From the outset, feminism has confronted the lack of women’s presence in traditional IR theory and practice. This absence is visible both in women’s marginalization in decision-making and under the false assumption that the reality of women’s everyday lives is not impacted by or significant in international relations. This paper categorically reviews the intersectionality between the feminist IR theory and terrorism, and how feminism shapes the ideologies of both victims and terrorists alike.
Analyzing terrorism from a feminist’s lens, the feminist IR theory provides a unique approach on the causes and effects of gendered terrorism. One perspective regarding how a feminist would view this issue is the designation of female terrorists as ‘women terrorists.’ Mia Bloom’s work on women suicide terrorists links their motivation almost exclusively to their status as rape victims, making a correlation between how a history of gendered violence prompts victims to become abusers, or in this case terrorists, themselves. The perception of women’s incapacity to commit acts of terror is essential to maintaining the current idealized notions of femininity in women. Terrorist organizations are increasingly incorporating women into their ranks, taking advantage of this convention.
Another approach to terrorism looks for the differential impacts of terrorism and counterterrorism on men and women in terms of victims. Women are routinely exposed to gendered violence. The struggle to make violence against women visible also exposed an international system that has accepted numerous counts of violence against women as a normal state of affairs. A study by the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s UNiTE campaign estimated that up to seven out of ten women will experience violence at some point in their lives, and that approximately 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime. Violence against women prevails globally and has no regard for political or economic systems, yet when it comes to taking decisive actions, the actors in international relations have almost always turned a blind eye.
When it comes to terrorism, women are not only disproportionately targeted as victims more than their male counterparts, they are also killed in greater numbers under the narrative of ‘collateral damage’ in counterterrorism strategies. Moreover, female family members of male terrorists are also disproportionately arrested for the crimes of their relatives. Many societies are considered peaceful despite high levels of violence against a particular gender. It also presents a very different image of violence and insecurity to that viewed through the security agendas of states, which is characteristic of traditional IR viewpoints. This shows us that national security policies and discussions have yet a long way to go in transforming the biased mindset of what they consider ‘peace,’ evident from the lack of female representation in the Department of Defense and other peacekeeping institutions.
Traditionally, society has considered participating in war and military missions as masculine endeavors, linked with the idea that men are warriors and protectors designed to protect the fragile and physically dependent population—women, children, and non-fighting men. The outcome of these gendered norms is that the numerous ways women contribute to conflict and experience conflict have been considered peripheral, outside the realm of IR’s considerations. For example, the issue of sexual and gendered violence in conflict has only recently entered the international agenda. Comparatively, the mass rape of women during and after the Second World War was not addressed as these cases were either considered a by-product of war or simply ignored. Although the 2002 Rome Statute recognized rape as a war crime, this recognition has not led to the curtailment of conflict-related sexual violence and remains endemic in many conflicts around the world, as does impunity for its occurrence.
Many scholars also argue that, according to the definition of terrorism from the United States Department of Defense, wartime rape and domestic violence also come under the larger umbrella of terrorism, and once again, women are more often the victims of these terrorist attacks. A noteworthy conception is the manipulation of gender perceptions and gender roles in terrorism and counterterrorism strategies. For example, the United States’ war in Afghanistan received substantial support from the American feminist community after the Bush administration listed women’s rights in Afghanistan among its reasons for the war on terror. In the famous axis of evil speech, one of the things that separated good and evil in President Bush’s discourse was how civilized people treat women—which is not to involve them in terror. In this way, Bush was able to win support from a greater population for the war regardless of his actual intentions for the US-Afghan conflict.
On the other hand, even though conventional wisdom has it that women are not frequently involved in the political violence known as terrorism, women have in fact participated in the writing and dissemination of ideological beliefs, planning of attacks, and participation in such violence since the 1800s. Terrorism studies grew as a field in the 1970s in response to the growing threat of sub-state violence in liberal democracies and anti-colonial violence, including from groups like the West German Red Army Faction, the Italian Red Brigades, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), or the Irish Republican Army. Simultaneously, feminist approaches developed and shed light on the critical role of women in terrorism, both as the perpetrator of violence and on the receiving end as well.
In conclusion, if women are assumed to only exist in the domestic or private realm (rather than the public sphere), then their experiences with violence and opinions on global politics are more easily ignored and justified as marginal. Accounts of women disrupting these gender identities, such as being agents of political violence for example, have challenged these assumptions that women have no opinions in politics or cannot be perpetrators themselves. However, recognition and further exploration of the two-fold role women play in terrorism would highlight that the population ignored so easily under gendered norms does, in fact, influence the broad field of terrorism more deeply than assumed.
Maha Butt studies Political Science with a concentration in International Relations at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research interests include causes of conflict and war, international mediation, and U.S foreign policy.
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