Radicalisation to Terrorism: The Question of Differences Between Women and Men

by Aleksandra Gasztold

The radicalisation is defined as a process of adopting an extremist system of values combined with expressing disapproval, support or use of violence and threat as a method of achieving political and social goals. It can be understood as progressive embracing opinions, assessments and views which support readiness to independent realisation of and (or) introducing changes in the society with various methods. These instruments include use of violence or encouraging others acting violently. This phenomenon concerns not only state of mind but can manifests itself in behaviours. Radicalisation relates to: individuals, groups and masses, their beliefs/opinions, feelings and actions.

Four approaches that analysis this problem focuses on differences in determinates, root causes and catalysts of radicalisation. First the Multi-Causal Approach assumes dependence and crossing of varied factors: psychological, economic, political or sociological. The second Political/Structural Approach recognizes the environment (system) as having the strongest impact on political needs, which can cause tensions and even lead to political violence. The third one Organizational Approach specifies terrorists/extremist organization’s strategy, where violence is a consciously chosen instrument of achieving political goals. The last, but not least is the Psychological Approach focusing on examination of individual motivations and context of radicalisation [Zięba & Szlachter 2015]

The socialization of political violence for both women and men can be examined taking into account: vulnerability, recruitment methods and tactics of indoctrination and action, with simultaneous consideration of the psychological, social, economic and political context. Conditions, factors and the catalysts (trigger events) should be considered through the prism of the systemic approach on various levels that interact with each other. For example, Alex P. Schmid proposes to study the problem of radicalization on three levels: micro, meso and macro . The first level deals with the issue of the individual’s identity and the role of factors creating a sense of frustration that can lead to aggression (anger discharge) or the need for deed / change, revenge or retaliatory actions. The meso level concerns environment surrounding the individual, including family, the closest relatives, colleagues,  neighbours,  and social networks. The macro level refers to the wider circle of the system: public opinion attitudes and behaviour trends [Schmid 2013].

Mia Bloom, examining women who committed suicide attacks, distinguished several motives that are the driving force of this type of terrorist activity. 4 R’s+1 revenge, redemption, respect, relationship, adding rape as a traumatic event that can strengthen the first three [Bloom]. Other scholars of the motives of women’s involvement in terrorism also emphasize personal factors, such as the experience of the death of a family member; infertility or remaining unmarried, which stigmatizes a woman in patriarchal societies [El Saaraj 2002, Victor 2003]; . However, personal factors (subjective goals / motives) may be irrational, incoherent  sense of self (compulsive actions, emotional immaturity, identity disorders, internally contradictory personality structure, etc.). Therefore, it is necessary to take into account the rationality of the terrorist organization/movement’s goal with which the individual identifies.

The problem of radicalization of women into terrorism – just like men – is currently one of the greatest challenges for counter-terrorism systems. This phenomenon occurs and expands regardless of terrorist nature. The increase in women’s crime took place in the 1960s and 1970s, especially those that were previously typical of men. A new type of “terrorist criminal” has appeared, playing the same roles as a man. Changes in the perception of female criminality followed from women’s participation in: the RAF/Red Army Faction (West Germany), AD/Action Direct (France), BR/Red Brigades (Italy), BP/Black Panthers (USA),  PCP/Shining Path (Peru) IRA/ Irish Republican Army (North Ireland, Great Britain), and ETA/ Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country, Spain/France). The involvement of women increased not only in secularist, leftist or ethno-nationalist movements. Modernly, more and more right-wing organizations, including religious ones, have in their structure women who perform military functions.

Differences between men and women are perpetuated by culture, and therefore by science. Searching for them is fixing the perception of a woman as „The Other” [de Bouvair 1949]. There is a well-established conviction that terrorist organizations are hostile environments for women. And if women are their members, they are perceived as enslaved and forced by the organization (blackmail, dishonor, threat, abduction) or the situation (occupation, loss of a family member, childlessness, disability, redemption, family honor/survival) and not as rational actor. The influence of gender stereotypes in the media and the scientific portrait of women  as a victim reinforces this belief. History of female terrorism, which has a long tradition (f.e. 19. century Narodnaya Vola) has not changed the view of women as a girl captive trough the negative circumstances and forced to behave against her nature. Is the political nature of man and woman so divergent? The tendency to express aggression may be conditioned by biology, but if the choice concerns political interactions, does this matter? Does aggression and in particular violence has a gender?



