What drives women to terrorist acts? #Beekhaybee

“I had a pistol in my belt, a
grenade in my pocket and TNT in
my bag. I was a woman dressed in
a fashionable way. I opened my
bag for security but the man just
saw my make-up and waved me through.” Leila Khaled was probably the most
famous female hijacker in the world in
the late 1960s – beautiful, dangerous
and politically committed to doing
whatever might further the Palestinian
cause. She featured in an iconic photo – sultry-
eyed, a Kalashnikov at her side,
headscarf carefully draped over her
head. She even subsequently resorted to
painful plastic surgery to hide her
famous face so she could carry on
participating in hijack operations
without being recognised. But she was by no means the first
woman to hit the headlines for using
violence for political aims. One of her role models was Zohra Drif, a
female bomber during Algeria’s war of
independence from France in the 1950s. In September 1956, she planted a bomb
in the Milk Bar cafe in Algiers. Among the victims was an elderly
woman who lost her life and her five-
year-old granddaughter whose leg was
torn off. The history of women and terror goes
back further still. Women played leading roles in the
Russian 19th Century revolutionary
movement whose activities marked the
start of modern terrorism, some of
them key members of a plot to kill Tsar
Alexander the Second. More recently women were prominent
in Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy’s Red Brigade, in the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland and they
swelled the ranks of the Tamil Tigers in
Sri Lanka, where it is estimated that
they accounted for a third of all fighters
and a third of their suicide bombing
squads too. Motivations So what drives women to terrorism? According to their own testimonies, like
their male colleagues they often turn to
violence out of a passionate political
commitment. Today Leila Khaled and Zohra Drif look
back on what they did with pride. They refuse to describe themselves as
terrorists and still defend their causes
as justified. “My role was to hold arms and to fight
like my people,” says Khaled. “Yes, we attacked innocent civilians,”
says Drif. “But what is innocent in war? European
civilians were occupying our country
and we were fighting them. We were at
war.” Leila Khaled: Born in Haifa in modern day Israel in
1944. Her family fled to Lebanon during
the 1948 Palestinian exodus, leaving
her father behind. Joined the Arab Nationalist Movement
at the age of 15. On 29 August 1969, Khaled was part of
a team that hijacked TWA Flight 840 on
its way from Rome to Athens, diverting
the Boeing 707 to Damascus. No-one
was injured but the plane was blown up
after the hostages had disembarked. On 6 September 1970, Khaled and
Patrick Arguello, a Nicaraguan-
American, attempted the hijack of El Al
Flight 219 from Amsterdam to New
York City, but the attack was foiled by
Israeli sky marshals. The plane was diverted to Heathrow airport in London,
and Khaled was taken into custody. She was released a month later in
exchange for hostages taken in a
further hijacking. Leila Khaled also insists she was under
instructions not to hurt anyone, though
she was certainly prepared to go to the
brink. When she hijacked an American TWA
jet in 1969, she threatened to detonate
her grenade unless the pilot agreed to
change course for Damascus. “I had to keep my grip on the grenade
for six hours because I had taken the
pin out,” she says. For some women getting involved in
terrorism could also be empowering. Mother image Mairead Farrell was one of the most
high-profile women in the Irish
Republican movement until her death in
Gibraltar in 1988 at the hands of British
Special Forces. A year before her death she recalled in
an interview the women’s “dirty
protest” she led while serving time in
Armagh jail for her part in an IRA bomb
plot. She said that while the initial aim was to
support male prisoners, the protest also
made the women more aware of their
political status and their right to be
activists as well as wives and mothers. “It became our joke, the mother image,”
she said. “Our joke was ‘Mother Ireland – get off
our back!’ because it didn’t reflect what
we believed in… we’d moved on from
that.” In Sri Lanka, Mia Bloom, author of a
study of women terrorists called Bombshell, says she was struck by the level of dedication in female Tamil
Tiger fighters. She says that though they often joined
in the wake of a personal tragedy, they
grew more political as they studied the
roots of the conflict, and would compete
with men and each other to become
suicide bombers. There is no doubt that women terrorists
have been highly effective – slipping
through checkpoints more easily,
getting closer to their targets than men,
and able to hide weapons or suicide
belts under their clothing. New security checks That may be changing. Some West African countries, including
Chad, Gabon and parts of Cameroon,
have recently started banning the
wearing of full face veils in public,
following a spate of suicide bombings
by women in burkas. Female bombers also tend to draw
more publicity. Experts note that a decision to put
women on the front line is often a sign
that a terrorist movement is in trouble,
running out of male fighters or
otherwise under pressure. High-profile bombings carried out by
women are a way to magnify the
impact, because people tend to find the
idea of a woman being behind a brutal
killing so much more horrific and
“unnatural”. In Russia, after President Putin launched
a campaign against Chechen terrorists
from 1999 onwards, female suicide
bombers became so prevalent they
were known as “Black Widows” – a reference to their black clothing, and
because they seemed to be acting out
of revenge for lost husbands, sons and
brothers. But the Chechen example also highlights
a paradox. How far were these women driven not
just by revenge, but also despair that
they had nothing else to live for? And if so, how many were cajoled or
coerced into taking such drastic action? During the Moscow Theatre siege of 2002, it was the Chechen male
terrorists who ran the operation, while
their female companions wore the
suicide vests and carried out their
orders. End to shame In Sri Lanka too there is evidence that
some women turned to suicide
bombing after they had been raped and
wanted to end the shame to
themselves and to their families. So what about the young women
travelling to Syria to become “jihadist
brides” to fighters of so-called Islamic
State (IS)? There is no sign yet that they
themselves are carrying out attacks. But some of the online postings under
their names can be bloodthirsty and
gory, revelling in the terror acts of
others. Erin Saltman, of the Institute of Strategic
Dialogue, who has been tracking some
of the women online, says the reasons
for being attracted to IS seem to be
multiple: sisterhood, belonging,
romance and utopia building, and a promise of empowerment from a
community which promises not to
sexualise you – even though the reality
may turn out to be very different once
they arrive in Syria or Iraq and find
themselves in a tightly controlled and restricted environment. But the main lesson those who study
this phenomenon seem to draw is –
don’t oversimplify. As with male terrorists, the reasons
women join up are multiple and
complex, and they are frequently not
innocent or passive participants –
however uncomfortable that may be to
acknowledge. Hear Bridget Kendall’s documentary Women of Terror on Radio 4 on 3 August at 2000 BST. This article first appeared in Radio