Nowadays, a sustained and systematic gender perspective on terrorism and anti-radicalization is crucial. However, misconceptions about the role that women play in terrorism often end in gender-blind security policies. The expert Cristina Goñi presents here, in the first of two articles, her considerations on the topic.

During the kick-off event of the MINDb4ACT project on radicalisation, a roundtable on prevention policies in the European Union was organised in Brussels in October 2017. In my remarks at that event, I had the honour to present my considerations on why gender is relevant for radicalization policies and how we can operationalize a gender perspective in our counter-terrorism and anti-radicalization policies. Here are some of the main talking points.


A sustained and systematic gender perspective on terrorism and anti-radicalization is important and overdue. There is evidence that demonstrates that gender-sensitive security policies and institutions improve their operational effectiveness; gender-sensitive policies are legitimated policies and built local ownership. In addition to that, they also strengthen civilian oversight and accountability. Because gender justice is a matter of ethics and human rights.

The misconception that women are not involved in terrorist has often shaped counter-terrorism strategies, exacerbating gender blindness of domestic security institutions, their significant underrepresentation among security personnel and historical women’s exclusion from decision making processes.

The roles of women in politically-motivated violent groups and female terrorists are topics well-explored by researchers and policy makers. To make radicalization public policies gender-sensitive we should first tackle from an intersectional perspective how gender stereotypes and the totality of forms of discrimination and oppression that women experience work in terrorist organizations and in the communities they live. Secondly, how we assess the kind of harms that terrorism cause to women and men and how these are experienced differently by women and men. Then, a reform and transformation of security institutions that are traditionally male-dominated is need as well as a further policy reform by including gender perspective and analysis in policy making.

From a gender perspective, women’s radicalization and involvement in terrorist groups remains relatively under-estimated as there is still a general view that terrorism almost exclusively concerns men and that gender is just about women. Too often, the topic of gender, as it relates to security and terrorism, is treated as superfluous ending in misconceptions and gender-blindness.

Gender stereotypes drive people not to consider women dangerous or threatening, but victims of terrorism. Nevertheless, women play active roles in politically-motivated violent groups and terrorist organizations. As in the case of the Islamic State´s (IS), it is true that the primary role of Western women under IS-controlled territory is to be wives and mothers, however women also play a crucial role in propaganda dissemination and recruitment of peers online. Some of these women are specifically recruited to be informants and enforces of the organization’s rules.

Even the number of western women fighters is wrongly interpreted, which scholars identify as 20% of the total. As a recent study issued by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism estimates, in 2016 between 663 and 883 Western women have travelled to IS  territory.

There is also a wrong idea about the reasons why women join terrorist groups and on the recruitment process. As RUSI´s report states, the notion of ‘brain washed jihadi brides’ to describe all female IS supporters is overly-simplistic and reductive. Indeed, the reasons why women join politically-motivated and terrorist organizations are mostly the same as those of men, such as a social, economic and politico-historical grievances, desire for actions or adventure, identity and a perceived lack of belonging, overwhelming racial or ethnic discrimination and islamophobia, and economic disadvantage.

They are also some specific reasons why women radicalize, differently from men. As an example, structural gender-based violence and discrimination have been found to be one of the reasons as well as the lack of the same opportunities provided to men and the restricted access to political or civic engagement.

Similar stereotypes influence counter terrorism measures and the ways in which states respond to violent challenges, resulting in a confined role of women in counter strategies. Although the role of women in counter-radicalization is more widely acknowledge, the focus tends to be confined to women as family members and care givers, thus to reinforce gender-stereotypes. According to the findings of the ICTC research, effective counter-terrorism strategies must seek to challenge IS’s legitimacy, address negative grievances and identity appeals which resonate with IS’s audience and empower, not trivialise, women.

To incorporate a gender perspective about violent radicalisation, we need not only to develop security policies that take gender in terrorist organisations into account, but also to analyse gender in our security institutions in order to reinvent them as plural and inclusive ones. Only by tackling these parallel and interrelated facets can we truly take gender seriously in the fight against terrorism.