Women and ISIS

By Sophie Pu

Although it seems that the sun is setting on ISIS’ power as a terrorist group and quasi- state, recent findings suggest there has been a resurgence in recruitment, particularly of women. While initially, ISIS was highly reticent of female recruits, even going so far as to discourage them from joining, the need to build the caliphate and even manage women in captured areas has annulled this standard. According to a Times article, the existing social-media framework used to recruit male foreign fighters could be easily utilised by female recruits to develop a community for those looking to enlist, and as such, there has been a growing surge of women crossing borders into Syria to join the fight for ISIS’ caliphate.

In an article published in January 2017, the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism estimated that of the 30,000 or so foreign fighters who have joined ISIS since its inception, 20% are women. The research centre cites seven promises that the terrorist group makes to women to encourage participance: the fulfilment of religious duty, important roles in state building, ISIS as a safe haven, sisterhood, adventure, romance and the return of influence to Muslims who have been marginalised throughout history. As such, the study concludes that these seven pledges culminate in a promise of utopia for women, particularly if they marry an ISIS fighter and birth new fighters and members for the caliphate.

Other research suggests that women joining ISIS join as an expression of empowerment. According to an Independent article, de-radicalisation programmes reported that many women joined ISIS as a rejection to Western norms of feminism. In particular, Western depictions of Islam as being an inherently misogynistic religion, and the white saviour mentality of liberating Muslim women from their religious shackles is certainly alienating. Researchers found that women living in countries that are more exclusive of Muslim traditions, such as France and the Netherlands who both have burqa bans, felt trapped by the inability to express their religion. Furthermore, societal xenophobia and Islamophobia drives the feeling of exclusion and lack of integration in society, thus propagating ISIS’ depiction of themselves as a haven for Muslims. In addition to this, running away with ISIS is portrayed by the Internet as romantic, and the narrative of engaging in something exciting and illicit is understandably appealing to young women who already feel separate from a society that rejects a fundamental aspect of their lives.

As ISIS’ territorial base continues to shrink, the significance of social media in their recruitment grows; with the Internet, the chasm between the Middle East and the West rapidly narrows, making it easier for the terrorist group to reconfigure outside of geographical limitations. This not only makes it more difficult for government authorities to catch extremist fighters, but also makes the group a more insidious and treacherous threat to deal with. Now, concern is directed less to diminishing ISIS’ territory, but managing its allure to new fighters, of which whom, a significant portion are women.

Sophie Pu is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies International Relations