Female terrorists and their role in jihadi groups

Iraqi Sajida al-Rishawi, 35, stands inside a military court at Juwaida prison in Amman April 24, 2006. Sajida will stand trial on Monday in a state security court for the attacks on three Amman hotels on November 9 by her husband and two other male Iraqi suicide bombers. Rishawi has been charged with conspiracy to carry out terrorist acts, causing death and destruction, and the illegal possession of weapons and explosives, and faces a death sentence if found guilty.

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Editor's note:

Mass media has portrayed examples of women who join terrorist organizations as either brides of fighters or passive participants in the movement. Brookings Doha visiting fellow, Beverley Milton-Edwards sat down with Sumaya Attia to discuss the complexities of why women join jihadi movements and how they are defined within these groups. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Sumaya Attia (SA): In jihadi groups, women are notoriously mistreated and abused, with their rights stripped from them almost immediately. For women who are joining these groups, is it by means of enforcement or do they believe they will serve a significant role? In essence, how do women who have joined jihadi groups justify belonging to organizations that—according to Western standards—are adamantly sexist and misogynistic?

Beverley Milton-Edwards (BME): Women become involved in jihadi groups for a variety of reasons. I think it’s important to draw distinctions between women who support, women who join, and women who become involved in these groups. There is also a significant difference between those that believe that women are making active decisions to join and the notion that women are being actively recruited to join such groups and, therefore, perceived as much more passive. The media mostly portrays the latter. That is women are ‘”groomed” by jihadi recruiters. This is a misogynistic portrayal of women, both in the West and in the propaganda of jihadist groups like ISIS, where women are depicted as inherently passive, innocent, and virtuous beings.

But, this ignores the agency of women themselves about their involvement with these jihadi groups. Studies show that the majority of women who support, join, or are recruited to these groups are actually moderately to well-educated women. So the women are making choices here. It’s just that the frame of choice that they’re making is not what we as a society expect them to make because we believe that these groups are only offering opportunities that bind women, that enslave women, and exploit them. Yet for many women who are actually joining these groups, they see it as a form of empowerment, liberation, and an opportunity to live in a society with a belief system that they subscribe to. 

SA: Are these women offered the incentive of being part of an organization that is giving them something greater than the lives they left behind?

BME: There is evidence to suggest that foreign fighters, including women, find the experience of joining, supporting, or becoming involved in such Jihadi groups an act of empowerment in itself. It is not that they will necessarily need to lift a gun or engage in violent acts against other people, but simply enjoining in this “cause” gives them a sense of empowerment. The incentives at work here are complex. Some people, including women, initially went to Syria to be a part of a cause, which had global appeal and won sympathy. It was not just Muslims that understood that the response of the Syrian regime to the uprisings after 2011 were brutal. We were all part of understanding what was going on. Women may have initially gone in support of relief efforts and ended up in Turkey in family groups dominated by men and then took the next step into ISIS-held territories. Others, however, have been directly recruited or have joined and sought out recruit routes. The incentives are varied and dynamic but groups like ISIS offered out a utopian vision of a caliphate life and that has resonated with some women.

SA: There’s a perception that seems to suggest that women in the West are groomed or lured through social media, trapped by the siren call of ISIS recruiters through social media traps. Do you think that Western women are more of a target for recruitment because jihadi groups are trying to expand on its base or is this an over-exaggeration of their influence in the West?

BME: First, we need to have a sense of perspective of the number of female foreign “fighters” we are talking about. This is most likely in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Media portray these women as joining jihadi groups through romantic adventurism such as the “jihadi brides”, naivety, or a sense of their own marginal lives lived in the West. However, most of the incentivizing narratives employed by ISIS encouraging women to migrate is the same that has been employed for young men. The fact that there’s an opportunity to join a cause and to fight for the rights of Muslims that are portrayed as besieged and assailed is touted by ISIS through sustained propaganda efforts. In this respect, it is gender neutral. However, the notion that ISIS and other Jihadi groups have targeted women by marriage incentives is widely accepted. Academic studies, however, have suggested that most Western women that join jihadi groups seek out recruiters and are motivated not by dreams of marriages but by forms of ideological commitment and insurgent urgings. Furthermore, the majority of these women are aware that they are not going to a land of milk and honey, but in fact, they are going to a conflict zone in which they will have to make great sacrifices for the promise of an afterlife that rewards their good deeds.

SA: But aren’t some women sold a rosy view of the caliphate before joining? For example, the women who are recruited online need incentives to join. Do they have all the facts regarding personal sacrifice and realistic lifestyle conditions or are they sold a false bill of goods?

BME: We need to remember that for the vast majority of women living in ISIS-controlled territories, they are not there by choice. With respect to the others who join, it’s neither one thing or another. Of course groups like ISIS have used their own PR efforts to recruit women. So yes, there is anecdotal data on social media that suggests that women are being sold a false bill of goods. Nevertheless their own agency and decision-making is also at work here, and there is evidence that women communicate with other women to ascertain the realities.

SA: Since women do not have significant decision-making power in the overall strategy of these groups, what kind of impact do they have? Are they recruited simply for numbers or for significant added value to the “cause?”

BME: Women recruited have symbolic rather than numerical impact in a number of ways. They dominate the PR and ideological effort that depicts a role for women, principally as wives and mothers. This is their role in the jihad and in creating and sustaining the caliphate. Because the caliphate is so important to ISIS, it places emphasis on the role women can play in this respect. They are the wombs of the next caliphate generation. Also, in territories controlled by groups like ISIS some women also serve as social enforcers of ISIS rule. For example, in Raqqa, moral policing of other women is undertaken by an all-female force, known as the al-Khansa Brigade. Some women even play the role of insurgency.

SA: What could compel women who take up arms or sacrifice themselves for the sake of these causes?

BME: History leads us to believe that women are the victims and never the agents. In reality, women do not lack agency. Like men, they will engage and when necessary, take up arms. The only thing that has limited the role women play is the local frame of patriarchal control. There are actually compelling political reasons and context that will help us understand why any man or woman would engage in acts that can be described as cold-blooded. Unfortunately, most of those distinctions are not drawn up by wider society, where in fact there are victims on both sides of the conflict. It is these factors rather than a sense of feminine vs. masculine characteristics that explain why anybody would decide to engage in an act that in killing others means that they have to kill themselves.