The Female Terrorist’s Dilemma: The Structural Impacts of Deviant Women

By Lucy Tobier, Swarthmore College

This article appeared in CJFP's Winter 2024 publication.


Female terrorist and suicide bomber participation has been on the rise since the 1980s, increasing rapidly since the early 2000s. Previous media coverage and scholarly work have largely focused on individual-level factors when reporting on bombings, such as motives rooted in the family or social life. Gendered language – within and outside scholarship – has dismissed female terrorists as acting for family or sexual honor, and largely placed them on the outsides of political action and motives. This dangerously overlooks the increasing involvement of women in terrorism and the accompanying long-term structural impacts. Both scholarship and counterterrorism measures must adapt to growing female participation and acknowledge strategic elements of the demographic shift. Female involvement changes the strategic decision-making of both parties (terrorist groups and states) on a “macropower” level. I will show why the current study and language are insufficient, and present potential future steps for counterterrorism and theory. 


The number of “active” female suicide bombers – involved in direct violent acts – has risen since the 1980s. Past feminist international relations (IR) theorists show how the presence of women in political groups impacts perceptions by the public and leaders. One might expect this rise to change the threat perception and anticipation of terrorist groups by states and institutions; however, past scholarly work and reporting largely focuses on individual perception impacts of female terrorists, ignoring any long-term impact on the structure of the negotiation or group. Because female suicide bombers are examined as individual actors in a male-created and male-run system, the impacts of their participation on the system are largely ignored. A consideration of structural and individual factors and an examination of perceptions by both parties poses a potential solution for this literature gap. What is this structural impact and how can it be examined? What are potential concerns when ignoring gender’s structural impact on terrorist organizations?

This paper will first establish the link between female terrorist participation and changes in perceptions of the rationality and violence of actors. To do this, I’ll highlight media coverage of female terrorists and feminist studies, focusing on language and level of focus. Gender impacts the outcomes and structure of a terrorism “game”. Finally, I will show how structural understandings of gender in terrorism are needed to inform better, more efficient counterterrorism measures and studies. 

The Rise of Female Terrorists

On April 9, 1985, Sana'a Mehaidli – a member of the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) – blew herself up in Lebanon during the Israeli occupation[1]. Mehaidli is thought to be the first known female suicide bomber. Between 1985 and 2006, there have been more than 220 female suicide bombers, about 15% of the total suicide bombers worldwide. Of SSNP’s 12 suicide attacks, 6 of the bombers have been women. Notably, female suicide bombers come from diverse religious backgrounds – including secular ones. As rates of female suicide bombers rise, so does research attention. Although mentions of women in terrorism within academia began to appear in the 1970s, feminist studies only began in the 2000s as they saw prior work in general, male-focused International Relations as insufficient in grasping motives. For example, in 1979, H. H. A. Cooper dismissed female terrorists as suspicious and contrary to their feminine nature[2]. However, more recent feminist theory has discussed the strategic use of female terrorists[3] and cautioned against viewing female terrorists as passive victims (Dwyer 1998). J. Ann Tickner’s 1992 book Gender in International Relations claimed security and citizenship are in the male domain, and women are seen as victims – rather than agents – of war[1] : “War is a time when male and female characteristics become polarized; it is a gendering activity at a time when the discourse of militarism and masculinity permeates the whole fabric of society (Tickner 286)”. Tickner goes on to note that women historically bring a non-violent, trust to war and use persuasion rather than coercion to gain power. Different threat perceptions can be seen outside of theory in contemporary media coverage of bombings.


3. Perception changes because of female involvement:

This section highlights gendered language used to describe female terrorist bombings in mass media and shows why language matters to terrorist groups in the strategic calculations made in their actions. To do this, I show reporting across Western and Middle Eastern sources to highlight differences in language and perception across regional or cultural differences.


