Women and Terrorism

This essay on women and ISIS is written by Marina Kosowski, an intern with the President of IAW. Comments or questions are welcome . Please, let us know if you have comments or questions.

Women and ISIS by Marina Kosowski

Although the threat they pose has been overlooked by academics, women in ISIS territory, and particularly women who have left Western countries to join ISIS, have distinctive roles in ISIS’ ranks. Knowing that ISIS’s society is highly segregated by gender and that ISIS’s interpretation of the Koran is strongly misogynistic, the case of Western women leaving to join ISIS is incomprehensible from a feminist perspective. This article will briefly explore the possible roles they can occupy in ISIS society. Secondly, it will look at their motivations for leaving their home country. Lastly, it will consider the treatment of women by ISIS from a human rights’ perspective by taking a look at the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000).

Some numbers
In spite of the fact that the phenomenon of extreme Islamist radicalisation for men is well known and studied, it is not as much for female recruits. Nonetheless, academics and scholars have now started to look more into the role of women, and especially in the context of the online recruitment of Westerners by ISIS. Indeed, ISIS has the policy to bring brilliant women from around the world. A good proportion of the recruits are highly educated women, which is in opposition to the common view that portrays recruits as uneducated.

They will spend six hours a day online to recruit a woman. To do so, they will use social media platforms to directly contact potential recruits.

ISIS’ women account for approximatively 20 to 30% of ISIS membership. The average age is under 25 years old. In terms of the total Western foreign fighters, women constitute 20%, and their number is between 550 and 2500. 40% of French recruits for ISIS are female, and this number represented 220 women in 2015. In 2016, at least 60 women left from the UK to join ISIS. These numbers would not be so threatening as they are currently on the rise.

What is even more threatening than the numbers is the roles they are occupying in ISIS territory and the difference it means in terms of the lives they are experiencing. The autonomy and independence they can acquire vary widely according to their status or function.

 The roles women can occupy in ISIS society
An all-female policing unit called al-Khanssaa has been created by ISIS. It enforces socio-religious practices such as dress codes among women under their self-proclaimed jurisdiction. Those women’s task is to ensure that women in the Syrian City of Raqqa comply with ISIS interpretations of Islamic law.It is thus a highly violent “brigade” joined and run by women perpetuating violence on women. The head positions of the brigade are mainly occupied by Western women and not local women.

Ironically, it could be argued that those women have a high status in ISIS society and are highly valued since they manage and enforce the Sharia law. We could even infer that those women are feared and respected by women, and to a lesser extent, men. But more importantly, this shows that women cannot only be looked at only by taking the perspective of the victim. In this case, those women are and should be seen as perpetrators of violence. Shockingly, those women are perpetrating violence on other women. From a feminist perspective, this is highly controversial.

Nonetheless, although some women are perpetrators and most of the women who have left to join ISIS forces have left of their own will, women are not only victims or perpetrators with ISIS, the majority of them being in the middle. Other women, although not part of the Al-Khanssaa brigade, occupy roles in which they have a clear function for the sustainment of ISIS.

Most of them are online recruiters and their job is to feed the jihadist propaganda to attract Western recruits. Some have even written in ISIS’s online magazines that call on women to support male jihadists and to raise their children to believe in an extremist ideology, in a rubric dedicated to women.[ Some others are nurses and have jobs related to the medical arena or are in charge of facilitating marriages. The fact that ISIS incorporated a rubric dedicated to women shows its drive to appeal them to join.

In all those areas, the society is highly segregated and those women only “work” and “deal” with women. This also shows that although they are not allowed to work according to the ideology and the interpretation of the Coran, ISIS is still using women as recruiters. This means that ISIS is ready to use women’s intrinsic qualities while at the same time denying them independence, freedom and autonomy.

At the other end of the spectrum, some women under ISIS are absolute victims. The example of the Yazidi women is a striking account for this. They represent approximatively 3,000 women and girls that have been captured by ISIS and are sold as sex slaves. Their situation is tragic and represents a modern case of slavery and in that case gender-based slavery and sexual traffic of persons. Those women have absolutely not come to ISIS territory on a voluntary basis but have been captured in their villages, and kidnapped on a large scale.

In ISIS ideology, this is justified because those women are “non-believers of Islam”, hence they can be used as slaves. The group not only has an elaborate fatwa from its leader on the rules for enslavement and rape, it has an official office to manage the market in women, who are bought and sold online in an open slave bazaar in Raqqa, Syria, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. The accounts of this phenomenon depict the terrible situation those women are facing. There are cases where one teenager had been forced to marry 15 men, some for as few as three days. Some were soaked in gasoline and burned for refusing to cooperate.

