Female criminals generally receive more media and public attention than their male counterparts. Bonnie was more popular than her partner Clyde, because somehow, the combination of women and violence seems counter-intuitive. Nowadays the media continue to delve into the life paths of Shamima Begun, Tatiana Wielandt, and Hayat Boumeddiene and wonder what might have triggered the radicalisation and choice of these young women to join Daesh. A gendered approach to (de)radicalisation also emerges in the practitioner’s world. It focuses, however, primarily on women, even though the overwhelming majority of European terrorists are men.
Male-dominated Terrorist Groups
Female jihadists can be dangerous. Jihadi operational leaders sometimes appoint women to carry out attacks because they arouse less suspicion. In September 2016, an all-female cell, set up and guided by a Daesh operational leader in the Levant, attempted (but failed) to blow up a parked car near the Notre Dame in Paris.
However, approximately 87% of Europe’s jihadis are men. Jihadist groups also invest more in the military and operational training of their male recruits. Daesh, for instance, appointed most women that joined its ranks in Syria and Iraq to ‘traditional’ female roles; they were not to fight, and thus were not trained to do so. Exceptions are a means of propaganda or a last resort, such as the women that participated in the last battles of Daesh near Baghuz. Clearly, the more intensive training male recruits receive significantly increases their abilities to set up successful plots.
Men more often take up operational or leadership positions in jihadist groups, whereas female jihadis generally adopt supporting roles. Women’s roles are generally ‘limited’ to spreading propaganda, recruiting other women, and connecting male jihadists. Hayat Boumeddiene, France’s most wanted female terrorist, was the accomplice of her husband Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a police officer and committed a bloody hostage taking at a Jewish shop in Paris in January 2015. She acted as a go-between with the wife of one of the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo attacks a day prior.
Men are key to jihadist groups and, thus, are the main target of their recruitment efforts. The propaganda of jihadist groups relies heavily on male-dominated narratives. Wannabe suicide bombers, for instance, are lured with the ‘72 virgins in paradise’ reward for their sacrifice. Jihadist groups also attempt to recruit men by appealing to their male honour: if the women of the Notre Dame terrorist cell went into action, it is only because so few men are willing to doing anything.
Men also play key roles in terrorist groups of other ideological backgrounds. Right-wing terrorist groups generally assign women to traditional or supportive roles and their narratives and group culture are heavily male-dominated. This also reflects on their members’ approach to women: domestic violence against women is a recurring theme in the life path of a number of high-profile right-wing terrorists.
Left wing and anarchist groups break with some of these traditional patterns. The Red Army Faction (RAF) and linked networks saw a higher (and more influential) participation of women. Ulrike Meinhof, Birgit Hogefeld, and Petra Krause all occupied leadership positions in their respective groups. Women were also trained with their fellow male members, for instance, in training camps in the Middle East. However, despite their more female-oriented strategy, men also largely dominated left wing terrorist groups.
Women are not less radical than men, but do turn less often to violence. Crime statistics confirm this: most perpetrators (and victims) of violent crimes are men, an explanation also to why only 6% of Europe’s prison population is female.
A first reason is quite practical. Men generally have more ‘opportunity’ to become involved in crime: as boys they often enjoy more freedom than girls, and as men they are usually expected to act as the household provider. Women are less likely to be exposed to criminal behavior, due to their in-house duties and a number of practical constraints placed upon them (e.g. higher parental control).
However, there is also a psycho-sociological explanation as to why men turn more often to violent crime. Since women generally are more concerned in creating social bonds with others, they receive a greater amount of social support, which reduces the risk that they engage in crime. In addition, impulsive or aggressive acts of women are often reined in by social expectations. Society also influences how men and women express themselves: it is more easily accepted for women to express their emotions in ways other than violence, whereas masculinities perceive violence as a means to assert dominance.
Male-gendered Approach to Radicalisation
Focusing on the (de)radicalisation process of women can be very useful, since there is to date very limited research on female criminality. However, crime is a man’s world. Looking at terrorism through a male-gendered approach can provide a more accurate understanding of (de)radicalisation processes.
An example: radicalisation is sometimes perceived as a reaction to a sense of personal failure; joining a radical or violent group was for some young Europeans a means to empower themselves or represented a transition to adulthood. Analysing these same drivers as the sense of failure as a man or as the transition to becoming an adult man can provide more adequate measures to prevent or counter radicalisation. For instance, these measures could include a focus on promoting different masculinities for boys and young adults, or increasing their feeling of actualisation through healthy expressions of competition and success.
Efforts to promote gender equality generally focus on empowering women but barely address the needs and challenges encountered by men. This one-sided vision has a potential double impact on the rise of crime, both among men and women. Gender equality focusing more heavily on women provides them with more opportunities to become involved in crime and can eliminate some social constraints that stop most women from violent behaviour. At the same time, it risks increasing the sense of alienation and frustrations that already spurs some men to turn to crime.
 Globsec, “Who Are the European Jihadis? From Criminals to Terrorists and Back?,” Globsec Project midterm report, September 2018, https://www.globsec.org/publications/who-are-european-jihadis-from-criminals-to-terrorists-and-back/#Vg7AifqEc4V7xAY5.99.
 Daniel Koehler, “Right-Wing Terrorism in the 21st Century, The ‘National Socialist Underground’ and the History of Terror from the Far-Right in Germany,” 1st Edition (New York: Routledge, 2017).
 Rob Walmsley, “Women and girls in penal institutions, including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners,” in World Female Imprisonment List, fourth edition, November 2017.
 Sung J. Jang, and Robert Agnew, 2015. “Strain Theories and Crime,” in James D. Wright (ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, vol. 23, (Oxford: Elsevier, 2015), pp. 495–500.
 Velmer S. Burton, et al., “Gender, self control, and crime” in Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 123–147 (1998).
 Kumar Ramakrishna, “Understanding Youth Radicalization in the Age of ISIS: A Psychosocial Analysis,” in E-International Relations, February 2016, https://www.e-ir.info/2016/02/11/understanding-youth-radicalization-in-the-age-of-isis-a-psychosocial-analysis/.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.