Even though women are increasingly involved in terrorism in Africa, it has become evident that their role is not well understood.
Their potential in addressing terrorism is also often overlooked since such violence, including suicide bombings, has been traditionally perceived as the preserve of men.
This perception is further reinforced by the mainstream media, which often represents women as bystanders or victims of terrorism. This fact ought to be critically analysed, considering the rise in female suicide bombers in West Africa and cases of women involvement in violent extremism in East Africa through marriage to terrorists, commonly referred to as jihadi/Al-Shabaab brides.
A frontline terrorist attack by three women was witnessed in Mombasa last Sunday, coinciding with the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks on US targets.
A quick analysis of the media coverage of the attack draws a sharp similarity with the style of reporting in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, where the narrative superficially emphasised the violent and ruthless nature of State machinery regarding law and order in the context of terrorism.
Since terrorism thrives on publicity, the media’s moral obligation is to deny terrorists that privilege in order to set the agenda to counter violent extremism through a special way of reporting that could help the State, the international community, and ordinary citizens to understand and forestall women’s role in violent extremism.
This calls for the utilisation of media approaches in a creative yet responsive public system of reward and punishment where female terrorism is exposed and judicial convictions well reported to discourage deviance.
The media’s portrayal of terrorism in general and women’s role in it in particular is important because of the role it plays in the social construction of reality that would influence both the public and policymakers when responding to female violent extremism in sub-Saharan Africa.
Media reports of the Sunday incident, for example, show that one of the attackers had previously been arrested by the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit.
However, she was released for lack of evidence. More such cases should be reported so that the public is aware of would-be terrorists among them.
The Mombasa incident reminds us of Kenya’s vulnerability to terrorism. Part of the reason why Kenya is at risk is due to its moderately pro-Western policies that have seen the country at the frontline of the international war on terrorism and other socio-economic, political, and cultural factors.
Socio-economically, Kenya seems to have a complex mix of highly educated skilled workers vis-à-vis low employment opportunities and low salaries for the few who are employed.
Kenya’s privileged status as the gateway to East and Central Africa, a regional beneficiary of the global political-economy, as far as the free market or globalisation is concerned, does not seem to have delivered any public goodies for its rising young population.
This situation is compounded by government policies that are only good on paper regarding the youth, affirmative action, and the central role that women should play in key leadership and governance positions.
This reality has made many women vulnerable, stretched the imagination of many youths to the point of deprivation, and consequently conceived socio-economic discontent and violence.
Dr Ogenga is a Southern Voices Network Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, USA, and teaches in the Department of Communication, Journalism, and Media Studies, Rongo University College. [email protected]