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Women and Support for Terrorism in Pakistan

Professors Christine Fair and Ali Hamza from Georgetown University, examine gender-wise support for two militant groups based in and operating from Pakistan: the Afghan Taliban which has no female outreach program and the sectarian Sipha-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan, which does. Addressing the Gender as a 'study variable' rather than a 'control variable'.

Women in North-West Pakistan


While there have been many scholarly inquiries about the sources of support for terrorism among Muslim publics, to date, no scholar has sought to empirically demonstrate whether or not gender predicts support forIslamist militancy. Instead, most scholars and officials assume that “men of military age” are the most important segment of interest. Gender if examined at all is usually treated as a “control variable” rather than a “study variable,” reflecting the paucity of interest in this subject. This is likely an important scholarly andpolicy-analytic oversite. Many terrorist groups have women’s wings and women-oriented publications andother outreach programs because they understand the important role that mothers, wives and sisters play in a male family member’s decision to take up arms with a terrorist group. (And in some conflicts, women also join as combatants.) In this paper, we seek to address these scholarly lacunae by examining gender-wise support for two militant groups based in and operating from Pakistan: the Afghan Taliban which has no female outreach program and the sectarian Sipha-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan, which does. We leverage a large dataset drawn from a relatively large national survey of Pakistanis collected in 2011 to model support forthese groups using gender as an independent variable along with other demographic and control variables. We find that females are significantly more likely to support the sectarian group with a women’s outreach-wing, but less likely than men to support the Afghan Taliban. We argue, from these results, that gender deserves more attention in understanding who supports and participates in Islamist militancy.


Public support for Islamist terrorism has import for the tactics that terrorist groups use, their decision to end or continue the use terrorism, as well as the market for potential recruits even though the mechanisms by which public support exerts these impacts remain poorly characterized in the literature.1 For this and other reasons, researchers have sought to identify respondent-level factors that predict support for political violence perpetrated by Islamist militant groups using both country-specific and multi-national survey samples as well as innovative survey designs.2 Scholars have identified correlations between support for political violence and an array of respondent-level factors, including: ethnicity;3 perceived and actual socio-economic status, dimensions of education and human capital;4 facets of belief and practice such as piety;5 knowledge of Islam;6 and exposure to violence,7 among other individuallevel factors such as attitudes towards American culture and U.S. foreign policy,8 as well as political dissatisfaction.9 Others have tried to characterize the association between political preferences such as support for democratic politics and Islamist militancy,10 as well as the relationship between support for Islamist politics and support for Islamist militancy.11 Other kinds of studies have evaluated economic sociotropic considerations, which covary with community- or nation-wide characteristics such as income or inequality.12

Curiously, gender has been both under-theorized and under-studied as a potential explanatory factor. If scholars include gender in their empirical studies at all, they do so as a control variable rather than a study variable. This is puzzling because some Islamist terrorist groups have specific strategies to recruit women either as participants or enablers of the execution of violence or as influencers who can persuade those in their orbit to participate in violent organizations. Lashar-e-Taiba (LeT), South Asia most capable and competent terrorist group, has long had a women’s wing, dedicated publications specifically for women, and an annual meeting which draws women from across the country. For LeT, being the mother of a martyr is the highest status available for women and LeT understands that the support of women is a critical part of their recruiting mission.13 Conversely, the Afghan Taliban have very little use for women and make little effort to cultivate them as supporters or activists.14 Not only have scholars failed to adequately consider gender, international and domestic efforts to combat violent extremism overwhelmingly focus upon males of fighting age even though terrorist organization vary in their interest and determination to recruit women.

