Female terrorism: women and jihad

One of the most dramatic expressions of female violence can be found in terrorism, as here the violence generally confined to the domestic realm, targeting intimates, is directed against members of the general public, and can involve the death of the woman herself in the case of suicide bombing.

The rise of female terrorism, including suicide bombing, reveals how women’s violence, traditionally confined to the private realm, can also manifest in the public domain in the service of extremism. Historically, women have been a statistically low risk to members of the public or strangers. Their primary victims, when they were violent, far less frequently than men, were their children, their intimate partners and their own bodies - in extreme acts of selfharm.

It was reported in 2017 that ISIS had deployed 38 women to carry out suicide operations in that year, as part of the attempt to hold onto Mosul in Iraq. This was one of the largest cases of women acting as suicide bombers in recent history and revealed the changing roles of females within ISIS, not simply acting as supports to male terrorists, but being enlisted as front line operatives (Moore, 2017).

A deep fear of the other, as embodied in Muslims, the dark-skinned ‘foreigner’, combined with the unthinking dismissal of women, particularly Muslim women, as oppressed, passive and weak, creates a form of collective blindness in relation to female jihadis. This has been exploited by terrorist organisations, playing on these common expectations and misconceptions of Muslim women. This is crudely portrayed in the 2018 television series, The Bodyguard. When convicted these women arc likely to receive the classification of restricted status and to be detained for extensive periods of time. Davids (2011) describes the rise of Islamophobia since the 9/11 attacks, using a psychoanalytic lens to view the activation of an inner racist in the face of fear and uncertainty.

A recent report entitled Muslim Women in Prison identified the specific challenges faced by many Muslim women, even those with non-violent offences, including isolation and marginalisation within both custody and their own community, and the absence of specialist support. Additionally, their dislocation from their communities makes it harder to access housing or their children on release, as well as difficulties in relation to immigration status (Buncy & Ahmed, 2014).

Denial of female violence and sensationalist reportage of female terrorists

Coverage of these acts often reveals excitement about the fact that these perpetrators of terror arc women, as the juxtaposition of womanhood and extreme violence appears particularly shocking, sensational and horrifying.

Since 2000, women have been known to take part in jihads. They have been involved in terrorism since the Second Intifada in Israel and are key players in Boko Haram’s reign of terror in Nigeria. Scholars have detected a more nuanced and complex pattern of motivations by females who choose to become suicide bombers, than in the men who do so. Furthermore, the role of shame and stigma in contributing to the women’s decisions to join terrorist organisations plays a particular part in the lives of women who become suicide bombers.

The recent ease of the ‘first all-female terror attack’ planned on Westminster in April 2017 configured the women as acting without male involvement, and reports the fact of their gender status in a sensationalistic but somewhat trivial-ising manner, as if describing a ‘girl band’, with evident excitement and titillation (The Independent, 2017).

Terrorism and psychopathic states of mind

The notion of psychopathic states of mind, described in Chapter 7, is relevant to understanding how acts of such violence can be perpetrated. In this state of great excitement and release, extreme action is possible, with no thought or concern for destructive consequences like pain or injury. The impetus to act is fuelled by religious and political conviction and ideological righteousness, the certainty that violence fulfils a divine commandment and the belief that the victims deserve to die.

This movement from ordinary compassion and fear to psychopathic states of mind and absolute conviction/commitment to violence is a lethal one. The psychopathic state of mind is transient but enables extreme action, remorselessness, sadism and cruelty, even in a personality that is not fundamentally disturbed. Many women who engage in terrorism arc not brainwashed by men, nor hapless victims, necessarily, but equally are not character disturbed psychopaths - they arc angry, traumatised and ready to kill for what they believe in, expressing the deepest level of hatred against societies that have often rejected, humiliated or offended them or their families. This rage has been crystallised around an ideology of purification through killing, with the promise of an idyllic afterlife and the destruction of the infidels.

The use of violence as a defence against shame often plays a crucial role in the development of terrorism. The case of women who are shamed and oppressed within a racist society is graphically illustrated in radicalised women, who become jihadists. The motivations of female terrorists reflect their experiences of marginalisation, persecution, vulnerability and suggestibility, alongside choices to commit violence, indicative of moral agency. Women’s shame has interpersonal roots both in their earliest relationships where they felt unwanted, unworthy, bad and stupid, and in encounters with wider society, for example in the shame caused by poverty, racism and unemployment. One reaction to shame is to enact violence, designed to wreak revenge and to empower an actor who has felt humiliated and hurt.

