As Daesh continues to lose ground, the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Iraq have entered in a new phase. In the past months, Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have consolidated a strong presence in the western and eastern part of the country, reducing most of Daesh strongholds into ashes. In July 2017, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Mosul and the US-backed Iraqi forces’ entry into Hawija earlier in October marked Daesh’s loss of its last remaining city in the country. However, the extremist group’s territorial defeats do not appear to lead into an era of regional stability, as potential conflict triggers are still unresolved and the question of whether new theatre of operations might emerge still unclear. The swift and rapid receding of radical group in both Syria and Iraq has raised several questions, particularly the extent to which new confrontations could emerge with new (or dormant) armed groups holding the same extremist ideology and deeply-rooted grievances. Other questions remain generally undermined, distorted or neglected, which is the case of the women who fight (or have fought) for Daesh.
There is a tendency to associate women to a passive and inert role rather than just as active and aggressive as their male counterpart. But in the recent years, researchers and front-line practitioners are starting to note that women play an important role in extremist groups’ operations. This is the case of Daesh’s recruitment tactics towards women. As reported by the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), among the estimated 5 000 individuals within the EU who have left for Syria and Iraq to join Daesh, there are at least 550 women. In addition, a study conducted by Gaub and Lisiecka reported that 20% of all Western recruits for joining ISIS are female. Finally, according to Europol, 40% of recruits going to Syria and Iraq from the Netherlands are women.
Although this pattern is constantly shifting and evolving, one of the main problems within this area is that women are still being portrayed as victims of terrorism, limited to stereotypes, and with their actions framed as ‘outside the inherited gender expectation’. Conversely, Daesh and other extremist organizations are engaging with women directly in a variety of ways, providing open platforms for their participation, cultivating a sense of belonging and empowerment as well as providing encouragement for their actions. This dynamic has consequently enhanced the number of women who have joined the insurgent group in a voluntary basis. As a recent research conducted by the UNDP has demonstrated, among former recruits from Daesh in Sudan 16% are female, who have all integrated the group voluntarily.
A strong religious and ideological framework also serves as the background against which to enhance recruitment. In the context of Daesh, women very often refer to themselves as muhajirat, or in other words, sisters in migration. They are called for their religious duty of hijra (migration) to assist in the building of the new Muslim Caliphate. Daesh, as many other extremist groups, tends to strategically frame this narrative as a nation-building process, providing a sense of empowerment to women who are historically excluded and neglected from this practice. As reported by the RAN, ‘ISIS is very skillful in exploiting personal identity struggles of some women’ and translate this into empowering tools for their recruitment.
For instance, this is the case of Muslim females living in Western societies who face discriminatory attitudes in public or are marginalized for their Muslim identity. Saltman and Frenett reports that
While the experience of persecution alone does not turn someone into a jihadist or supporter of violent extremism, it can serve to fuel feelings of isolation within a larger community. This is, in essence, a form of societal priming, leaving an individual more vulnerable to extremist narratives, which cultivate a sense of belonging.
In the case of Syria, for instance, the common enemy portrayed by the international media is the Assad’s government, although this representation has been slowly changing due to the constant gains from the government on the ground. By the time the Syrian war started, the lack of international intervention was one element used by extremist groups for their recruitment propaganda. As some analysts have reported, individuals, especially women, undergoing through a process of radicalization often tended to relate with their Muslim communities, who are represented by the media as victims of violence, caused by the ‘Western compliance with the Syrian government’. These are significant aspects in their decision to leave the West and seek an alternative society.
The variety of push and pull factors assembled with other structural motivators and individual incentives show how complex and multidimensional female migration to join Daesh can be. Their recruitment is drenched in gender perceptions, while also serving as an empowering mechanism very often framed as a form of liberation from western objectification of women. As a number of research highlights, Daesh members recognizes this dynamic and translate this into increasing their female-focused efforts.
In this sense, various methods are used for female recruitment. One of the most known methods include publications of manifestos for women through Daesh’s high-resolution online magazine, Dabiq, which encompasses an exclusive section for women, entitled ‘sisters of the Islamic State’. This specific method, for instance, allows women to express themselves, giving them a voice to the wider public, increasing therefore a sense of empowerment.
