Author: Sara Oliveira (Vienna Master of Human Rights) 


Gender stereotyping: a shield or a weapon?


Commonly when asked to picture a terrorist many will describe this induvial as a male, middle aged, brown skin with a long bear. Even though, everyone can recognize that this is not always the case, we follow this preconceived idea to protect ourselves, a failed attempt to convince ourselves we can recognized them before they can hurt us. This is a very common habit present in all human beings, is how we learn to distinguish good from bad, danger from safe, however the world is more complex than the black and white framework we all learned as children.

With that being said, I would like to challenge the first characteristic given when describing this preconceived idea of a terrorist: Male.

Women have always been involved in terrorism.  In the 19th century, Vera Zasulich, the first to be trial for terrorism, after shooting the General governor Fedor Trepov in 1878, where she famously claimed “I am not a murderer I am a terrorist”, or  Sofia Perovskaia the mastermind behind the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, on the 1st of March 1881.

During 1960’s – 1970’s, there were notorious examples of women part taking in terrorist activities, such as Astrid Proll, German, who was a member of the red army faction. Proll was involved in a bank robbery as the getaway driver. Leila Khaled, Palestinian refugee and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was the first woman to hijack an airplane, the TWA Flight 840 hijacking in 1969. Mairéad Farrell, Irish, member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) attempted to plant a bomb at the Conway Hotel in Dunmurry.

Nowadays, with globalization and the digital world, we have examples of people being recruited online such as Jihad Jamie an American converted to Islam who confessed to part take in the plot to murder Lars Vilks, Swedish artist accused of blasphemy for his drawings of Muhammad. On the other side of the spectrum, the recruiters, Malika El Around, Moroccan with ties to al-Qaeda known for her writings online. She is described by the European terrorism experts as danger, given her high-profile advocacy which has turned her into a role model and a source of inspiration to female jihadists.

From the examples given above, the picture gets even greyer, not only are they women, but also from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. This means that when addressing terrorism, one would need a gender-sensitive approach combined with an intersectional perspective.

Our gender stereotyping is a key factor to why women are so valuable for terrorist organizations. They can avoid detection, passing unseemly through the crowd, granting them better access to targets. Furthermore, they are used to goad men into taking action, by shaming them, using toxic masculinity to their advantage, in order to gather recruiters. A good example of this is El around who is defying man online, claiming they are “not men enough” because they are not fighting and how their cowardness is harming their loved ones.

Additionally, there has been an increase of woman bombers, not only because they are seen as more expendable, prioritizing a men’s life over a women’s life, or because they can disguise bombs more easily (pretending they are pregnant) but also because it gets more press and engagement, especially when it’s a young attractive women, making the image of “the girl next door” the ideal terrorist, because it would create the most impact.

Nevertheless, in order to understand the role of women in terrorism, is important to understand why they join, and even though there is a wide variety of reasons, the main ones are: redemption, women see it as a change to reinvent themselves, as in most cases these are women who have been raped and as a consequence outcast and threaten by their families and community, they approach this as an opportunity to change their image. Terrorist organizations prey on this mentality and enhance this feeling that their death is worth more than their life, as they would die a martyr, forever martialized in murals and in people’s mind. In order cases could be for revenge or for the respect and honor they feel by protecting their beliefs and values. It could also be related to emotional ties, especially when the women in question is in a relationship with a male member of the organization, proving her loyalty, solidifying this way her spot as a member.

While it might be true that women involvement has changed throughout time, it is undeniable that it has always been present, along side with society gender stereotypes. This grey version of reality must be faced, and these stereotypical barriers must be overthrown.

We need a more gender sensitive approach when dealing with terrorism. Understand how our preconceived ideas are blinding us when it comes to preventing terrorist acts, is the first step. We need to face this global challenge with gender lenses from an intersectional perspective, understand the context and the motives to why it is happening, so we can prevent it. By helping these women, we are helping everyone, by deconstructing our stigmatization of gender roles we are getting closer to a safer more peaceful society.


Internship information:

Starting from September 2020, I have been doing my internship at the Terrorism Prevention Branch (TPB), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). As mandated by the United Nations General Assembly, TPB works to assist Member States, upon request, with the ratification, legislative incorporation and implementation of the universal legal framework against terrorism.

I am currently working in the area of Human Rights in Counterterrorism, in the African context broadly and more in depth in the Nigerian and Mozambican context. My tasks include some translation from English to Portuguese, coordination and personal monitorization of a capacity building program and research of a wide variety of topics.

Even though this Internship has been an amazing and ever learning experience, it has pose some challenges, being the obvious and main one, COVID-19 and all the restrictions this impose on my teams work, ( giving that we work on an international level and creative solutions are demanded) and another one would be the intensity of the work itself, mainly the working hours.