The case of Yazidi women and girls is not only heart-breaking but absolutely revolting. In itself, it has the potential to undermine ISIS’s ideology and should be used as a disillusionment trigger for women and men who are being radicalised. To those close to being radicalised who would be tempted to believe that ISIS is saving the Muslim community and dignifying women, this is a striking example where it does the absolute opposite. Its hypocrisy is made absolutely evident and yet, it still manages to recruit young Westerners who are aware of their treatment of Yazidi women and among them, women.

ISIS approach to gender

The two examples of the Al-Kanssaa brigade and the Yazidi women are the two extremes on the spectrum of autonomy and agency in the possible roles women can take when joining ISIS. This shows how ISIS is somewhat flexible on gender roles, while rigid on separation of the sexes.

Organisations that adhere to ultraconservative practices, including religious fundamentalism, often designate specific branches and tasks for female members. In the case of ISIS, it recruits young men with promises of control over women and uses mass rape as a form of cohesion. At the same time, it lures isolated women with appeals to enlarge their lives by joining a cause.

ISIS’ approach to gender is thus layered, and multi-pronged. ISIS not only uses violence against women as a tactic of war and as a means economy but makes it part of the ideology. Indeed, the sex slaves market is a way for ISIS to increase its revenue and its treatment of women an appeal for some male recruits. With ISIS, women are barred from combat although many have shown to be willing to combat. Their main roles are to be good wives, mothers and sisters and to take care of the realm of the family, according to the official discourse. ISIS dignifies this role in assuring that those women will enable and foster future generations of jihadists.

In reality, ISIS uses some women to terrorise other women, some others to recruit new members and others as sex slaves while using all of them to sustain and spread the ideology to the next generations. The gap between ISIS’s official discourse and how it operates, in reality, is exploited at its maximum in the recruitment process. Indeed, ISIS’s complex approach to gender gives it a large flexibility in using contradictory discourses to radicalise Western women.

This gap should be used to shine on ISIS’ hypocrisy and de-radicalise, or prevent the spread of their ideology. Indeed, viable approaches to countering ISIS’s sexual violence involve working to delegitimise its ideology and degrade its capabilities. 

Motivations for Western women to join ISIS
This still leads us to interrogate ourselves on the possible motivations for those women to join ISIS. Here, we are speaking about Western women who have left their home country to serve ISIS and not about women held captured against their will. This thus simplifies the analysis in terms of intent. Although it is still not clear-cut, those women have left following their own will. Whether the same will has been altered by radicalisation processes seems to be very probable but is not the matter of analysis here.

Although there has been a strong controversy and mixture of academic findings on motivations, there are cases where motivations for women are exactly the same as the ones found for radicalised men: “the search for empowerment, meaning, a sense of community, and albeit to a lesser extent, adventure and action.”

Indeed, there is a mixture of findings in motivations since all the women that left to join ISIS seem to have come from different religious, financial, and social backgrounds.

Some scholars have argued that Muslim women left because of discrimination in Western countries, but there are also a solid number of “converts” who left to join ISIS. Those converts are even more so malleable because they lack basic knowledge of Islam.

Some have argued that most women who left did because of the romanticised idea of a husband, but again it puts women in the position of only prone to romance, while in reality the motives to join ISIS seem to be tangled, complex and intertwined.

Womens empowerment
According to Gaub and Lisiecka, one of the motivation for western women to leave for jihad is “empowerment”. It is called “empowerment” in the sense that women feel they acquire more autonomy in making their own decisions by leaving for jihad. In that way, this motivation seems to be fitting with the search for adventure. In reality, it cannot be considered as “empowerment” as we know it since as soon as those women arrive in ISIS territory, they are not allowed to leave their house (and this is only one example showing the evident lack of freedom and liberty). ISIS portrays leaving for jihad a divine mission that would empower women in the sense that they would be honouring their religious obligation. In this case, it means fulfilling their “divine” roles as mothers and wives, supporting their male relatives and educating their children in the ideology and facilitating terrorist operations as a political act in itself. It also publicly advocates the roles of “power” women occupy in being in charge of the family, and claims that their real power as women is in the sustainment of ISIS’s ideology.

According to ISIS, women do not seek the male’s honor (“sharaf”) but they are bound by female honor (“ird”). ISIS attracts women with the promise that they will not be disrespected by men and be valued in their own rights because they would be fulfilling their obligation as a Muslim woman by joining ISIS. In light of the fact that many women in Western country experience sexual harassment and gender stereotypes, it might be that ISIS is exploiting that sense of frustration to make the jihad for women more attractive.

