially participant observation and analysis of experiences and case studies. While the practical nature of feminism imposes such an approach, social sciences and humanities cannot always come to terms with it. To the contrary, the feminist works are based on a critical analysis of traditional theories and concepts, paradigms and language. Furthermore, they entail a feminist conceptual grid, as well as premises and explanations that are useful for both theory and practice. Feminism recognises that traditional theories of political science marginalise the importance of women, as well as the role of gender as a category in social and political life. The main aim of feminism is to raise awareness and thereby universalise this approach. This also marginalises the role of quantitative research, which is perceived as a patriarchal tool enclosing science within the confines of male vision. Feminism perceives itself as a new body of knowledge about existing problems. In this view, an analysis of the involvement of women in the security sphere, particularly in relation to political violence, does not serve to set women against men, but to broaden our knowledge of human nature and of political activity.

The basic goal of feminism in security studies seeks to introduce the category of gender as a constant variable that conditions reality and to improve our knowledge of women’s experiences. This is based on the conviction that by exposing unequal gender relations and looking at them from a woman’s point of view, it is possible to establish the sort of comprehensive definition of security that modern critical thinking has been aspiring to develop. Due to the traditional understanding of internal and external functions of the state in ensuring security the roles of women have been marginalised and even omitted. This stems from the long-lasting associations of masculinity with militarism, which lies on the foundation of  maintaining security.

Violence is an intrinsic part of security musings. Violence against women, especially sexual violence, cannot in any way be compared to the experience of this sort of violence against men. It is believed to be greater in militarised societies and endorsed in patriarchal systems (e.g., through legislation, controlling women’s right to their own body or image and other customary practices). The dominant institution perpetuating this status quo and reflecting society on a micro-scale is the family. Male supremacy is not based on physical strength but rather on the acceptance of a certain system of values. A significant role is played by socialisation and universally accepted preconceptions about the supremacy of men, which consolidate their superior position. The patriarchal communities have a tendency to combine cruelty with sexuality as an expression not so much of evil but of power, where sadism is tied with ‘the masculine role’ and the experience of being a victim with ‘the feminine role’ [Millett, 2005, p. 48].

Supporters of the feminist perspective have noted that the gender aspect is critical to the comprehension of multiple determinants and political processes (within security). Gender is a social construct, and it therefore creates and impacts not only the individual but also all of society. Feminist theory can be used to analyse various security phenomena, including armed conflict, terrorism, revolution and other actions related to political violence because it focuses on research at the level of the individual, both men and women. Gender difference as a variable that makes up social reality is crucial in the understanding of political behaviour and in security studies. It permits scholars to broaden the scope of analysis and to show that particular phenomena have broad cultural, social and even biological roots that mould their genesis, structure, functioning and efficacy. The feminist approach enables a more complete analysis of women’s motives in undertaking political activity and their methodology thus making it possible to demonstrate the specificity of security-related behaviour.


Further reading:

Gasztold A (2017). „A Feminist Approach to Security Studies„, Przegląd Politologiczny 3/2017.
Light M., Halliday F. (1994), Gender and International Relations, in: Contemporary International Relations: A Guide to Theory
, eds. A. J. R. Groom, M. Light, Pinter Publishers.
Millett K. (2005), Theory of Sexual Politics , in: Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology , eds. A. E. Cudd, R. O. Andreasen Blackwell Publishing.


Desire of aggression – assessment of female terrorists’ attraction to violence by Aleksandra Gasztold


Appetitive aggression can be explained as the use of violence and/or the desire of harm to a victim for the purpose of experiencing violence-related enjoyment. If it is use as a tool it is: proactive, appetitive, predatory and goal directed (1). The feelings experienced by preparatory most are positive. It is worth underlining that the final goal may not always be a reward but simply the delight of cruelty. Interestingly this kind of aggression is found only in humans and the Hominini species, regardless of sex. This phenomenon very often appears or increases when the victim struggles. Resistance can cause excitement and increase the use of violence. Some scholars look for the roots of appetitive aggression in the development of hunting behaviour. However, this reward-driven mechanism that responds to hunting-related rituals is only to observe in men (2). Another type of cruel behavior is reactive aggression. It features hostility, affectiveness, defensiveness and retaliation.

