An intriguing aspect of Islamic State is its recruitment of women to support the war in Iraq and Syria. “I wonder if I can pull a Mulan and enter the battlefield,” tweeted one woman under the name of Umm Ubaydah, with a reference to the Disney movie about a warrior girl.
The group’s use of hundreds of women has drawn the attention of both news media and governments for at least a couple reasons. These female jihadists are effective on social media in recruiting even more women to IS (aka ISIS). And they could easily slip back into their home countries as terrorists.
Yet this attention overlooks a contrary trend in the Islamic world: the increasing ability of Muslim women to exercise authority within Islamic institutions as preachers, teachers, counselors, and interpreters of religious text – not as warriors. This rise of women in religious leadership, despite a long tradition against it, could be an effective antidote to the IS recruitment efforts.
These new female authority figures are particularly effective in reaching into the homes of would-be IS recruits, teaching them the Islamic tradition of compassion and equality toward others. A recent report on women joining IS by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a Britain-based think tank, recommends that governments help families prevent their daughters from traveling to IS territory by teaching them to “engage emotionally and intellectually with the arguments in favor of joining ISIS.”
“As the female migrants themselves have told us, families have a great deal of emotional and practical influence on aspiring migrants,” the report stated.
In recent years, a few Islamic countries have encouraged women to rise up within mosques and madrasas – although women leading men in prayer is still widely considered to be forbidden. They most often cater to other women or to children in religious settings. In Britain and the United States, some Muslim women have formed their own mosques while in Muslim areas of China, women have a long history of holding top posts, including being imams.
One Arab country promoting women to act as Islamic leaders reaching vulnerable young people is Morocco. After a suicide bombing in 2003 in Casablanca, the government began to train women as spiritual guides, or morchidat. Hundreds of these women now go to schools, prisons, or homes to teach a tolerant version of Islam and to steer people there away from radical groups. Algeria has had a similar program since its conflict with radical Islamists in the 1990s.
Other Muslim countries have now taken an interest in Morocco’s program, helped by a new documentary film about it. Perhaps if the world paid more attention to this other kind of recruitment of women, that might help reduce the flow of young people, especially women, to IS.