Project coordinator, The Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
When three British school girls travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS) this past February, many were perplexed: why would young Western women want to be part of an extremist group that commits atrocious crimes and promotes a strict interpretation of Sharia law that restricts women’s freedoms? For many of us, women in particularly, it simply seems paradoxical.
According to a recent study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), at least 550 Western women have left their home country to join ISIS. Although male foreign fighters are described as “evil terrorists,” Western media have a tendency to portray female supporters of ISIS as “naïve victims” of indoctrination, manipulation and coercion. By now, it is widely known that ISIS’ propaganda is extremely effective in attracting foreigners, especially by painting a rosy picture of life in the so-called Islamic State. However, it would a mistake to strip female “recruits” of their agency or to argue that none of them willingly join ISIS. Like their male jihadist counterparts, women have self-identified reasons that should not be underestimated if we want to understand how the group’s propaganda machine works. Men do not have the monopoly over violence and extremist views. On the contrary, the Institute’s study demonstrates that women are not oblivious to the atrocities committed by ISIS and are as attracted by this brutality, as are men.
Even though “women of the Islamic State” do not fight on the front lines, it is crucial to acknowledge that the threat they pose is perhaps as significant as that of men. Women’s motives for joining ISIS are as diverse as men’s and can be divided into three categories, according to ISD: grievance, solutions and personal. Like men, many women buy into the idea that Muslims throughout the world are oppressed and thus they feel a religious duty to wage jihad. Others are attracted by a romanticized version of war and by the idealized image of life in the “Caliphate” promoted by ISIS on social media. Women yearn to contribute to state building by becoming jihadi wives and mothers. Finally, women searching for meaning and a sense of belonging believe that they will find it in the “global cause” promoted by ISIS.
We must be aware of the roles women play within ISIS’ Caliphate for at least two reasons. First, to be aware of the threat women may pose even though they play a less visible role than men. Second, to understand why women buy into the fantasy sold by ISIS, which may then allow us to work on better prevention strategies.
According to a propagandistic document entitled “Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study,” women in the “Caliphate” are essentially confined to domestic roles. Throughout the manifesto, the emphasis is placed on marriage, motherhood and family support. Although less visible than men, women’s domestic and behind-the-scenes role should not be dismissed as unimportant. As wives, mothers and family supporters, ISIS is well aware that women can greatly contribute to state-building. They provide emotional support to their husbands returning from the battlefield and ensure the continuity of the so-called Caliphate by raising children, also known as “cubs of the Caliphate” (to use ISIS’ term).
Some women play a more active role. In February of last year, ISIS created two all-female brigades that serve as a moral police responsible for enforcing Sharia Law. These female jihadis also take on the role of recruiters who use social media to lure other young women to their ranks. This online presence poses a particular threat since recruiters encourage others to travel to Syria, provide practical travel advice or even encourage attacks against the West.
Whether they are wives, mothers, members of a brigade or recruiters, female ISIS supporters should be considered actors who are part of and contribute to the system and ideology promoted by ISIS.
So where does this leave us? The narrative of the “victim of manipulation” is dangerous in terms of prevention, threat assessment and de-radicalization. The reality of the situation should lead us to reconsider our simplistic perception of the “innocent victim” whose radical views are somehow less severe because they are the result of brainwashing. Most of them have appropriated the ideology and are able to use it to serve ISIS’ goals. Let’s not forget that one of France’s most wanted woman is Hayat Boumeddiene, the wife of Amedy Coulibaly who killed five people in Paris in January.
If we want to put an end to the stream of recruits from the West (and from the Arab world), our prevention and de-radicalization strategies must also take women’s realities and radicalization process into consideration. Who can say that the next attack on Canadian or European soil will not be committed by a woman?