Traditional analysis of women, gender, and terrorism has been sparse and riddled with stereotypical thinking about women’s capabilities and motivations: revenge for a personal loss or submissive, passive unwitting victims used, forced or tricked into violence by overly masculine organizations. Fortunately, the range and number of publications examining female involvement in militant organizations with a more critical eye has increased since the 2000s. This increasing academic interest in women and terrorism is consistent with the steady development of a welcome feminist alternative literature in International Relations since the 1990s that has helped to focus our attention on gender assumptions and to unravel the persistence of myths, stereotypes and narratives on politics, war and violence. The question of whether or not revolutionary politics impedes feminist movements has been subject to intense discussions within feminist studies.
The potential promise of gender equality among revolutionary politics has been subject to intense discussions within feminist studies. The question of whether or not revolutionary politics impedes feminist movements is a central one.
Women and Basque radical politics
In Women and Terrorism, Gonzalez-Perez claims that women join militant organisations to pursue a broadly feminist ideal of gender equality and secondly that “domestic” organisations are more inclined to offer greater opportunities for female activists than “international” organisations. Interesting though this argument could be, the analysis falls short because of methodological issues and some rather disturbing factual errors. The possibility of drawing a clear-cut distinction between the domestic and the international is certainly problematic as much as taking for granted that women join an organisation to pursue a feminist agenda could be seen as a reductive point of view. Furthermore, several mistakes seriously detract from the point being made on the importance of tackling the issue of female activists. To write that Txabi Etxebarrieta was the Basque insurgent organisation ETA’s original female martyr is a major factual error since Txabi was in fact a man. As such, Hamilton’s work, Women and ETA, is definitively a more serious contribution to our understanding of radical Basque nationalism. Drawing on a unique body of oral history interviews, archival material and published sources, Hamilton shows how women’s participation in radical Basque nationalism has changed from the founding of ETA in the 1950s to the present. By focusing on gender politics Hamilton’s volume offers new perspectives on the history of ETA, including recruitment, the militarisation of radical Basque nationalism, and the role of the media in shaping popular understandings of ‘terrorism’. These arguments elegantly deployed in Hamilton’s work are directly relevant to the study of women in other insurgent and clandestine movements. Alison’s monograph, Women and Political violence is also interview-based and provides some interesting elements on what being a woman means when part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka or of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.
“Ní Saoirse go Saoirse na mBan” (no freedom until women’s freedom)
In Feminist Identity Development and Activism in Revolutionary Movements, O’Keefe tackles the question of whether or not revolutionary nationalism impedes feminist movements. Using interviews conducted with women who were active during the Troubles in the late 1960s and 1970s and analysing prisons and courts records, O’Keefe shows that female militants were actually empowered by their revolutionary activities, even if they encountered severe forms of discrimination within the movement. In her chapter 4, powerfully entitled the “mini-skirt brigade: distorting women’s struggles“, she details how women’s contribution to the IRA has been certainly minimised by the IRA establishment for quite a long time. O’Keefe offers a more complex picture of women’s involvement during the Troubles that complement nicely Aretxaga’s well-grounded feminist ethnography of the violence in Northern-Ireland. Based on extensive field-work in the Falls Road community in West Belfast, she convincingly lays out the evidence that for the republican women, identity and social experience are difficult and messy. Aretxaga underlines how the experience of republican women mirrors the experience of members of the Republican movement more broadly, as a “demand for existential-political recognition, a desperate claim to presence” (p.85). These monographs offer precise and nuanced analysis of the different ways women contribute to militant organisations and how they reflect on their own experiences, but also a theoretically engaging argument on feminism and nationalism.
West Germany in the late 1960s
In Death in the Shape of a Young Girl, Melzer investigates the alleged convergence of feminist goals and violence in the case of the well-known German Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction or RAF), along with brief references to the less known Rote Zora (Red Zora or RZ), at a time when in the late 1960s the debate on political violence was propelled by a plethora of revolutionary writings and when anti-imperialism and international solidarity were at the forefront of the new radical outlook. She shows how violence was quite extensively discussed within the autonomous women’s movement and underlines the diverging positions among feminist politics between two main poles: the rejection of violence as masculine and the acceptation of violence as the only effective way of resisting patriarchal domination. Finally, she examines the connections and compliant discursive strategies on the use and justifications of violence between feminist politics and leftist armed women.
In five chapters, Melzer sheds light on the historical discussions of the formation and political trajectories of revolutionary groups in the 1970s and how the German public was troubled by the high percentage of women in radical movements. She astutely draws on archival material, prison letters and interviews with former female militants to depict a more complex image of the debates around women, violence and the fight against fascism and patriarchal and conservative society, reconnecting with a perhaps forgotten debate around praxis, identity and solidarity. Melzer’s monograph is well-documented and demonstrates the stimulating insights gained by employing a historical perspective in this field of political violence and gender. Death in the Shape of a Young Girl is a timely addition to a long list of recent publications studying the connections between the varieties of dissident attitudes at a time of generalized outpouring of protest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the turn by some from verbal violence to direct action. Within this new academic interest, Melzer’s volume is a welcome contribution to a growing literature tackling the issues of gender and violent radicalism in 1960s and 1970s West Germany in particular and across Europe more broadly.
The feminist approaches to political violence and terrorism studies have contributed to bring gender back into the analysis of violence and activism. They undermine the assumption that women by virtue of their gender have a shared experience of violence and highlight how activism and post-activism periods can be understood as products and sites of (re)production of gender issues, social and political inequality. In spite of the inherent qualities of these volumes, a classic research issue remains partially untouched. Like the more male-centric mainstream literature on political activism, violence and terrorism, these volumes do not entirely escape the limits imposed upon us by the ultimate question of why men and women rebel. Accounting for and explaining radical, revolting and sometimes disgusting actions, whether perpetrated by men or women, should come with an even more interesting question about male and female social conformity. Is not the ultimate question actually why very few men and women rebel? Obedience to authority and social conformity is not uncharted territory but by venturing in that direction, the renewed feminist approaches to political violence and terrorism studies could gain further momentum and strike again.
 Gonzalez-Perez, Margaret. 2008. Women and Terrorism: Female Activity in Domestic and International Terror Groups. London: Routledge.
 Hamilton, Carrie. 2007. Women and ETA: The gender politics of Radical Basque nationalism. Manchester: Manchester University Press
 Alison, Miranda. 2009. Women and Political Violence: Female Combatants in Ethno-National conflict. London: Routledge
 O’Keefe, Theresa. 2013. Feminist Identity Development and Activism in Revolutionary Movements. Basingstoke: Palgrave
 Aretxaga, Begoña. 1997. Shattering silence: women, nationalism, and political subjectivity in Northern Ireland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
 Melzer, Patricia. 2015. Death in the shape of a young girl. Women’s political violence in the Red Army Faction. New York: New York University Press
 Guittet, Emmanuel-Pierre. 2016. “West German radical protest in the long 1960s.” Critical Studies on Terrorism 9(1): 150-158