Violent acts defend against underlying depression both in the perpetrators and those who encounter them. Offenders find that violent action can temporarily lead to exhilarating feelings of conquest and relief, but then fade, leaving them feeling guilty and desperate; so too can those who work with them prefer the intoxicating feelings of anger or excitement to the dreary states of mind that follow. If the reality that is left behind is oppressive, painful and unwelcome then entering another world is fantastic relief.

One of the most ‘exciting’ and dangerously intoxicating states of mind can be found in the suicidal and homicidal fantasies and actions of terrorism. In such situations all barriers to action arc removed and the usual inhibitions wedding a woman to life rather than death are rendered impotent. Here too there is a reciprocal relationship between the violent perpetrator, who enacts a dramatic act of homicide/suicidc, and the spectators who watch in excited terror.

Terrorism and motherhood

We know that women are not supposed to blow themselves up; they are expected to stay at home and give birth. Women entering into the realm of terrorism shatters this revered notion of femininity.

I view the particular horror reserved for female terrorism as a dramatic illustration of the idealisation and denigration of womanhood, and motherhood in particular. The myth of women as naturally gentle and passive is shattered, literally and metaphorically, by the recent rise of female suicide bombers, who kill themselves, others and sometimes their own children. I suggest that the idealisation of women has rendered it almost impossible to conceive of them as capable of serious acts of political violence and that they arc often seen as passive victims, groomed into taking part in these suicide bombings.

There is evidence that women who arc recruited into these roles arc those who have already shamed their families, through behaviour that has dishonoured their good name; acts of suicidal terrorism committed in the context of this shame arc envisaged as one means of redemption for the woman herself and her family. The romantic images of the afterlife that tempt people into this deathly act can sometimes include the notion that one’s soul flics into the heart of a green bird. It is urgent to recognise that women can and do enact destructive impulses, and this may be especially true in particular circumstances, including states of unbearable rage and isolation, faced with a vulnerable creature in their care, or when recruited in the service of a ‘noble’ or ‘just’ divinity and cause, requiring the ultimate sacrifice of the woman’s own life alongside her murder of others.

The media portrayal reflects the ongoing resistance to acknowledging female violence, and female agency, as it conveys the sense of shock that a mother could commit this act of atrocity. Women convicted of terrorist offences arc treated as high risk within the criminal justice system in the United Kingdom. They may be perceived as intrinsically highly dangerous to work with, or viewed as the helpless victims of male coercion. Staff may struggle to understand the political, psychological and personal motivations that drive forward such behaviour and women convicted of these crimes will generally be deemed restricted status prisoners, to be closely monitored and supervised with little chance of release within their tariff. The sensationalist press they attract is a further obstacle to their timely release. There may be strenuous attempts to deradicalise them, or to situate their violence in terms of mental illness rather than as a form of protest and expression of alienation, leading not to psychopathy but to the enactment of a psychopathic state of mind.


Aiyegbusi, A. (2016) Unpublished Report for Women in Prison on IPP Prisoners, Women in Prison and Psychological Approaches CIC.

Buncy, S. and Ahmed, 1. (2014) Muslim Women in Prison. Second Chance Fresh Horizons: A study into the needs and experiences of Muslim women at HMP & YOI New Hall & Askham Grange prisons during custody and post-release. A project of Hudders eld Pakistani Community Alliance (HPCA) in partnership with Khidmat Centres, Bradford: HPCA and Khidmat Centres.

Davids, F. M. (2011) Internal Racism: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Race and Difference (The Palgrave Psychotherapy Series). Palgrave Macmillan.

Fanon, F. (2019) Black Skin: White Masks. New York: Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press (originally published in 1952).

Grimwood, G. G. (2015) Categorisation of prisoners in the UK.. Briefing Paper Number 07437, 29 December. London: House of Commons Library.

Independent (2017) Women accused of planning first all-female terror attack in UK appear in court. Lizzie Dearden, Home Affairs Correspondent. https://www.independ ent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plot-uk-isis-stabbing-westminster-first-all-female-plot-court-mina-dich-rizlaine-boular-a7889496.html

Moore, J. (2017) Isis Unleashes Dozens of Female Suicide Bombers in Battle for Mosul.

Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/isis-female-suicide-bombers-battle-mosul-631846.

Newsweek (2017) Why Isis Female Suicide Bombers Mean the End of the Celiphate Dream. Elizabeth Pearson, https://www.newsweek.com/why-isis-female-suicide-bomb ers-mean-end-caliphate-dream-637892

Smart, S. (2019) Too Many Bends in the Tunnel? Women Serving Indeterminate Sentences of IPP - What are the Barriers to Risk Reduction, Release and Resettlement? The Griffins Society, www.thegriffinssociety.org/too-many-bends-tunnel-women-serv ing-indeterminate-sentences-ipp-what-are-barriers-risk-reduction

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