More, by using this, ISIS exploits the feminist perspectives in Western societies to its advantage. Indeed, stressing the fact that women are sexually objectified and sexually harassed is part of the Western feminist discourse. By starting the argument by the fact that women get harassed and sexually objectified and concluding that women should make their jihad, ISIS not only completely re-interprets the Koran in a hypocritical way but uses Feminist premises to deliver and impose misogynistic conclusions.

To go further, it makes female recruits believe that joining them and fulfilling their roles as mothers and wives is a way for them to be empowered in light of man’s power. This strongly resonates with the Feminist discourse. ISIS thus makes them believe that if they join ISIS, women would only be following G.od’s laws and thus not men’s. This is a quote from Sham’s, a famous jihadist girl on social media: “Man does not tell me to dress this way, It’s a Law from G.od that I obey”. Knowing that it is written in the “Women of the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study” that women must stay behind closed doors and leave the house only in exceptional circumstances, it is clearly evident that it does not, in reality, empower women. More, it is stated in this document that “the model preferred by infidels in the West failed the minute that women were ‘liberated’ from their cell in the house.”

By using and twisting feminist goals and arguments, ISIS has thus managed to exploit misogynist behaviours in Western society to create an even more misogynist society sustained and helped by women. Its hypocrisy is thus limitless. 

The dream of an Ideal Caliphate
The other motivation that I believe is really powerful is the dream of an Ideal Caliphate as a utopia, and reflects the totalitarian impulse behind those women leaving to join ISIS forces.

According to this, those women leave to become “perfect people”. They imagine a world in which there is little poverty and inequality, governed with perfect fairness under clear-cut, divine laws that work to the advantage of all. It is a vision that makes no allowances for the ambiguity and variety of traditional Islamic legal interpretations, or for the disorder of real life.  More importantly, this is one of the most important drives for those women to leave as the recruitment process uses very graphic images of Muslims suffering around the world, and calls on the personal sentiments. They also use conspiracy theories videos to trigger a sense of guilt. They then present the ISIS community as saving the fictional “ummah” (the Muslim community) from the Western World. The first result of this is a conceptual “binary” world in which there is the “ummah” massacred by the evil West.

These women also lack religious knowledge in most of the time, and have a desire to be more pious and “pure”. This goes as far as they are willing to overlook a clear lack of liberty and freedom to join the “ideal” world of ISIS. We could thus infer that those women leaving to join ISIS recognise the lack of freedom they will experience but are willing to trade it off with religious “pureness”. This is also combined with the conviction that staying in Western countries is indirectly participating in the massacre of the Muslim community in the World.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that the process of radicalisation is much more complex than a simple trade-off. This is especially so as leaving for the jihad is also a strong emotional decision. This is why the radicalisation process is reinforced by the sense of belonging and community that they provide, although fictionally (in social media platforms), to potential recruits. This can be the most important trigger for jihad. As in any extreme and totalitarian ideology, the fact that no ambiguity and freedom of thought is allowed makes radicalised people in this community feel one and the same with each other. This means that the more totalitarian and extreme this ideology is, the stronger the bond between radicalised people is. Accordingly, the harder it is to tackle it. 

ISIS objectives
One of ISIS’s main objective behind this use of women is to give birth to a new, malleable generation. On the long term, this can be one of the biggest threats since our battle against ISIS is not only a military one but also an ideological one. Arguably, the ideological battle will be the hardest to win if we do not find a response to their use of social media. By using the fact that women have the power to sustain the ideology of ISIS through the education of children to draw women to ISIS, ISIS has found a way to use those women at the maximum to ensure its survival, while justifying their oppression and their absolute lack of freedom.

This means that not only can some of them represent a threat as violent perpetrators of violence but the main threat they pose is in their role in the sustainment of ISIS. Firstly when they are recruiters: they spread the ideology and recruit in numbers. Secondly, their biggest threat is in their nurture of a future generation of jihadists as it contributes to “ISIS’s expansion efforts”.

Women and the positive security bias
The main reason why those women should not be overlooked at is that it is dangerous. As seen before, they represent a considerable threat. The failure to detect radicalised women is in large part to do with the European stereotypes about women as “violence-adverse” (or “passive vewels”). In that stance of thought, women repulse violence and are inherently peaceful. But women have repeatedly played an active role in political violence, be it in the Palestinian territories as suicide bombers or Germany in the Baader-Meinhof gang.

The first step is therefore to recognise that women, and more specifically extremist women, can constitute as great a threat as men. Not doing this firstly results in the positive security bias. The positive security bias is the fact that since women are still portrayed as victims of Western counter-terrorism efforts, less surveillance is put on them. In that sense, women have a major advantage over men in ISIS’s eyes: “they serve as key linkages in the networks both within and outside of Daesh territory”. For example, men are able to take advantage of the more lenient rules by disguising themselves as women: reports of male fighters escaping territory controlled by Daesh in burkas to avoid recognition by the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces underscore the operational value for the organisation.

