Alter Egos: Misconceptions About Religiously Radicalized Women


Farhana Qazi, Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2018)

According to social media posts, 46-year-old Puji Kuswati, enjoyed cats, the beach, and river rafting, all normal activities, which do not hint at her other, more heinous hobbies: Earlier this year, three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia were hit in a series of bombings claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, killing at least 13 people and injuring over 40. The attacks were shocking in many ways. The plot was a family affair, carried out by a husband, wife, two daughters, and two sons. It also marked the first successful suicide bombing carried out by an adult female in Indonesia.

About three years earlier, Khadiza Sultana of Bethnal Green, East London, danced in her bedroom during a sleepover with her niece and friend who filmed the scene on her cellphone. While memories like these are typical for teenage girls, here there was a key difference: On February 17, 2015, Sultana and her two school friends from the Bethnal Green Academy, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, boarded a plane from Gatwick airport to Turkey where they later joined the Islamic State.

These cases and others baffle the casual observer. Due to gender bias, many of us view women as innocent or passive in relation to terrorism and their roles in it. Yet as Mia Bloom showed us in Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, not all women take a passive role. The involvement of women in terrorism is not new. Groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, Boko Haram, various Palestinian militant organizations, and al-Qaeda in Iraq have all seen the benefits of using women as operatives. But it is not just up to organizations and leaders. Women are choosing this path at an increasing rate.

There seems to be a never-ending quest to understand why someone would choose to be a terrorist, especially when committing the ultimate act of taking one’s life, along with others, in the name of a cause. In my own research, I have watched numerous videos featuring individuals in their last moments before driving away on suicide missions, in vehicles laden with explosives.  While there is obvious apprehension in some of the perpetrators faces, others show peace, even happiness towards the final fiery acts they are about to perform. I have always found this eerie, yet comforting. In a twisted way, for them, they are on their true paths, as dreadful and incomprehensible as they may be. Many of their faces, just like many of the women featured in Qazi’s new book, could belong to individuals who live next door, sit next to us on the bus, or be the faces of our own friends. There is no blue-print or profile for who will become involved in terrorism. This choice is an intimate journey influenced by personal motivations, with varying causes. Unless you understand the individual, you can never fully comprehend the choice.

In The Psychology of Terrorism, John Horgan notes that a sense of belonging and a need to be a part of something greater is one of the driving factors of why individuals turn to terrorism and movements of violence. Through social identity, individuals form concepts of themselves in relation to group membership, which at times can lead to group polarization and notions of in-groups (those who belong) and out-groups (the other). When a search for belonging and membership in a group with potentially radical views is combined with personal grievances, Jessica Stern argues that this can encourage a “holy war,” imparting notions of a greater cause to perceived injustices.

Begum, one of the three Bethnal Green teenagers, had a somewhat tragic childhood. After losing her mother to illness, she was sent to live with her grandmother, and later to her father’s home with his new wife. Analysis of Begum’s Twitter account shows that she followed a high number of extremists and formed a connection through online interactions with Aqsa Mahmood, a known recruit and propagandists for the Islamic State. Research in business and community health shows that forming connections contributes to a sense of belonging and an inclination to act within a community or group. For Begum and her friends, a sense of belonging was found in their shared commitment to travel to Syria, along with a sense of place in the Islamic State.

Kuswati’s case is not as transparent since there is less evidence pointing towards motivations. She stopped using her Facebook account about three and a half years prior to the deadly attack with a lack of posts pointing to radical inclinations, yet the employer listed on her social media account, alleged to work for the Islamic Caliphate. Perhaps it was this connection, as well as the unity of family, which drove Kuswati to preform her final act.

In Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals, Qazi not only considers the conventional driving factors towards terrorism, but also looks at the personal reasons why women choose this path. Understanding what motivates individuals to commit acts of terror is, in of itself, a difficult topic for people to comprehend. Women, often viewed in more traditional roles, as nurturers, caregivers, and the less aggressive sex, provide an even greater enigma, when they commit acts of violence. However, why can’t women be as deadly, if not deadlier than men? History has shown us that women have been involved in terrorism, so why does their engagement still shock us?