  • Beauvoir de Simone (1949), Le Deuxième Sexe. Tome 1, Les Faits et Les Mythes, Gallimard, Paris.
  • Bloom M.(2011), Bombshell: the Many Faces of Women Terrorism, University of Pennsylvania Press, London.
  • Victor B. (2002), Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers, Rodale, Emmausl
  • El Saaraj E. (2002), Suicide Bombers: Dignity, Despair, and the Need of Hope, „Journal of Palestine Studies” , No 4
  • Schmid A. P. (2013), Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review, „ICCT Research Paper”, The Hague, March 2013.
  • Zięba A., Szlachter D. (2015), Countering Radicalisation of Muslim Community Opinions on the EU Level, „International Studies. Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal” 2015, Vol.17.

Women in Security

During this edition of the Warsaw Security Forum (November 8-9, 2017), on the second day, there was a special panel Women in Security: Gender, Violent Extremism, and Terrorism with partnership of the Women in International Security (WIIS). Chair: Frances G. Burwell – Senior Fellow, Women In International Security; Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council, USA. Keynote speakers: Aleksandra Gasztold – Assistant Professor, University of Warsaw, Poland; Melissa Conley Tyler – National Executive Director, Australian Institute of International Affairs, Australia; Anna-Karin Eneström – Director General for Political Affairs, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sweden; Hamoon Khelghat-Doost – PhD Fellow, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

The discussion involved the following points:
• The extent of women’s involvement in violent extremism. The push and pull factors of radicalization and recruitment.
• The success of violent extremist organizations in leveraging gender norms to aid recruitment efforts.
• The multiple and varied roles women play in terrorism, including the claim that some jihadi organizations have been much more strategic about engaging women than other organisations.
• An overview of current government P/CVE programs and recommendations on how to strengthen gender-sensitive initiatives.
• Over the longer term, engagement and empowerment of women is crucial to combating violent extremism. Any successful counterterrorist strategy must address the role of women and should engage women

Anna-Karin Eneström spoke about how extensive women’s engagement is and what kind of knowledge the authorities possess about this phenomenon. Women play a role in almost all aspects of violent extremism and terrorism. Despite this, they are often stigmatized and idealized by governments and extremists. Then, Melissa Conley Tyler was asked to present a global view of female roles in terrorist organisations. We often think of women as victims of violent extremism, however, she underlined that it is not the only role they play, nor even the predominant one. According to Tyler, we have to take seriously the fact that those women exercised agency and that they were sympathizers, recruiters, propagandists, perpetrators, and preventers. Many different motives, just like in the case of male terrorists, can be found behind women’s decisions to join extremist groups. In some cases it may be perceived as a rational choice, even sometimes a way of life. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost presented his research on jihadi organizations and explained how they tend to engage women. He questioned the common opinion that such terrorist groups only oppress women.

Aleksandra Gasztold addressed the effective anti-terrorist strategies and female deradicalisation potential. She presented several deprogramming initiatives from all over the world (Sister Against Violent Extremism/SAVE, Women/Girls in Violent Extremism/WomEx, Pakistani Women Moderating Extremism/PWME). Aleksandra Gasztold claimed that nowadays we can’t build a viable security without women’s participation because they play crucial roles in local communities, upholding tradition, taking care of religious values, transmitting national legends and myths, as well as raising children. Mothers are the best peacemakers and role models for their children. Gasztold voiced a few recommendations for effective and improved counter-terrorist policy: scenarios development analysis (map of transformation of female illegal activities) and the need to establish the Database on Female Terrorism and Extremism (international one, as an extract of the common base).

During the session, the public were invited to join in the discussion. There was some scepticism among the speakers about resolving the problem of women’s participation in terrorism in Africa. The example of Nigeria was raised (Boko Haram), where membership in a terrorist group is often for women a chance for survival and education. Aleksandra Gasztold shared the opinion that promising solutions involve an elaboration at the UN-level and, further, an implementation of the comprehensive DDR program (disarment, demoblisation and reintegration), like it was with FARC members in Columbia, ETA in Spain, or LTTE on Sri Lanka.

In conclusion, it is worth calling Frances G. Burwell’s opening speech of the session, where she remarked that women are more than 50% of the world population. This fact is something that should be taken into consideration by decision-makers, and certainly not something to be ignored.