Furthermore, within this propaganda tactic there is a strong gendered message that women, more specifically the Sunnis, are valuable, respected and not treated as sexual objects, but as the future mothers of a nation and ‘guardians of the ISIS ideology to pass on to their offspring’. Nevertheless, the reality on the ground is far beyond the utopian propaganda disseminated for recruiting purposes. In this context, life is conducted by a strict interpretation of the Shariah law, which frequently restricts women’s free movement. In addition to that, the warring context within which Daesh recruiters are inserted is highly dangerous and thus mentally and physically challenging.
Different and Overlapping Roles
Although male and female motivating factors for joining extremist groups are similar, they frequently tend to manifest themselves in gender-specific forms, primarily based on the different gender roles that are attributed to each sex, but also presenting gender-specific concerns. In the case of women, several research highlights the paradox that involves female recruitment into Daesh. On the one hand, women are to a great extent subjected to a gendered and strict imposition of the Shariah law, which restricts their direct involvement into the conflict and mobility. On the other hand, women in Daesh have been playing a substantial role for the group’s activities in loco and abroad. As specialists have noted, women’s role can be divided into three categories:
- Wives, mothers, teachers and doctors: playing a role as agents of ‘state-building’
- Recruiters, a core source of human management and for attracting new followers.
- Fighters. Although limited, women have more often been included in the front line of the conflict with a potential militant role. This new dimension is still lacking additional research, but it is a trend that has been growing within Daesh.
In most cases however, women’s role within Daesh-controlled territory are predominantly domestic. But contrary to what most think, this role is constantly glorified and framed positively rather than limited and narrowed.
As declared in the Manifesto on Muslim Women, written by the all-female al-Khanssaa Brigade in Syria, women’s sole role is to support their husband and must stay indoors, only leaving in exceptional circumstances:
[W]oman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband... The greatness of her position, the purpose of her existence is the Divine duty of motherhood.
The Manifesto includes a lengthy explanation of how the new Islamic society should be materialized. It refers that the ideal Islamic community should not be caught up with “trying to uncover the secrets of nature and reaching the peaks of architectural sophistication”. They should instead concentrate on the implementation of Shariah law.
When it comes to the dissemination of Daesh’s extremist ideology, women also play an active role in the recruitment of new members, using online platforms provided to them to voice their concerns, celebrate attacks perpetrated by the extremist group and call for supporters to join forces. Showing a strong desire to take up arms and fight, those women however are constrained by the very law they support.
A More Positive Side: Women at the Forefront of CVE
Investigating the varied roles women can play in countering violent extremism, Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc and Stephane Lacombe have highlighted several initiatives women have been taking part in preventing the phenomenon. In Pakistan, for instance, Shazia Khan, who is a survivor of violent extremism in her community, has developed many training programs to build network of victims focusing on prevention of radicalization.
Another example worth highlighting took place in Morocco, where a number of innovative ventures have been undertaken by women to challenge violent extremism. After losing her husband and son in the suicide attacks in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, Soad Begdouri Elkhammal created the Moroccan Association of Victims of Terrorism (AMVT), using CVE campaign strategies, including awareness raising activities in schools and engaging with youth, using her skills as a teacher.
The examples illustrated above have suggested that women also play an active part in preventing and countering violent extremism. However, these examples also caution against the assumption that women’s engagement in this front is always positive, as they can also be perpetrators of these acts. As the conflicts in Iraq and Syria continue, and as many dynamics are still at play it remains to be seen if these types of positive initiatives can also be translated into these contexts. It is worth considering, nonetheless, that solutions will likely vary from one conflict to the next and should consider the intersectional effects of gender, including race, age, religious, among others.
As seen, there are a variety of pathways that leads individuals to perpetrate or participate in acts of violent extremism. Equally, there is a range of counter-narratives that can have a positive impact on these individuals, which can possibly drift them away from these acts. Overall, one of the main problems in the field of violent extremism and CVE is that women are regularly viewed as victims, limited to stereotypes, as opposed to active perpetrators. As Alexis Henshaw argues,
By understanding the extent to which women contribute to political violence—as well as the roles that they play—we can potentially shape more inclusive as well as more effective peace agreements and post-conflict programming.
This is particularly the case when looking at the gender dynamics in processes of radicalization and recruitment by groups such as Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Overall, any attempt to a successful CVE initiative will be greatly facilitated if not just women, but women from all sides of a conflict, were also to be empowered as agents, along with men in the fight against violent extremism.