Women: The Unlikely Terrorists?

The relationship between gender and terrorism is something I came across through my university studies, and I think it is fair to acknowledge the overwhelmingly masculine connotations attached to the label ‘terrorist’. Throughout the Twentieth Century there have been prominent female terrorists, with Leila Khaled and Ulrike Meinhof representing just two examples of women advocating the use of terror in order to achieve a particular cause.

IRA members on patrol, Belfast. Note the sex of the group.

So why is it that we immediately associate terrorists as masculine icons? The transnational world which we inhabit has overloaded the media with the likes of Che Guevara, Patrick Magee, and Bin Laden all who have been labelled ‘terrorist’. These individuals are the protagonists of their struggle, seeking to construct a Utopic world governed either by the Shari’ah or Marx; the context of their fight has given them a renowned, and global reputation, making these men A-Listers in the world of terrorism as we know it today

Leila Khaled

Terrorism is violent, murderous and covert yet the nature of womanhood is stereotypically understood to revolve around compassion and harmony. The female embodies motherhood, and advocates care and protection of her kin – the opposite to the terrorists goal of political upheaval and destruction. These representations are societal constructs with no factual basis; men may wish to cling onto the ownership of a testosterone-fuelled struggle against a higher power, but the reality of terrorism is very different.


Leila Khaled was once a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) which was one of three main prominent organisations advocating the liberation of Palestinian territories and the formation of a Palestinian homeland – the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Fatah are the other two groups. Leila is revered amongst some Palestinians, and despised by Israelis, for her involvement in two plane hijackings, one in 1969 and the second in 1970. The first was arguably the most successful, landing and blowing up the plane in Damascus with the intent to put an Israeli ambassador on trial fairly in an Arab country; the second, however, drastically went wrong and resulted in the plane landing at Heathrow and her subsequent arrest. Leila undertook extensive plastic surgery to change her facial appearance in order for her to carry out her second hijacking and during both hijackings, she was armed with hand grenades. Her belief in the liberation of Palestine is unquestionable; she was mentally and physically prepared to commit to herself to a cause with complete disregard for the immense cost and risk associated with such a manoeuvre.

ulrike meinhof
Ulrike Meinhof. Prior to her to becoming a terrorist, she was an left-wing journalist.

Ulrike Meinhof was also active around the same period as Leila, however, her cause was tied much more stringently to the Left and a perception of the West German government as a repressive and ultimately Fascist state. Her visual appearance suggested an attractive and aspirational woman yet her engagement with such a brutal campaign fundamentally contradicts this non-violent perception. Ulrike illegally broke RAF founding members, Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader, free out of prison and similarly obtained insurgency training from the PLO alongside other RAF associates; Ensslin and Baader had previously been responsible for an arson attack on a Frankfurt department store in 1968. The RAF later involved themselves in a series of bank robberies and planted several bombs at U.S military bases which were icons of western imperialism. Both Ensslin and Meinhof were mothers.

The recent wave of Islamic terrorism characterised by the events of 9/11, 7/7 as well as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have equally harboured female radicals. You only have to watch Clint Eastwood’s latest film, American Sniper, to contextualise the ‘female terrorist’ which portrays a mother attempting to launch an RPG at a Navy Seal tank. Women have been common participants in suicide attacks against American and British forces in their campaigns in these Muslim regions; their suicide symbolises their religious adherence to Allah but also reflects an extremist belief in martyrdom as a means of defending Islam. Their sex initially was a cause of immense vulnerability for our troops and the security forces of these countries who naively assumed women could not, and would not commit to the enforcement of a radical Islamic interpretation. The recent flock of European Muslim women to Syria and Iraq is unsurprising. These examples show women just as much as men can be driven towards  violence, and their ambition to live in the Caliphate, which is the direct outcome of a terrorist insurgent campaign, demonstrates the falsity of western social constructs regarding terrorism. These women are just as passionate about their goal, and just as willing to commit murder to achieve it as men are.


Women have had direct and indirect involvement with a range of terrorist organisations; the IRA, PLO, and RAF are but a few of many. Either way, societal constructs of the female as an innocent and passive individual are flawed as suggested by these examples. All of these women were involved in carrying out atrocities in some way, and none of them expressed any hesitancy in performing these acts for their cause.

I would like to draw your attention to a documentary I came across on another blog regarding Leila Khaled which partly inspired me to write this post. The documentary covers her life history looking at her time as a terrorist as well as her more moderate senior years working for the liberation of Palestine.

female terrorists
A social contradiction?

I hope you have enjoyed this article and once again, please share your thoughts!


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