Female Fighters: Why and How Do Women Rebel?

Alexandra Maria Giggie, University of Texas at El Paso


Women have been active participants in all conflict throughout history and have composed over 40% of all intrastate war combatants between 1979 and 2009 (Braithwaite and Ruiz 2018). Intrastate war occurs within a single country, where it is an armed conflict between a government and non-government party, such as a rebel organization (Loken and Matfess 2022; Harbom, Melander and Wallensteen 2007). Despite women’s significant participation in conflict as active fighters, until recently most literature overlooked and ignored women’s role in conflict beyond support positions and victimhood. The limited attention existing scholarship does direct toward women in conflict is frequently gendered with stereotypes and misconceptions driving inaccurate narratives (Sjoberg, Shair-Rosenfield, Kadera 2018).1 For example, a common (stereotypically gendered) narrative and misconception about women is that they are not active participants in conflict, but are instead relegated to only innocent victims, uninvolved in fighting and generally in need of protection (Elshaitn 1985). When women are acknowledged as perpetrators of violence, many rationalize their behavior by arguing that they are a small, aberrant percentage of women. Specifically, Sjoberg and Gentry (2007) outline how women in conflict are often placed into three categories: mothers, monsters, or whores. They contend that people commonly perceive female fighters as mothers fighting due to their maternal instinct to protect, are psychologically disturbed “monsters”, or are whores linking women’s violence and hypersexuality (Sjoberg and Gentry 2007). These narratives strip women of their status as an agent of choice and rational decision-maker by arguing that women participate in conflict exclusively because they are either manipulated to do so by external forces (e.g., lovers, family members) or because they struggle with a psychological/sexual condition (Henshaw 2016). Justifying women’s armed participation in conflict as an abnormal phenomenon presents not only a normative issue of perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes, but it also creates a practical problem of presenting inaccurate intelligence of who is considered a combatant and the overall composition of rebel groups (Sjoberg and Gentry 2007; Henshaw 2016). The topic of women in conflict deserves a more realistic and informed discussion, and there has been some recognition of this need with the recent increase in research on the topic. I contribute to the emerging scholarship of women in conflict by examining: 1) the relationship between national environments and individuals’ decisions to participate in conflict, particularly how gender (in)equality can enhance or hinder female participation in rebellions, and 2) the conditions that inform rebel groups to decide to include female combatants.

Subject Area

Political science|Gender studies|Womens studies|Military studies

Recommended Citation

Giggie, Alexandra Maria, "Female Fighters: Why and How Do Women Rebel?" (2022). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI30246150.