Female protestors are becoming a ubiquitous feature of the contemporary protest landscape. In the not so distant past, women served mostly in a support capacity during armed conflicts, but this has changed. In the 20th Century, women started to play more active roles in situations of armed conflict. Today, women engage in non-violent civil disobedience around the world and have for a long time now; however, radicalised females are also increasingly participating in extremist violence. Are we, therefore, witnessing the emergence of a new type of fighter, the violent female political activist?
Miranda Alison , a professor at the University of Warwick, examined the role of female fighters in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), argues that until recently research emphasised women as the victims of armed conflict and not as “perpetrators of violence.” Parallel to the disruption of aggressive-male and pacifist-female stereotypes, in wars of liberation, women are also combatants besides an assortment of other functions in both military and armed groups.
In Ireland, the Cumann na mBan, an auxiliary organisation, allowed women to “be seconded into the IRA” and activated militarily yet were not equal members of the paramilitary organisation. Later, when the IRA restructured and formed cells, females achieved acceptance on an equal basis with the men. Interestingly, motivated women who engage in political violence often focus on issues surrounding the protection of their families and homes, rather than the more intellectual political goals of men, which are sometimes interlinked, but that sets females apart from the males as they both engage in political violence.
Since armed political conflict draws in different sets of actors, we turn now to the participation of women in paramilitary organisations that are engaged in violent extremist actions in the contemporary civil disobedience scene. Besides the IRA and the UVF in Ireland, a growing number of groups in Europe composed of and or headed by female militants have drawn the attention of the media as well as academics.
Dr Carrie Hamilton, at Roehampton University, described people’s responses after the news that the Basque independence movement, the ETA, which started during Spain’s Franco dictatorship — had appointed a woman, Iratxe Sorzabal Diaz, as its new leader. Some expressed curiosity and surprise, and others wondered if women were taking power from men, or if female activists are more lethal than males, and why would a mother want to join a terrorist organisation.