Qazi offers a human approach for understanding why certain women might join militant groups, be involved in attacks, recruit other women, or strap bombs to their chests, taking innocent lives with them into the afterlife. Invisible Martyrs examines the stories of multiple women across the world, affected by or drawn into terrorism for varying reasons. Many of the stories conveyed in the book show that women’s involvement is due to an overall desire to make a significant contribution to a conflict. The book explores concepts like tradition, gender roles, especially in religious contexts, victimization and the relationships between victims and victimizers, shame, deception, and love. The book provides inside details of high-profile cases, like Tashfeen Malik, one of the San Bernardino attackers, along with lesser known tales.

Throughout the book Qazi is on a mission to know women capable of violence done through religious-inspired terrorism. She reveals the personal side of her fascination with women involved in conflict, born from the stories she heard while growing up. In the mid-1960s, Qazi’s mother became a female recruit for the Pakistan Amy when her country entered into Indian-controlled Kashmir, starting the war of 1965. Her mother learned to shoot and to preform first aid on injured soldiers, all the time hiding her involvement in the army from her family. She wanted to prove that women were as capable to fight wars as men since, “men can’t fight wars alone. They need women to help them.” These tales of warrior women fighting for a cause sparked an interest, which set Qazi on a life-long mission of understanding. While the book examines case studies incorporating Qazi’s experiences as a government analyst for the U.S. Counterterrorism Center and later a researcher, it also tells a memoir of her own search for self and the role of religion in her life, along with the lives of the women highlighted in the book. Love of knowledge and love of faith play roles in Qazi’s quest to understand women in extremism, and love for a cause, country, or person appears in many of the women’s stories. In Terrorists in Love: True Life Stories of Islamic radicals, Ballen explores different forms of love that drive six individuals to terrorism. All forms stem from human emotions so strong that they elicit the need for action.

Many of us can reflect on a time in our life when we have experienced emotions so intense, we have felt the urge to react, especially when love is involved. For some, this passion surpasses the self, becoming something greater and reflecting in a cause. As one Iraqi women told Qazi in an interview, when a son is “threatened, captured, or killed by security forces,” there is no reason to live and “we take revenge by committing suicide attacks.” Many of the women discussed in the book are affected by death, whether from living in a conflict zone, seeing death with their own eyes, or losing a loved one to violence. Anyone who has watched a loved one die knows that they would do anything to change this event. Yet, as some of the women in Invisible Martyrs display, this anger, shock, and loss can lead one down a violent path.

For the common observer, terrorism stimulates intense negative emotions. Yet considering terrorists’ actions from their own viewpoint, one could reflect on how their causes or reasoning could produce a similarly strong emotional response, with them perceiving action as their only available option. As Horgan argues, “don’t ask why people join” groups, but “how.” To answer the “how,” personal accounts are key.

Invisible Martyrs does just this by highlighting the accounts of women who radicalized. From the story of Sadia, who wanted to become a suicide bomber in Indian-held Kashmir, accounts of the three Denver girls and Shannon Maureen Conley who all attempted to join the Islamic State, to tales of anger, love, and loss from Iraq, Pakistan, London, and San Bernardino, Invisible Martyrs opens the curtain to the veiled world of women who have gone to extremes. The book is not only timely, considering the increased media on women joining or being forced into groups like the Islamic State or Boko Haram, but timeless, since women’s involvement in terrorism is hardly a new occurrence. It is not until we can demystify the widespread misconceptions of religiously-radicalized women that we can fully understand their motives and acts. Once this is achieved, we have a much better chance at prevention since as Qazi notes, “nothing is as it seems.”


Chelsea Daymon is pursuing a PhD in Law, Justice & Criminology in the School of Public Affairs at American University and is the Executive producer of The Loopcast, a podcast on national/international security, information security, and cultural affairs. You can follow her on Twitter at @cldaymon.

Image: Edgardo W. Olivera, CC

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