Islamist radicalism from a gender perspective: an analysis and prevention proposal.

This article was published in Oasis 30. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:20


Farhana Qazi, Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals, Berret-Koehler, Oakland (CA) 2018


An American scholar of Pakistani origin, Farhana Qazi is an expert on gender studies, a lecturer at the Elliot School for International Affairs at George Washington University and a researcher at the Center for Global Policy. She is also the first Muslim woman to have worked for the U.S. government’s Counter-terrorism Center. Her Invisible Martyrs brings together some of the results of her professional and research work and describes the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism from a gender perspective. The book’s primary goal is to understand the participation of some Muslim women in jihadist violence: an “invisible” reality up until a few years ago but one that is important for an understanding of how terrorist organizations function.


The scholar presents a series of case studies to account for this phenomenon. These she investigates by combining interviews, interrogation transcripts, psychological profiling and descriptions of the female jihadists’ social contexts. The work’s theoretical foundations can be found in the thought of Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist known for his research on the psychological traits of violent politicians such as the Iraqi Saddam Hussein and the Libyan Muammar Gaddafi.


Starting with the material gathered during years of working in counter-terrorism and then her assiduous mixing with Muslim women (and not just radicalized ones), Qazi develops an analytical framework geared to understanding the phenomenological-social processes that induce women to take an active part in Islamist terrorism. Such framework can be summarized in the formula of the “three Cs”: culture, context and capability. Culture concerns the belief system that extremists play on in order to justify their own actions.


The author emphasises, in particular, how female martyrdom becomes a tool through the promise of Paradise: a reference that is deployed in a prevalently male environment and in no way guarantees women any actual power. Context indicates the personal, social or political factors that push a person towards religiously motivated extremism. These include the violation of human rights, corruption and misgovernment, protracted local conflict and a sense of oppression and injustice but also a wide range of psychological conditions such as shame, envy, a sense of guilt, self-pity, stress, depression and traumas suffered.


To that must be added the role of the Internet, which aids the recruitment, training and radicalization of women desiring to find an answer to questions about religion or their own identity or who are, more simply, in search of a partner. The story of Shannon Maureen Conley is one such example. After converting to Islam out of love for a Muslim she met online, she was arrested at Denver’s international airport on 2 July 2014 as she was trying to reach Syria in order to join ISIS.


Capability concerns competence in actions, skill in navigating the web or handling a weapon and the ability to travel towards a conflict zone for the purposes of joining an armed struggle without arousing suspicion. In this respect, Qazi cites the case of the training Tashfeen Malik received in order to carry out the San Bernardino massacre in California together with her husband, Rizwan Farook.


There are therefore multiple reasons why women commit acts of violence and they often overlap. For this reason—and the author states this herself—“the Three Cs is anything but an all-inclusive model” (p. 10). Instead, the study on killer women reveals a multifaceted universe in which each story is personal because it is the very nature of terrorism to be such.


For Qazi, the descent into radicalization’s abyss is not limited to scientific observation. Her desire to understand is something direct and personal, pushing her to reckon with both her own family history and the Muslim tradition with which she identifies. Her mother, who wanted to fight for Kashmir’s liberation, becomes the author’s first case study on female militancy, while the Islam she has experienced since her childhood constitutes “an answer to violent extremism” (p. 4).


For this reason, Qazi emphasizes the constructive effort made by many Muslims who, journeying towards God, are seeking peaceful solutions, supporting women’s rights and fighting men’s abuse of power. The description of the life lived by non-violent Muslim women has equal importance in her narrative: whether they live in the West or in a Muslim-majority country, they are practising a peaceful Islam and fighting radicalism within Islam, creating organizations and movements that foster women and supporting gender equality and an equal right to education.


If female extremism is to be defeated, there needs to be a process of “inclusion,” the author concludes. The onus is first and foremost on the Muslim community, which has the duty to teach the religion through knowledge of its principles; the “true” Islam, which is moderate, tolerant and compatible with the western lifestyle (p. 160). It is also necessary to create an open political system conducive to “active female participations, rebuilding civil society, legislating educational reform, accounting for human rights abuses” and making more room for Muslim women’s associations (p. 161).


Despite some redundancies, the book may be considered a guide for whoever is involved personally, professionally or intellectually in matters concerning security in any part of the world. Indeed, the text permits a thorough knowledge of the dynamics and motivations underpinning the will to commit terrorist acts, allowing the reader not only to understand the phenomenon a posteriori but also to develop tools for its prevention.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Maddalena Di Prima, “A Journey into the Female Jihadist Abyss”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 140-142.

Online version:
Maddalena Di Prima, “A Journey into the Female Jihadist Abyss”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/a-journey-into-the-female-jihadist-abyss