Year after year, conflict after conflict, members of the public and the media greet the phenomenon of women engaging in terrorism with surprise, concern, and in some cases, denial. To a lesser extent, counterterrorism practitioners and scholars also view female terrorism as novel. And yet, women have engaged in political violence and specifically terrorism for decades, if not centuries. What accounts for this persistent surprise? Some have argued that there is a lack of research on the topic of women engaging in terrorism, and that is why it is a surprise every time there is a new iteration of it. Or perhaps the surprise relates to the ongoing shock of women breaking traditional gender roles, demonstrating how entrenched those roles are. Of course, men are far more likely to perpetrate acts of terrorist violence and support terrorist groups, although, as more research is done on the role of women, they are being found to be involved in terrorism and violent extremism in numbers and roles that have previously been overlooked. Alternatively, the surprise may be related to another issue, which is the focus of this article: a lack of integration of the literature on women and gender into the broader research on terrorism and political violence. This possible lack of integration has the potential to significantly impact how we understand terrorism and extremism, and how we counter it. Practitioners rely on academic literature to provide a foundation for their counterterrorism and counter-extremism activities. As a result, a lack of integration of this literature into the main terrorism literature may influence how practitioners interpret women as potential perpetrators of violence.
A robust body of literature on women’s involvement in terrorism and political violence exists, some of which predates the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent explosion in terrorism studies. Particularly notable are the works by Sjoberg & Gentry, Cunningham, Alison, Nacos, and McKay (the most-cited works on the subject). The subfield of women in terrorism has also been studied by Jacques and Taylor. This research article aims to update and expand existing research and demonstrate the depth and breadth of research on women in terrorism, and investigate whether it is indeed a neglected field, or perhaps one that is only ignored.