    1. Media language differences

In 2002, soon after her death, Wafa Idris – a female suicide bomber in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict[4] – was described by the most widely circulated Egyptian newspaper as having “dreamy eyes and the mysterious smile on her lips, that competes with the famous smile some artist drew on the lips of Mona Lisa" (Al-Ahram). [2] Idris was also nicknamed the “bride of Heaven” by two other Egyptian papers (Al-Wafd, Saut Al-Umma[3] ). In addition, Idris’ death was directly mentioned as a factor in the equalization of men and women: “Wafa Idris elevated the value of the Arab woman and, in one moment, and with enviable courage, put an end to the unending debate about equality between men and women” (Saut Al-Umma). A profile of suicide bomber Shari Baloch in The News International (Pakistan) mentions first her family background and her husband but does not mention either her motivations or politics.

The use of “bride” is not restricted to Idris. Mehaidli was honored at a “funeral-wedding”. Ayat al-Akhras, a Palestinian suicide bomber, was also labeled the “Bride of the Heavens” for her decision to become a suicide bomber instead of marriage. The term “bride” carries social connotations of honor and female dignity. Idris was claimed to have become a suicide bomber because of her inability to bear children and the shame surrounding that after a divorce. Reem Riyashi – a Palestinian suicide bomber from Gaza – killed herself to cleanse her name and honor after an extramarital affair (according to Israeli security sources). Hanadi Jaradat – a Palestinian suicide bomber – was named the “Bride of Haifa” after her death to “address conservative concerns about her choices”[5] Highlighting this distinctly domestic framing of female suicide bombings, the Egyptian journalist Mufid Fawzie writes about Idris, “She bore in her belly the fetus of a rare heroism, and gave birth by blowing herself up!” (Al Aalam al Youm).

Even in Western media, language tends to be distinctly gendered and devoid of politics. For instance, a New York Times article about Idris titled “Arab Woman's Path to Unlikely 'Martyrdom'” describes Idris in a photo as “confident and composed, her chestnut hair curling past her shoulders”. Another NYT article by the same author speaks on the “glorification” of Idris by the Arabic press but focuses primarily on Idris’ implications for feminism, rather than her political motivations within the group[6]. By contrast, reporting on male suicide bombers focuses on nationality and ethnicity, and does not explicitly mention gender[7] (AP and Lawless). While women are referred to as “female suicide bombers” in the Arab News and New York Times, men are simply referred to as “suicide bombers” even when pronouns are known.

    1. Implications for publicity

Focusing on the families of suicide bombers, referring to them as “brides”, and discussing sexual or maternal dignity as motives are domestic, gendered characterizations of suicide bombers. These characterizations are important as a possible motivating force for groups using female suicide bombers. Female suicide bombers get eight times more media coverage than males, because of the “expectation” that women are nonviolent and don’t bomb outside fringe movements[8]. While the rise of female terrorist involvement is not particularly lethal compared to male terrorists, it offers a strategic motive for suicide attacks[9]. As a potential motive for terrorism, in general, is sending a shocking, public message, the use of female terrorists would be strategic[10]. It is not just the content of media reporting that matters, but the quantity and dramatization of female terrorists that could account for the rise in participation and violence, reinforcing the strategic belief that female terrorists generate more attention as unexpected actors. The unexpected nature of the bomber’s gender identity also means groups may see women – or men disguised as women[11] – as being more able to get past security checkpoints.

As shown, the increased interest of the media in female terrorists suggests a strategic advantage in their usage for terrorist groups. Female terrorists generate a greater distinct reaction than their male counterparts, and this has possibly led to a cycle of their growing usage by terrorist groups to gain media attention. If we assume terrorists will always seek media attention and the media continues to express interest and shock by the acts of female terrorists – as is likely considering the recent nature of sources – there is reason to expect this rise to continue. This forces nation-states and their counterterrorist efforts to seriously reconsider how they react to and perceive female suicide bombers by bringing in new modes of response and new levels of analysis.

By only examining female terrorists as coerced or desperate victims in a male-run group, acting for gendered motivations such as family and sexual honor, suicide bombings can be misperceived. As female suicide bombing numbers grow, this is an increasingly difficult problem. The focus on individual female suicide bombers – glorified in both Arabic and Western media as heroines or desperate victims, respectively – overshadows the structural changes. To fix this, further studies should move away from the “micropower” dimensions of the game to examine how the participation of women will impact the future structure of terrorism.


