Skip to main content

From Pawn to Knights: The Changing Role of Women’s Agency in Terrorism?



As terrorist groups became more technologically advanced with their media campaigns, the global audience began to see pictures of women in black burkas pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and posing with guns. Although there is a backlash against such change that we see reflected in the ideologies of violent extremism; the shifts in gender relations within these groups are significant to examine. Further, we face questions about the repatriation of ISIS women and children to their countries of origin – notably questions of agency and culpability within the mainstream media. This paper asks: to what extent have women’s roles changed within and across terrorist groups? Is there a move toward women’s empowerment, or is it a facade? Analyzing the three cases of Al-Qaeda (AQ), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) does their advent represent a significant shift? The emergence of ISIS and Boko Haram’s explicitly gendered strategies of violence and recruitment within the highly patriarchal and misogynistic Salafi-jihadist culture, and PKK’s postconflict gender-equal political advances demonstrates that addressing women’s agency through a gendered analysis outside of the masculine domain is imperative. Scholars should challenge the idea that women have limited roles.

You might also like: