What role do women play in violent extremism?

Women extremists
Women members of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) participate in firearms training.
Recent research on gender and extremism has shown that women in terror networks are not necessarily the victims or passive actors that they are often portrayed to be. Frequently, women are more effective bridges for communication between cells than men as well as strategically useful perpetrators of violence because they attract relatively little suspicion.

Two members of the CREST research team – Dr Cerwyn Moore and Dr Elizabeth Morrow from the University of Birmingham – recently attended a workshop in London that convened interdisciplinary academics and practitioners to discuss the role of gender in extremism. The workshop featured delegates from the fields of criminology, psychology, medicine, crime science and international relations who, over the course of three days, learned from each other and identified future avenues for collaborative research.

The workshop’s presentations emphasised the important role played by gender in the operation of on and offline extremist social networks. Dr Paul Gill, a senior lecturer in security and crime science at University College London, discussed the different degrees of centrality possessed by men and women in extremist networks. After examining the social networks of Provisional Irish Republican Army members, Gill and his colleagues discovered that men had a greater number of connections within the network than women; on the other hand, more women than men served as bridges of information and linked otherwise unconnected service units.

Elizabeth Pearson, an Associate Fellow at RUSI, discussed the ways in which the twitter community of ISIS supporters is gendered. Pearson found that different symbols were employed by male and female users. While men favoured photos of fighters, the profiles of women frequently featured images of the burqa. Pearson found that male ISIS supporters on Twitter had more online influence than their female counterparts as measured by the number of followers and retweets. However, tweets from women were favourited more often than male tweets.

Several of the speakers acknowledged that women are often wrongly understood as being subservient to men, victims rather than perpetrators, and apolitical. This misrepresentation is erroneous and dangerous because it encourages a gender stereotype that extremist groups can take advantage of and use to their tactical advantage. CREST researcher Dr Cerwyn Moore spoke about the increased use of female suicide bombers that took place during the second phase of the Chechen conflict from 2002 to 2004. As a tactical response to the widespread arrest of Chechen men, the rebels began to deploy female suicide bombers who came under less scrutiny from law enforcement, and were able to reach targets with greater ease.

The tactical advantage of female suicide bombers was reinforced by criminal psychologist Dr Helen Gavin from the University of Huddersfield, who observed that women have less suspicion attached to them, and that their use as suicide bombers increases an extremist group’s number of combatants and will boost publicity and media shock value.

Further dispelling the myth of the passive woman, Dr Gemma Edwards, a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester, contended that the suffragettes began to use violence because they believed it was the most effective strategy to win votes for women, and that coercion rather than persuasion would bring about the change they desired.

Edwards’s presentation revealed that social networks played a critical role in influencing individual suffragettes to embrace, or resist, militant strategies. Drawing on two suffragette case studies, Edwards found that Helen Watt’s membership of a homogenous network that supported violent action was an important factor in her decision to adopt militancy. By contrast, Mary Blathwayt was part of a heterogeneous network that included members who decried violence, and this militated against her utilisation of that strategy.

When it comes to extremism, gender matters. CREST researchers will maintain this focus and are funding a PhD studentship that examines the role played by gender in violent extremism; the interaction of gender with the ideological, political, and organisational features of militant groups; and the part played by women in terrorist group engagement and desistence.

This workshop was organised by Dr Paul Gill, UCL and funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).