In this paper, we seek to address this scholarly lacuna using the specific case of Pakistan which hosts both domestic and international Islamist terrorists with varying degrees of explicit state support. To do so, we leverage a large dataset drawn from a large national survey of Pakistanis fielded in 2011. We use these data to investigate empirically the gender differences in support for two Islamist militant groups that have different appeals to women. The first group is the Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan (SSP), which is also known as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) or the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). It is a sectarian group, rooted in the Deobandi interpretative tradition, that targets Shia, Ahmedis, Barelvis (sometimes referred to as “Sufis”) as well as Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. The second group is the Afghan Taliban, which is a collective of militant commanders operating under the command of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. The Afghan Taliban have long enjoyed a full range of support from the Pakistani state and aim to topple the current Afghan government and drive out the international forces supporting the current government. Moreover, the Taliban are reputed for its cruel abuse of women and excessive punishments, inclusive of brutal public stoning of women. Like SSP, the Taliban are also rooted in the Deobandi interpretive traditions. While the organizations share mosques and religious seminaries and are allied politically and militarily, the two organizations have had a distinctly different approach to women. Whereas LeJ was the first organization to use women as suicide bombers in South Asia and has gone to great lengths to cultivate women to support the organization, the Taliban have generally disregarded female contributions and have made few efforts to develop women as organizational assets. Given the different approaches to women espoused by these two organizations—despite other similarities—we anticipate gender differences in support for the two organizations.

Consistent with our expectations, we do find significant gender effects. Specifically, we find that males are significantly less likely to support the sectarian group, SSP; however, there is no significant gender effect upon support for the Afghan Taliban. While these gender effects are statistically significant at the p <0.01 level, the magnitude of these gender effects is smaller than several of the control variables. Nonetheless our findings suggest that more focus should be given to gender as an explanatory variable in support for such groups.

We organize the remainder of this paper as follows. In the next section, we briefly review the extant literature on support for Islamist violence in Pakistan and elsewhere. Third, discuss the data and methods used herein. Fourth, we discuss our findings. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of this study, specifically that gender should be an explicit focus of such efforts to exposit the determinants of support for Islamist militancy in Pakistan.

Explaining Support for Islamist Violent Actors

Here we briefly review the prominent arguments and empirical frameworks that scholars have used to explain support for Islamist violence and its purveyors generally and in Pakistan particularly.

Economic Arguments for Respondent Support for Islamist Violence

While the body of literature examining support for violent groups has traditionally focused on grievances,15 ethnic conflicts,16 and state repression,17 the decision to support political violence is fundamentally deeply personal and must be understood at the individual level.18 One sort of personal motivation derives from poverty or perceived poverty. Scholars have studied these two dimensions of the interaction between poverty and support for violent politics and come to varying conclusions.

One cluster of studies examines actual poverty and support for violent politics. Some of these studies have focused upon factors that influence the determinants of the supply of militant labor.19 For example, Benmelech and Klor focus on expositing the determinants of expatriate militant labor and conclude that adverse aggregate economic conditions are not a significant explanatory factors.20 They note that many foreign fighters come from countries “with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions.”21 Other scholars suggest that that low-income individuals are more likely to support militant organizations due to feelings of powerlessness and general dissatisfaction with the current political system.22 These ideas rest on the underlying logic that if the existing governance paradigm is not meeting the needs of those in poverty then they will turn to violent groups who offer the prospect of changing the status quo.

Another proposed mechanism for the relationship between poverty and support for violence focuses on opportunity costs. Individuals living in poverty have lower opportunity costs associated with supporting political violence than their wealthier counterparts, making them more likely to do so ceteris parabis.23 However, the empirical evidence on the relationship between poverty and support for political violence is mixed.24 Less well-studied is the interaction between perceived poverty and support for militant violence. One empirical study of perceived poverty and support for Islamist militant groups in Pakistan finds that “feelings of relative poverty decreased support for militant political organizations.” Not only was the direction of the relationship the opposite of what is commonly assumed, but the critical variable was relative, not actual, poverty.25

Do Piety and Islamism Explain Support for Islamist Violence?

Another framework that some scholars have used is the “clash of civilizations” thesis outlined by Huntington26 which asserts that there is a fundamental conflict between the Christian West and the so-called Islamic World. As a result of this dynamic, several scholars posit that support for terrorism and/or militancy may derive from adherence to Islam itself.27 Some anecdotal evidence supports the narrative that there is a link between Islamic piety and political violence.28 While one analysis of a 2003-2004 survey of Palestinian Muslims found a link between attendance at religious services and support for suicide attacks,29 the majority of analytic studies find little association between simply believing in Islam and supporting violent politics.30 When a correlation between embracing Islam and violence does exist, the linkage is limited to a specific and narrow understanding of Islam, for example beliefs about the efficacy or compulsory nature of individual militarized jihad.31

