Reflections on Russia’s Hunt for “Black Widows”

Media sources are reporting heightened attention by Russian security services to the threat of female suicide bombers in the lead up to the Winter Olympics. As I recently reported in a post following the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, men remain the primary and visible actors in terrorist acts and counterterrorism responses. I reflected that a concentration on male actors has dominated national security conversations for decades. Historical and essentialist patterns of male combatancy and female victimhood remain alive and well in terrorism and counterterrorism discourses. The high-profile deployment of female suicide bomber in Russia is bringing attention to the capacity for women to be violent and radicalized in a variety of settings.

Media coverage this week is focused on the causalities of radicalization for “black widows,” with significant emphasis on mobilization to political violence as they seek to avenge the deaths of militant husbands. In reality, there is little comprehensive data on the causes of mobilization to terrorism for women. What little information we have comes from narrative testimonies of jailed women in places as diverse as Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine. That data point to a complex mosaic of mobilization including intensification of ideological discourses in particular ethno-national settings, strong personal identification as political actors, coercion, discourses of gender equality and strong family and community ties to radicalized men. At the very least we need to know a great more about women’s impulses to political violence as we develop counter-terrorism strategies that “meet” the population being actively mobilized.

The Russian case also underscores the ways in which women may be harder to pick out in the standard crowd scanning and security procedures used to identify violent men. It is exactly the stereotyped cultural and social assumptions around women’s roles and vulnerabilities that operate to give violent women actors advantages in access to combat zones closed off to men in conflict. Vital to understanding the success of women as violent operators for nonstate organizations are the pervading social and cultural assumptions about women’s likely propensity for violence, and specifically extreme violence directed at civilians. Women are less likely to arouse suspicion, are better equipped to conceal explosives, and are generally not subject to as strict security measures. The capacity to conceal is augmented in societies where the dress code norms for women entail wearing loose full-body coverings. Body shape congruent with presumed pregnancy may decrease the likelihood of a woman being subjected to a body search.  In short the female body can conceal as much as it reveals.

Greater recognition of the capacity for women’s mobilization into terrorist and combatancy roles does not offer easy solutions to effective counterterrorism strategizing. Those seeking to thwart or resist the vulnerability of the state, its institutions, and its civilian population to female produced violence run a number of risks if the instinctive response is to directly subvert local cultural norms and target women broadly and directly for surveillance, stop, search, detention, and armed attack. Precisely because of the tenacity of essentialized vulnerability and the ethic of care that is routinely ascribed to women, in situations of ethno-national divisions or in highly conservative social settings, states run risks when they target the female body. In zero-sum fashion, using counterterrorism measures widely and deeply against female populations in hostile conflict zones may do little more than encourage popular support for the political causes that have propagated the turn to violence in the first place. Hence, as we watch the full effects of increased counter-terrorism attention turn to women in Russia this week we need to be wary of any assumptions of easy solutions to the complexity of violent political mobilization. This holds particularly true when the state turns its attention to women. 

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About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).