The women who support and fight with rebel groups have been getting a good deal of press lately, much of it focused on Western women and girls who leave home to join the Islamic State and the Kurdish women who have taken up arms to fight the same organization. With all this attention, it’s worth examining how we talk about these women. One thing that stands out in reporting on women in conflict is that we view the ones who fight as something of a rarity — yet this is far being from the truth. In the book Women & Wars (edited by Carol Cohn), scholar Dyan Mazurana lists 58 countries where women have been active in non-state armed groups (NSAGs) since 1990. My research finds that women have been active in the majority of all rebel groups since the end of the Cold War. In spite of this, women in these groups are still presented very differently than are their male counterparts.
Across conflicts, we see that female rebels are often presented in the context of their relationships with men. Such portrayals suggest that the presence and efficacy of these women is contingent upon their access (or lack thereof) to romantic partners. Accounts of female suicide bombers in al-Qaeda, for example, focus on failed relationships and fertility issues. Before they decided to fight the Islamic State, the women of the Kurdish peshmerga were presented as avengers on behalf of dead husbands and lovers. In a similar vein, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, appears to be running an active matchmaking service in Iraq and Syria. Elsewhere, the sexuality of female rebels seeking companionship has been presented as a nuisance that insurgencies need to control: Premarital sex was forbidden in the New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines, and intragroup romances were deemed disruptive to the work of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) in India. Furthermore, while women added “alluring spice” to the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, those ladies were off the market — celibacy was strictly enforced.
The focus on men as the drivers of women’s behavior is one way to downplay female agency and the choice some women make to engage in political violence. Another way is to infantilize them. Several stories on women in conflict make no distinction between women and girls. Some of the “schoolgirl jihadis” recently profiled by The Guardian are in their late teens and early 20s. Similar language was used by the Christian Science Monitor in the year 2000, when the newspaper discussed a group of “girls” with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who ranged into their mid-20s. Even further back than that, the “girl guerrillas” of Peru’s Tupac Amaru Liberation Movement (MRTA) ranged into their mid-30s.
Why do so many stories about female rebels fail to take their motivations seriously? Contextualizing violent women as lovestruck romantics or naïve girls may make it easier for the casual observer to understand their motives. As the stories linked to here indicate, women engaged in political violence are still presented as oddities, and these explanations may help us situate their involvement in more comfortable narratives about gender roles. Yet a 20- or 30-something woman is not a child soldier — she is an adult, capable of deciding whether to join or continue armed struggle. She is also not a rare case.
In a new article, published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics (temporarily ungated), I find that, based on a random sample of 72 NSAGs active from 1990 to 2008, women are active in some capacity in about 60 percent of these movements and that they are more often than not found in groups that rely primarily on voluntary recruitment — meaning that most are not child soldiers or abductees. Additionally, among groups I examined, I found women carrying out armed attacks in nearly one-third of these organizations, and women acting in a leadership capacity in about one in four. While the roles women play vary based on region and group ideology, the overall participation rates cross-nationally tell a consistent story. Most NSAGs benefit to some extent from the work of women, and the women themselves are there for a reason. Understanding the widespread contribution of women to modern armed rebellion makes it harder to downplay the importance of engaging women if we want to end these conflicts. If we seek to demobilize or negotiate with NSAGs, understanding and engaging with the motives of their female members is an important part of the larger puzzle.
The recent arrests of two women in New York, accused of plotting a bomb attack on behalf of jihadist organizations, and another woman in Philadelphia, accused of providing material support to the Islamic State, made headlines, but they are by no means isolated incidents. Analysts quoted in the New York Times last year suggested that 10 percent of the Islamic State’s foreign recruits now are women, and that number may increase. ISIS already has an all-female brigade, the al-Khansaa Brigade, which is engaged in religious enforcement. There is also some indication that women are active in recruiting other women through social media. This suggests that the role of women in the organization is slowly expanding. If the Islamic State follows a pattern similar to that of other insurgencies, it may step up its recruitment of women for suicide missions and operations abroad as countries crack down on the number of young men going to join its ranks. By recognizing the extent to which women participate in political violence and understanding the reasons why they join armed insurgencies, we may be able to reduce this possibility. Taking women seriously as participants in armed conflict is an important first step in that process.