5. Structure and Female Terrorists

In 2003, Asharq Al-Awsat – a London-based Arabic newspaper – published an interview with an anonymous source codenamed Umm Osama (“the mother of Osama”) who claimed to oversee a sector of al-Qaeda female training, citing Palestinian female suicide bombers as inspiration: “We are building a women's structure that will carry out operations that will make the US forget its own name.” (Umm Osama, March 2003). This notable mention of a separate “structure” implies new rules and conduct, on top of increased female participation. An entire structure created in contemporary times changes the macropower, transforming the rules of the game. The declaration was important to the United States, as the FBI soon after released a bulletin warning of an al-Qaeda tactical shift. The trend of using female suicide bombers against the Israelis was noted as an additional concern, according to an anonymous official. Per FBI officials’ warnings, al-Qaeda prides itself on unexpected attacks – and involving women could be a way to accomplish that. In addition, the shift towards using women could convey that al-Qaeda is focused more on secular strategic goals, and less on the religious beliefs of their Taliban ally that forbid female participation. The FBI’s acknowledgment of how the participation of women shapes group (structural) motivations – rather than just individual extreme ones – is important for further research because it shows a shift in U.S. defense messaging. Female involvement changes rationality calculations of attacks and risk levels – and can be pointed to as a sign of changing pressures or motivations.

Counterterrorist approaches must shift their expectations due to rising female involvement or risk an ill-informed policy. For example, the FBI notes women are unexpected terrorists, creating an element of surprise. The terrorist group’s decision to attack is a choice dependent on how secure they believe the state has made itself. But with the involvement of women, there can be an option involving a surprise attack. If the state cannot plan for a female attacker (for example, if airport security or intelligence surveillance fails to see female terrorists as suspicious), they will be unable to stop the attack either way. If the state were to be attacked by a female bomber and a male-focused defense failed to stop it, they would face both the costs of the attack and the wasted costs of an insufficient defense. A state loses more from attacking in the face of a surprise attack. This creates a problem of instability and confusion. Because the current U.S. counterterrorism policy operates in a purely masculine world, the attack option is unsuited to a surprise female attack, so the U.S. faces both the costs of the wasted defense and suffers the attack.

The involvement of female suicide bombers changes the available options in a strategic game, instead of simply being a phenomenon of individual actors shifting identities. This strategic change has been largely ignored by the media and academic research; Instead, the narrative has been focused on trying to explain female motivations in terms of male impact. This victimizes and pacifies the female terrorist, removing any strategic agency, and treats the rise of female suicide bombers as a social problem, rather than a military threat demanding a change in strategy.

6. Counterargument and Solutions:

Farhana Ali, a RAND international policy analyst, argued for a community-based approach to “improve the socio-economic opportunities for women by providing them with basic necessities” which will decrease the incentive to join terrorist groups[12]. Ali assumes the motive for women joining groups is to avenge the political deaths of sons and the “loss of their society”. Ali’s solution sees women as external to political and ideological fights, only paying attention to the impacts on their family life. Her gendered view is even more apparent in her article titles on the subject: “Dressed to Kill” and “Rocking the Cradle to Rocking the World”. While social issues such as family honor and community recognition may have been used by groups to recruit, that does not mean the same motives can be assumed for counterterrorism. Doing so would ignore the political goals of female terrorists and presents an insufficient solution moving forward. If it is assumed by foreign policy and counterterrorism experts that female involvement is largely due to male manipulation, as Ali says, it ignores female agency and political goals. Ali also claims the rise in female suicide bombers is short-lived, and will end once organizations have enough male recruits again[13]. Claiming this entirely removes any female structural impact and allows for only short-term solutions.

However, Ali’s inclusion of changes to Western intelligence, including removing “profiling” from counterterrorism is a step in the right direction: “Hoffman maintains that in the absence of knowing who the perpetrator is, ‘the best defense relies on mobilizing the entire security force against the threat.’ (Ali 2006, Hoffman 2003). Hoffman, in the quoted piece, goes on to suggest focusing on counterterrorism infrastructure and surveillance, rather than individual suspects. Targeted individual defenses are insufficient in the face of unexpected actors, and broadening the defense to an infrastructure level can fix this problem.