Appetitive aggression among female combatants has not been studied systematically. However, some analysis proved, that there is no difference between male and female fighters in aggressive behavior in war and post-conflict regions (3). Aggressive behavior during wartime may be a mixture of reactive aggression (impulsive, affective and uncontrolled behavior provoked by a perceived or real threat) and the aforementioned appetitive aggression motivated by intrinsic reward (suppression, emotion unleashing). Violence can be seen as fascinating and exciting or it can be a form of adopting to the battlefield’s environment, or a result of huge psychological oppression.
Nevertheless, it can be problematic to compare the experience of war combatants with criminals and terrorists. Organized crime (terrorism overwhelmingly is a collective action) is subjected to other conditions (internal and external, subjective and objective) and the catalysts of radicalisation to brutal violence may be different than during wartime (4). The combatants are often directly and repeatedly affected by the violence. Conversely, terrorists path to violence can be a phase process – like a metaphor for a staircase (5) – and many of them have had a „normal life” before.

There is a well-established belief that terrorist organizations are hostile environments for women. If women are members they are perceived as enslaved and forced to stay either by the organization (through blackmail, threat, abduction) or the situation (occupation, loss of family member, childlessness, disability, redemption, family honor) and are not seen as rational actors. For example, a well-known American female suicide terrorist researcher Mia Bloom, has identified five factors (motives) of engagement, so called the Four R’s plus One: revenge, redemption, respect, relationship, and rape (which is a tool that can contribute to revenge or shame). All these elements can overlap (6). Moreover, they all underline the traumatic position of a woman who refuses to admit her fate or torment her with emotions (love, hatred, despair), heroically performs self-sacrifice. Who is responsible for her decision? Geopolitical situation, dysfunction of the state, social system, or is she herself responsible? Special type of terrorist attacks, when the perpetrator sacrifices own life is appetitive aggression or reactive one? And why so easy we are searching for the answers in external and oppressive conditions while analysing female terrorists activity? Perhaps accepted is to recognize women as a victim, not as a monster with hunger to kill? Compelling argument is that terrorist are not psychopaths (7).

Searching for answers to the motives leading to terrorist activity expand the studies on terrorism, which will usually be in the perspective of cultural roles and images about ourselves and those that threaten us. It does not improve understanding about how these women build relationships with the outside world and why terrorist organizations recruit girls and women. It may, however, be suggested how organizations search for candidates, among others by manipulating the motives presented by Bloom. However, the reduction of women’s motivation to the five suggested R’s does not always have to apply. The formulation of general categories and assumptions for terrorist activity and motives can not apply to all terrorist forms and trends. The phenomenon of terrorism is not homogeneous, often due to the different social contexts in which the organization operates so the catalysts can be different and often unique (8). It does not matter if we are researching women or men. Challenging topics that remain are: the gender of the subject of analysis, the gender of researcher and his/her perception of gender roles in a given historical time, imprisoned in a given culture.

by @AGasztold

(1) R.G. Fontaine, Disentangling the Psychology and Law of Instrumental and Reactive Subtypes of Aggression, „Psychology, Public Policy, and Law” 2007; Vol.13(2), pp.143–165.
(2) D. Jones, Human behavior: Killer instincts, „Nature” 2008, Vol. 451, pp. 512–515.
(3) R. Weierstall, T. Elbert, The Appetitive Aggression Scale—development of an Instrument for the Assessment of Human’s Attraction to Violence, „European Journal of Psychotraumatology” 2011; Vol. 2.; D. Meyer-Parlapanis, R. Weierstall, C. Nandi, M. Bambonyé, T. Elbert, A. Crombach, Appetitive Aggression in Women: Comparing Male and Female War Combatants, „Frontiers in Psychology” January 2016, Vol. 6, p.1-8.
(4) A. Zięba, D. Szlachter, Countering Radicalisation of Muslim Community Opinions on the EU Level, „International Studies. Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal”, Vol. 17, No. 1/2015, pp.119-144
(5) F. Maghaddam, Staircase to Terrorism. A Psychological Exploration, „American Psychologist” February-March 2005, Vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 161-169.
(6) M. Bloom, Bombshell: the Many Faces of Women Terrorism, C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd: 2011, p. 234-236.
(7) J. Horgan, Psychology of Terrorism, Routledge 2002.
(8) See: A.Zięba, Problem udziału kobiet w organizacjach terrorystycznych, [in:] P.de la Fuente, W. Gzicki, C. Taracha (ed.), Terroryzm wczoraj i dziś: wybrane problemy, Lublin 2015, pp. 49-65.