A Feminist Take on Terrorism

19-Feb-2009 11:45 AM EST

Dalhousie University

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    Credit: Bruce Bottomley

    Dalhousie researcher, Anita Singh

Newswise — In December of last year, during a declared state of emergency in Pakistan, the country experienced its first female suicide bomber. A woman set off explosives across a military checkpoint, near a Christian school in the city of Peshawar. She was the only casualty.

Women terrorists are not a new development—groups like Chechnya's Black Widows and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers have gained notoriety before—but according to Anita Singh, they represent a misunderstood phenomenon she hopes to clarify.

"There are significant problems in most current studies on the subject," explains the Dalhousie University political science student. "Some studies do not differentiate between male and female terrorists, assuming that their motivations are similar. We know that female engagement in traditional forms of politics is different than their male counterparts, so why would this be any different within terrorist cases? When gender is taken into account, women are often given emotional explanations instead of political: a family member has been killed, they're divorced or their honour has been compromised.

"As a woman doing a PhD in political science, I find that kind of interpretation a bit insulting," she laughs.

With her thesis research, Ms. Singh is providing a more thorough and comprehensive feminist analysis of terrorism and the roles and motivations of women within terrorist organizations. She is exploring how gender responds and relates to the larger issues traditionally associated with terrorism: nationalism, extremism and reaction against westernization.

"There's that old saying that, 'If women ruled the world, it would be a more peaceful place,'" she notes. "So if we see a woman as a suicide bomber, our society attributes her a female gender role " caring, domestic, nurturing " and we wonder what on Earth made her do such a thing. And the terrorist organizations themselves are aware that these preconceptions exist and they're willing to use them as a PR strategy."

Ms. Singh explains some terrorist groups use women as a means to recruit men to their cause by shaming them into participation. Others hope women will garner increased media attention and favour for the cause, convincing the public of a heightened sense of urgency if women are willing to take up arms. Yet despite this, Ms. Singh argues that women terrorists are not without their own political motivations.

"Some women join explicitly to be on the front lines, while others fall into more supporting roles," she says. "I want to study what these different roles entail and how they link to the reasons why they joined these movements in the first place. The two topics are inseparable."

She expects Pakistan will be a central focus of her research " her master's work concerned India-Pakistan relations and human security. It's one of several countries she hopes to visit when she travels overseas for field research next year, meeting with community leaders, politicians and whoever else can help illustrate the role women are playing in terrorist movements. She hopes what she finds can provide valuable lessons for both understanding and confronting terrorist threats.

"One of the byproducts of this work is that it's not only important for understanding women in terrorist groups, but it can help western countries form their responses to terrorism," she explains. "Too often they approach the issue with a state-oriented, military framework, but I hope that my work may also inform policy with regards to understanding terrorism as a broader issue."

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