Audrey Alexander

Perspectives on the future of women, gender, and violent extremism

George Washington University Program on Extremism


Policymakers, practitioners, and scholars are increasingly aware of women's participation in terrorist and violent extremist groups; this affects how members of the international community attempt to mitigate risks tied to these threats. Growing concerns about women’s interactions with groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram appear to have instigated this shift, despite a long and dynamic history of women’s participation in terrorism, violent extremism, and insurgencies around the world. Although the intersection of women, gender, and terrorism recently became a higher priority to stakeholders tasked with addressing these threats, international organizations, governments, and civil society groups are still grappling with what it means to pursue this multifaceted agenda. This paper series adds to a small but growing body of research on the topic and highlights some considerations regarding the future of women, gender, and violent extremism.

Despite the nuances, challenges arise as latent gender stereotypes tint contemporary perceptions of women in terrorism and violent extremism. For example, a range of analyses finds that portrayals of women in terrorism tend to be misleading, reductive, and often emphasize personal reasons for participation. Conversely, although little research discusses media portrayals of men in terrorism, men’s motives are conventionally assumed to be political rather than personal. If gendered stereotypes like these inform perceptions of the threats posed by violent extremists, additional risks may arise when policymakers and practitioners inadvertently translate misguided views into policies and legal responses. This dynamic is detrimental to security, stability, and human rights for myriad reasons.