Long before the terror attacks in Paris and the manhunt for Hayat Boumeddiene, wife of one of the men accused of killing a police officer, women have participated as active combatants in terrorist-related violence.
Able to move closer to targets without detection, women increasingly play an active role as suicide bombers. They represent 15 percent of the bombers in attacks between 1985 and 2006 and make up as much as 30 percent of the fighting force in places like Chechnya and Sri Lanka, according to research. The terrorist group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has an estimated 300 women in its special unit of highly trained female suicide bombers.
While often left out of contemporary discourse on the state of terror in the world, women have been prominent actors in terror groups throughout history, with as many as 20 percent of terrorist operations in the late 20th century involving female combatants or leaders. The New York Times reported this month that "roughly 10 percent of [ISIL's] Western recruits are female, often lured by their peers through social media and instant messaging."
Yet, the motivations for women as perpetrators of terror-like violence are still a largely unexplored, misunderstood aspect of extremism and religiously motivated conflict, with profound implications for the church’s missionary strategy and outreach.
Research conducted by terrorism expert Anne Speckhard shows that female terrorists are compelled by many of the same causes as their male counterparts, including conflict-induced trauma, revenge or nationalism, or community outrage. Other drives include feelings of oppression, marginalization, or negative self-identity. Some women turn to violence as a result of their own victimization, with many having witnessed their husbands’ deaths and the abuse and abduction of their children.
The World Health Organization estimates that 35 percent of women globally have experienced sexual or physical abuse, a large proportion occurring during war and civil conflict. These women continue to live with physical and psychological scars that may manifest in vulnerabilities such as isolation, shame and depression, with few resources available to help.
The story of Boumeddiene, one of seven children, abandoned by her father after the death of her mother when she was six, is a familiar one. Though she later converted to Islam, her 2009 “marriage” to Coulibaly in a religious ceremony unrecognized in France—a ceremony which she may have had no control over—is yet another aspect of her story that may have had a profound influence on her role in the planning of the terrorist plot in France.
In a 2013 article for the Daily Beast, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman argues that individuals who choose violent extremism are almost always “driven by desperation—and [lack of] any viable alternative—to violence against a repressive state, a predatory rival ethnic or nationalist group, or an unresponsive international order.” Women who have already been victimized may see their joining a terrorist cause as an opportunity to retaliate against their victimizer—who in many cases is a member of an opposing ethnic or religious group, or for some a “western hegemony” perceived as the cause of death and great suffering.
Religion can serve as one more justification for the decision to turn to violence—particularly in the case of suicide terrorism, a role women-turned-terrorist often play. This is well documented among more than just those of the Muslim faith. Buddhists in Myanmar and Christians in the Central African Republic all wage war against a religious and ethnic “other.” In fact, it was a female member of the Sri Lankan separatist group, Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, which managed to kill India's prime minister in a suicide attack in the early ‘90s. And in 2008 Pragya Singh Thakur, an Indian Hindu woman, was accused of orchestrating the Malegaon blasts. All cited religion as the basis for their violent acts.
Though the factors behind women’s radicalization and their participation in political violence are still being examined, we clearly see women terrorists use violence as an opportunity to reassert some level of control over their own lives. They chose to participate, as an aggressor, in the very violent conflict that at one time may have victimized them.
But if religion is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. As much as faith can focus motivations, it can also serve as a powerful balm, a way to break cycles of violence and repression.
Communities of faith can be the front lines of resistance to radicalization, places where people find acceptance and a supportive community for the most vulnerable who are often without both. When crisis or trauma strikes, individuals who rely on faith reportedly demonstrate greater physical and emotional wellbeing, and are able to move on from traumatic experiences more quickly.
Christian trauma healing ministries such as those developed by SIL Global Counseling and Crisis Response International seek to address these issues as one aspect of the global fight to prevent the spread of violent extremism—often operating in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria.
These organizations train local members to address conflict. Rather than outsiders, locals already understand the cultural contexts and are better positioned to secure trust with women who may be see Western intervention as the cause of the conflict. The church can play an incredibly important role—with short and long-term impact—in ministering to them.
The international peace and conflict organization, Beyond Intractability, finds that:
Psychological restoration and healing can only occur through providing the space for survivors to feel heard and for every detail of the traumatic event to be re-experienced in a safe environment...The goal of trauma healing is to acknowledge the experience and integrate it into a sort of personal or collective rebirth.
The church can serve as this safe space for women victims, and perpetrators, of violent conflict, ushering in a rebirth through Christ as he is allowed to begin the healing process in them. By seeking to understand both the vulnerabilities and motivations of women terrorists, including the impact of violence on them, the church can play a profound role in their restoration and protection, and as a result, in the defeat of terrorism for generations to come.
Yet, the regions where many female terrorists are found are also places with severe religious restrictions, leaving them little opportunity to hear the healing words of the gospel. Women around the world are regularly confronted by policies that sanction their victimization or harsh blasphemy laws that keep them from professing a faith different from their husbands’ or fathers’.
The church stands as a crucial support system and a resource for women who are currently involved in or are susceptible to extremist violence. Though prayer is a powerful tool provided us as believers, we must not forget our voices and advocacy can spur much needed conversations as well. Understanding the complexities beneath women’s involvement in terrorism is just a first step to usher in a new and more peaceful future for women vulnerable to radicalization.
Christy Vines is the executive director of the Center for Women, Faith & Leadership and former senior vice president for Global Initiatives and Strategy at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) in Washington D.C.