Perhaps the most discussed contributing factor in determining support for militancy in the Muslim world is support for political Islam or Islamism, terms which are often used interchangeably. Scholars exploring this angle posit that support for political violence may derive from an affinity with political positions self-identified as Islamist. Analysts typically understand such positions as those which privilege the role of Islamic law (sharia) in political life or in the functioning of the state. Islamist politics have been extremely important in Pakistan (and elsewhere) because major Islamist parties have frequently and publicly backed violent action.32 For example, the political group Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) supports militant groups such as Hizbol Mujahideen and al Badr.33 Another Islamist political party, the Jamiat ul Ulema (JUI) has long supported Deobandi groups such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban organizations and sectarian militant groups, as well as Deobandi organizations operating in India.34 Support for these political parties is commonly used as a proxy for measuring support for militancy, the rationale behind this being that if an individual supports a group that supports militancy, they themselves must support militancy as well. While transitive logic may suggest that support for Islamist parties (especially those that espouse and even organize violence) should co-vary with support for Islamist violence, the data do not consistently bear this out.35

Understanding the link between Islamist politics and militancy is further clouded by a tendency of scholars to measure support for political Islam only partially, largely because scholars generally rely upon extant datasets and the less-than-ideal questions they include on support for political Islam and related concepts. For example, scholars often operationalize support for “Islamism” as support for the implementation of sharia.36 This has yielded contradictory results in the literature. Recently, some scholars contend that these divergent results likely stem from the twinned facts that there is no universally held understanding of what the application of sharia looks like and that few surveys query respondents about what they believe sharia to be. Some individuals may conceptualize an Islamic government as a transparent regime that provides services while others may understand sharia in the context of hudood punishments and restrictions on female participation in public life.37 In other words, the imperfect questions that analysts use to instrument support for “political Islam” drive the results in their quantitative studies, in part because the questions were never intended to comprehensively assess support for

“political Islam” in the first instance. Recently scholars have found that liberal understandings of sharia, such as a government that provides security and public services, are correlated with opposition to jihadi organizations while conceptualizing sharia as hudood punishments and restricting women’s roles was correlated with positive support for jihadi organizations.38 Therefore, it is important to note that there is no generalization to be made about the interaction of support for Islamist politics and support for political violence, as the definition of Islamist politics is context dependent.

Support Democratic Politics and Support Islamist Violence?

Another area of academic inquiry probes the relationship between support for democratic values on the one hand and support for militant politics on the other. Presumably, support for democratic values such as free speech, civilian control of the military, and rule by elected representatives leads to the opposition of violent forms of political expression. There is a considerable scholarly literature that outlines the ostensible relationships between supporting ideas associated with liberal democracy and resistance to autocracy,39 more durable democratic institutions,40 effective governance,41 and economic expansion.42 Belief in the ability of democracy to reduce support for political violence, especially terrorism, remains a key tenet of U.S. foreign policy and the underlying logic behind international democracy promotion.43

A more nuanced examination of the topic provides varied examples of political movements that have advocated violence in hopes of achieving democratic outcomes. Especially in the Muslim world, there exist multitudes of violent political groups that claim to fight for freedom and political representation against oppressive governments. In Pakistan in particular, Islamist militant groups often espouse the concept of azadi, an Urdu word that means freedom and self-determination, as their casus belli. Recent scholarship on Pakistan in fact found that support for a set of core democratic values is correlated with increased support for militant organizations that espouse such notions.44