Women also constitute a strategic reserve for Daesh because they are well placed to switch from the role of facilitators to perpetrators. So although they are not fighting now, they could be someday.

On another level, there are some cases where the lack of agency and victimisation we apply to women is morally doubtable. In some cases in Europe, most of the women convicted for terrorist radicalisation or participation in recruitment were acquitted. This is so because the defence tend[ed] to argue that women were not fully aware of their own acts, vulnerable to manipulation and naive. Also, they were also acquitted on all accounts since there was no proof that they actively participated in an armed struggle.

This is very important in showing the way we perceive women and the battle against terrorism. Those cases show that the fight against ISIS should be understood in terms of an ideological battle, and that spreading the ideology and recruiting can have as decisive consequences as taking part in an attack. Also, considering women as non-capable of critical thinking and lacking moral agency is not only wrong in itself but extremely dangerous because it can be used to the advantage of ISIS.

Nonetheless, the fact that there is a rise in feminist and gender studies literature dealing with ISIS has been driven by an increasing awareness of the roles of women in preventing, promoting and participating in violent extremism. In other words, there has been a new focus on the place of women in conflicts in the world of international institutions driven by the idea that women have a special relationship with peace, notably that they have a special role in preventing and resolving conflicts. Some of the justifications behind this emphasis are relying on women’s maternal roles in coalition builders for example. According to this, women have inherent qualities as strong influencers due to their role in the family and their ability to have strong emotional power in their relationships. The focus here is thus on women’s place within the family as strong influencers. 

The case of Resolution 1325

The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 is the most important and used tool in the context of Women, Peace and Security. It was ratified in 2000 but is still the reference in the world of international institutions when looking at women and peace, or women in conflicts. It advocates for the need to recognise the importance of the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, and peacebuilding. It also urges governments to integrate a gender perspective in conflict resolution and prevention as well as to increase the role of women in decision-making at all levels. In terms of women’s human rights, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 stresses the necessity to protect women and girls in conflicts, as “conflict does not affect women and men in the same way or in the same proportions.” Finally, it stresses the ubiquitous nature of gender-based violence in conflicts.

This resolution is fundamental in many ways. Indeed, this resolution states that “when women are reduced to the status of mother and wife, there is a genuine risk of obscuring their roles in society as political and economic actors.” In the case of ISIS, this is happening at the deepest level. More importantly, this resolution answers to the case of the Yazidi women: they are experiencing an unspeakable case of gender-based violence. Their human rights are being highly violated and they deserve and need protection. Although some critics to this resolution could be made, it still is a milestone as it gives the direction and angle governments and international institutions should take when looking at women in conflicts. It is also an international recognition of the need to protect women and girls in conflict settling, which makes it an important starting point for conflict resolution.


Still, there are three major critics of this resolution that have to be taken into account. The first one is that although ISIS is a special case in terms of its approach to gender when looking at the roles women can have in ISIS society shines the light on the fact that women are not only victims. As mentioned earlier, the Al-Khanssa brigade shows how those women are violence perpetrators, and in the case of the female online recruiters, they are, although to a lesser extent, perpetrators. This resolution tends to portray women as victims, and men as perpetrators. As we have seen with the positive security bias, this can be dangerous. As we will see later, it does not serve the feminist cause well.

The second and related criticism or rather a potential improvement that has to be made concerning the UN SCR 1325 is its focus. Indeed, it has been stressed that the focus should not be on the victim but should be shifted to the perpetrator. As an example, this would mean putting a strong emphasis on penalising the perpetrators instead of only focusing on rehabilitation programs for the victims (which is still very important). Although the UN SCR 1325 recognises the need to “put an end to impunity”, it is still, in itself, focused and highly concerned by the victims.

The last and most important criticism of the UN SCR 1325 is accusing the resolution to rely on essentialist attributes of women. This is, in my opinion, the most sound and necessary one. Indeed, by putting an emphasis on women’s role within the families or as coalition builders, the justification on women’s participation in peace processes is dependent on stereotypes. Taken to the extreme, they imply that all women are more emotional and thus less rational. The problem is not only that this surely is not true, but that it does not recognise the need for women to be more involved in terms of decision-makers whether or not they hold those qualities. Some other feminists would argue that this is simply in the context of recognising the need of “power” to be conceptualised in a more feminine way (i.e to stop evaluating power structures in terms of dominance, rationality and objectivity). While this is true and attributes that are considered “feminine” should be revalued, women’s increased role should not be dependent on feminine attributes but on the desirability of the outcomes. Women’s difference with men, in any form and context, is an asset that should be exploited to benefit all.