Gendered Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in the North Caucasus

Media outlets and experts frequently treat women involved in insurgency and terrorism in highly gendered ways, depriving them of agency and relegating them to the role of mothers, monsters and whores. This gendered treatment has attracted some (albeit not enough) attention, including in relation to the North Caucasus itself – most notably in the work of Caron Gentry and Laura Sjoberg, whose excellent book Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores I just paraphrased. There is, however, a related issue that is even more frequently overlooked but that is highly deserving of consideration: gendered approaches to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism pursued by the authorities themselves.

The Prosecutor’s Office of Dagestan have just served up a fine example of how the problem of denying women agency is not just one of reporting, but also of official behaviour. A statement posted to its website reports that a criminal investigation into two men from Kizlyar, M. Magomedov and M.Gazimagomedov, has now been concluded and the case has been transferred to court. According to investigators,

in August 2016 Magomedov and Gazimagomedov, on the request of a member of illegal armed formations participating in hostilities on the territory of a foreign state, handed the wife of the latter the forged passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation and 1,900 US dollars. Then together they all left in Magomedov’s car in the direction of the city of Belgorod for the subsequent dispatch of the mentioned woman to the territory of a foreign state to participate in terrorist activity.

What is noticeable about this statement is that it only refers to criminal charges being brought against the two men. No reference is made to charges, as part of the same or a separate case, against the woman. The woman is afforded all the agency of an envelope. She is not even given a name. Yet, from a legal perspective, it could be argued that the wife is guilty of more serious crimes: not only is she implicated in the charges of assisting and financing terrorism-related activities that apply to the two men, but she is also in possession of a forged identity document and planning to travel abroad to undertake further terrorism-related activity (here I am presuming that the passport was in her name, since the statement grammatically refers to a female citizen; I’m also presuming the foreign state is Syria).

The statement is only a snapshot into the criminal proceedings. There may be many reasons why charges are not being brought against the woman. And the decision not to name her may relate to the lack of charges. Yet, based on the available information, it does not seem unreasonable to question whether gender has played a role in the decision not to prosecute. At the very least, if other factors were involved, these would seem worthy of at least passing reference in the official statement.

Differences in the treatment of men and women suspected of involvement in insurgent activities can be seen in other areas too. For example, during the conduct of special operations, women often appear to be allowed to surrender, whereas men are frequently killed. This is true even of women with long histories of involvement in insurgent activity. Here, differentiating between official and media treatment can be tricky, because women are again often effectively relegated to the status of a footnote, unworthy of serious consideration. Yet there do appear to be clear differences in the way the authorities pursued counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies that extend beyond questions of portrayal. The role of women in the insurgency (beyond a narrow focus on suicide attacks), differences in how they are treated, and how both impact perceptions of and support for the insurgency are crying out for rigorous further study.