Sectarian Orientation

Sectarianism may promote political violence by entrenching ethnic and religious identities presented as inherently opposed to one another. Within Pakistan, four interpretative traditions of Sunni Islam exist. These masalik (pl. of maslak) are Ahl-e-Hadith, Deobandi, Barelvi, and Jamaat-e-Islami. All of the Pakistani masalik are part of the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) with the exception of Ahl-e-Hadith adherents, who do not follow any fiqh. A fifth maslak encompasses Shia Islam. All masalik, madaris, and religious scholars affiliated with an interpretive tradition espouse the supremacy of their particular orientation. Although only a small percentage of children in Pakistan are enrolled in a madrasah full-time, many attend religious schools in addition to other educational institutions.45 As a result, many young people in Pakistan are exposed to potentially divisive rhetoric. Additionally, madaris train ulema (pl. of alim, scholar) and other religious figures who preach and deliver sermons, further spreading the ideas of each maslak. Due to their influence on Pakistani society, these madaris are often accused of promoting sectarianism by fostering the belief in the primacy of a particular maslak.46 However, madaris are not the only pathway by which sectarian identities can be spread. Existing literature points to the role of family and social networks,47 public schools,48 Islamist-influenced civil society groups,49 and religious television, radio, internet, and print content50 in this process as well. These pathways, especially madaris, are resistant to change pushed by outside actors, making it difficult to envision a scenario in which their role in spreading sectarianism changes in the near future. One recent study concluded that “a person’s maslak is a far more stable predictor of support for various aspects of sharia or evidenced piety… even those who simply identify as ‘Sunni’- in contrast to ‘Deobandi’ or ‘Ahl-e-Hadith’- are more inclined to support sectarian militancy.”51

Does Respondent Ethnicity Explain Support for Islamist Violence?

Less studied is the role of ethnicity in explaining support for militancy. One study team, employing data derived from a nationally-represented survey of 7,656 Pakistani respondents fielded in late 2013, examined putative connections between respondent ethnicity and support for the Pakistani Taliban, which is a network of Pashtun and Punjabi militant groups operating in Pakistan against the Pakistani state.52 Citing the historically important role that ethnic identity has played in intra-state conflict in the country, they hypothesized that ethnicity should have greatest importance in lowinformation environments, like Pakistan, because persons may have little else on which to base their political support.53 They find evidence that ethnicity is indeed an important predictor for popular support of the Pakistani Taliban.

Knowledge of Islam and Support for Islamist Violence

There is limited work suggesting that those who are more knowledgeable about

Islam may be less resistant to the appeals of militant groups. Their work draws upon Kiktorowicz’s54 insights from his work on al-Muhajiroun in the United Kingdom the

“vast majority of Muslims are not trained in the complexities” of Islamic jurisprudence and are thus ill-equipped to evaluate the claims offered by recruiters and/or ideologues and the evidence they employ to buttress their arguments in defense of non-state actors perpetrating violence in the name of Islam.55 He observed that religious seekers drawn to organizations such as al-Muhajiroun generally “are not in a position to objectively evaluate whether al-Muhajiroun represents an accurate understanding of Islam.”56 Implicit in this argument is the possibility that persons who are more knowledgeable about Islam will be less reliant upon these heuristics in assessing the credibility of the leader and their arguments about foundational questions such as: who can wage jihad and under what circumstances and for whom is jihad obligatory and what kind of obligation is it? In 2017, scholars tested this hypothesis using survey data for Pakistan and find important, albeit limited, evidence to support this hypothesis.

Gender: The Overlooked Variable?

There is no established empirical literature from which we can draw hypotheses about the ways in which gender will influence support for terrorism in Pakistan.57 In fact, there is very little scholarly information about how these two groups regard women. We do know that many of Pakistan’s militant groups explicitly target women to cultivate their support for their so-called jihadi missions.58 Lashkar-e-Taiba places a premium upon mothers offering their blessing to their sons before they are deployed upon a mission.59 We also know that LeT has a vast infrastructure to specifically recruit women. They hold annual women’s congregations and they have an extensive publications line which explicitly target women.60 LeT also has a famed female propagandist named Umm-e-Hammad who has authored several books intended to recruit women to LeT’s cause with the aim of encouraging them to dispatch their sons to Kashmir.

While LeT has the most developed effort to cultivate women, Pakistan’s other militant groups also cultivate mothers as well.61 However, the particular survey employed here did not query respondents about support for LeT; rather it inquired about support for the Sipha-e-Sahiba-ePakistan (SSP) which engages in sectarian and communal violence and is an important collaborator in violence perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, and even al-Qaeda.62 In recent years, its cadres have also left to fight in Syria and Iraq abroad and, domestically, have thrown support to the Islamic State. Notably, the TTP as well as the Islamic State in Pakistan has aggressively used women as facilitators, fund-raisers, recruiters, as well as attackers.63