The assumption of a majority domestic, societal motive for female terrorists – as further highlighted in the gendered language of mass media and some scholarly work – dangerously ignores political motivations and actions. However, counterterrorism responses focused on changing the structure of military approaches as a whole, instead of just domestic humanitarian work, acknowledging the serious, non-temporary rise of female suicide bombers and their political, and ideological motivations shown in a diversity of religious and social backgrounds. This strategic change could include revisiting definitions and guidelines for who is a suspected terrorist, devoting more surveillance capabilities to female groups and their messaging, or using veils of anonymity allowed by the Internet to gather more information on female terrorists' participation in chatrooms and online recruitment.

The most important aspect of change moving forward is it focuses on how terrorist groups are seen by defense and the international community as structural strategic units, with less emphasis on the identities of individual actors. In addition, terrorism and feminist theory branches should become more collaborative as this rise in participation and impact continues. Instead of viewing female suicide bombings as isolated events with explanations lying in male recruiters or slain sons, motives and rationality calculations of female bombers should be examined with the same scientific rigor given to all terrorists in Crenshaw’s model of Strategic Terrorism. Although the increased involvement of female suicide bombers poses questions of individual personal motivations and recruitment responses, as shown by the diverse background of female bombers and their strategic usage of them, this is neither solely a social, nor temporary phenomenon. A long-term shift demands a more permanent reconsideration of the structure of counterterrorism.

The involvement of female terrorists demands a macro level analysis, as it opens further possibilities for surprise attacks and changes the strategic calculations of both terrorist groups and counterterrorism defense agents. However, terrorism reporting across the globe and more academic work have largely focused on the microlevel such as examining individual bombers' motives or personal background in the context of a male-led world. This dismisses the agency and strategic impact of female suicide bombers and will become increasingly problematic as the rise continues in a cycle caused by special media attention on women. Future theoretical work and more concrete counterterrorism measures must acknowledge the long-term, strategic impact of changing terrorist demographics and ask questions that extend past an individual level. 

[1] Sinem Cengiz, “How terrorists use women as suicide bombers,” Arab News, December 17, 2016,   

[2] H. H. A. Cooper “Woman as Terrorist,” Office of Justice Programs, (1979).

[3] Karla J. Cunningham, “Cross-Regional Trends in Female Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 26, no. 3 (2003): 171-193.

[4] Giles Foden, “Death and maidens,” The Guardian, July 17, 2003,

[5] Praveen Swami, “Women suicide bombers evoke a ‘special’ fear. But it’s about patriarchy, not bombs,” The Print, May 1, 2022.

[6] James Bennet, “Arab Woman’s Unlikely Path to Martyrdom,” The New York Times, January 31, 2002.

[7] Jill Lawless, “Officials: Manchester bomber was local man of Libyan descent,” Arab News, May 24, 2017

[8] Mia Bloom, “Female Suicide Bombers: A Global Trend,” Daedalus 136, no. 1 (2007): 100.

[9] This relates to Martha Crenshaw’s Strategic Model of Terrorism which argues terrorism is a strategic choice and can be rational. Crenshaw shows terrorism can be a response to an opportunity. An example of such an opportunity could be increased media attention and thus impact. This model also assumes that the correct counter-terrorism response would be to decrease the political utility of terrorism to lessen its potential benefits. Crenshaw’s model also fits with my paper because it stresses terrorists are political players – which reinforces the misperception of female bombers as being motivated by family or social pressures. (The Strategic Logic of Terrorism, 2017)

[10] This refers to Bruce Hoffman’s definition of terrorism:” Deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change” (Inside Terrorism, 1998)

[11] Pir Zubair Shah, “Suicide Bombers Strike Refugees in Pakistan,” The New York Times, April 17, 2010.

[12] Farhana Ali, “Commentary: Why Women Become Suicide Bombers,” Newsweek, March 13, 2010,

[13] Farhana Ali, “Rocking the Cradle to Rocking the World: The Role of Muslim Female Fighters,” International Women’s Studies 8, no. 1 (2006): 31