The dangerous myth of the female victim-fighter

Though their role within ISIS may differ, women’s motives for joining the group are just as diverse as men’s.
By: /
April 21, 2015

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?

Also in the series

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has emerged out of the power vacuum created by the Syria civil war. In a very short period of time the group has captured and held territory in both Syria and Iraq, which consequently gave rise to an international military coalition to stop the group. 


The Islamic State and the case for Responsibility to Protect

Do not let feelings toward past invasions in the Middle East deter us from protecting Syrians and Iraqis.
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Why the Islamic State actually stinks at social media

The conventional wisdom is that ISIS has managed to become so successful largely because of its social media prowess. The conventional wisdom is wrong.

ISIS, by the numbers

How many fighters? How many countries fighting ISIS? How many refugees?

Aiding ISIS victims: ‘We need access, not more funds’

Veteran humanitarian worker François Audet discusses the dilemmas ISIS has created for crisis-response operations.

How to win the battle against the ISIS propaganda machine

The online world is a crucial battleground.

On humanitarian efforts: Defeating ISIS is not the end

The widespread displacement ISIS has caused will have consequences for years to come.