World Middle East

How cultural biases obscure women's true role in ISIS

a shift in thought

While women are portrayed often in Western and Arab media as 'victims' who have been 'brain-washed' by jihadists, they increasingly are highly motivated planners and attackers, experts warn.

Spanish Civil Guards escort a Moroccan resident of Spain at Barcelona's airport, March 7, 2015. The Interior Ministry said she was arrested on suspicion of attempting to join Islamic State militants in Syria. Experts warn that ISIS exploits cultural biases that often pardon women and overlook their political motivations.
Spanish Interior Ministry/Reuters
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  • Taylor Luck
    Correspondent

One thing drove university graduate Emna from abandoning her middle-class life in Tunisia to carry the so-called Islamic State’s banner in neighboring war-torn Libya.

She was not swayed by some suave jihadi, she says, not running away from a broken home, nor a repressed life or poverty – nor any of the other rationales that have been supplied to explain women’s participation in ISIS’s brutal jihadist campaign, which has generated countless stories of beheadings, massacres, and sexual slavery.

She joined for one simple reason.

“I wanted to defend Sunni Muslims,” says Emna, using her nom de guerre, via Skype from Tunisia.

Yet unlike the estimated 200 or so male ISIS recruits who have returned home to Tunisia from foreign battlefields, the 24-year-old has not faced prison time.

For nearly three years, the role of women in ISIS has been marginalized or trivialized by the press and public.

In both Western and Arab media, women frequently are portrayed as “victims” who have been “brain-washed” by influential men. More salacious claims, particularly in the Arab press, are that many women join ISIS to marry and have sexual relations with fighters in so-called jihad al nikah, or sexual jihad.

Yet experts say the true reason behind women’s allegiance to ISIS is much simpler – and darker: They are true believers in ISIS’s cause.

And, these experts warn, unless states in the West and the Arab world overcome cultural biases that often pardon women and overlook their political grievances – biases that ISIS, which increasingly relies on women, deliberately exploits – they may soon face imminent security threats. 

Willing warriors

There are no precise figures for the number of women who have joined ISIS. Various estimates suggest some 10 percent of Western recruits are women, while thousands more have joined the group from Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq.

While its jihadist rival Al Qaeda, a branch of which gave rise to ISIS, often relegated women to raising “the next generation” of jihadist children, ISIS has put women at the front and center, relying on them for propaganda, logistics, policing, and attacks.

“We are seeing a shift in women jihadists from acting as support to becoming active fighters in their own right,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert in jihadist movements.

None have had a bigger role than the all-women Khansaa Brigade, the female police force that imposes ISIS’s laws and edicts in Syria and Iraq and that has been accused of the torture and forced disappearance of women.

But women are involved in more than just police work.

ISIS is believed to have deployed its first woman suicide bomber during the battle against Kurdish forces for control of the northern Syrian city of Kobani in late 2014.  Since then, it has deployed women as suicide bombers in Libya and Turkey, while female would-be suicide bombers were arrested in France, Morocco, and Indonesia over the past year.  

Women have proven to play key roles in planning ISIS attacks in Paris, Jordan, and Turkey.

Cultural attitudes

Yet security services’ monitoring, tracking, and investigating of women as potential ISIS members faces several logistical and cultural barriers.

One is that women in conservative Muslim societies are often shielded, and mingling with male strangers – even policemen or security agents – without the presence of a male relative is considered taboo, and even shameful.

Security experts say ISIS is exploiting these sensitivities, relying increasingly on women, who due to their cultural standing and traditional concepts of family “honor” are much more difficult to track.

“We can’t just go door to door and lift the veil of every woman, or monitor all women’s schools and cafes,” says a Jordanian security source. “That would cause a riot.”

“The community has to play a large role in this, because they can go where sometimes we can’t.”

Other security sources say that in more conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia, where women must obtain the permission of male guardians to travel, to even suggest that a woman joined an extremist group would be seen as expressing a “criticism of the family” and therefore fiercely rejected.

“We treat women daesh [ISIS] members just as seriously as men – but we have to be careful with certain sensitivities,” says an official affiliated with the Saudi Interior Ministry who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Why they fight

Experts say states – both Arab and Western – need to change their attitudes toward women fighters, one away from victimization, which overlooks and denies the real political grievances that drive women to join extremist groups such as ISIS.

“The idea of women being violent is very difficult to accept in these societies and even in Western societies,” says Nimmi Gowrinathan, professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership in New York and an expert in women in armed groups.

“Women who join militant groups are seen as sociopaths, as damaged,” says Professor Gowrinathan. “Society promotes the idea that we can make her human again by reminding her she is a woman – marry her off and encourage her to start a family.”

Multiple women interviewed remotely by the Monitor through messaging apps and third parties say they had similar reasons for joining ISIS: to defend Sunni Muslims from the Syrian regime, to fight Iran and the West, to live under what ISIS claims is Shariah law.

Many said they were motivated by real crises in the region: the war in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the growing influence of Iran – all exacerbated by their inability to have a political voice at home.

Rather than being recruited, they sought out ISIS as true ideological converts.

The narrative of women as “victims” rather than politically motivated actors is one that is championed and pushed by the families of women who have joined ISIS as they lobby for their return and for states to pardon them.

“We see these young men and women as victims, they are tricked and allured,” says Mohamed Iqbal of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, an advocacy group for families of men and women who have left to join jihadist groups.

According to experts, however, as a result of misconceptions over why women join militant groups such as ISIS, states and NGOs have been taking the “wrong approach” to reintegrating them into society.

Many Arab states leave it to communities to reintegrate ISIS women, while international NGOs carrying out DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) programs offer sewing machines and household income-generating projects, cementing their “feminine identity.”

“As for women, it is as if we are going to take them from 2017 and take them back to the 1950s, and that would solve their underlying political grievances,” says Gowrinathan.

Lenient sentences

But security experts and residents point to an even greater obstacle than policing: lenient sentences.

Often due to lobbying from families and public sympathy for women viewed as victims, states across the Middle East have handed down shortened sentences or pardons for women who have joined ISIS – even those who may have blood on their hands.

In Saudi Arabia, where, according to official accounts and experts, women have played an active role in recruiting and planning attacks, the kingdom’s harsh penal system has been unusually lenient.

In May 2016, a 27-year-old woman convicted of joining ISIS and encouraging attacks on Saudi security services over social media was handed down a reduced prison sentence – three years instead of six. Other women convicted of belonging to ISIS have been sentenced from two to four years.

In Tunisia, dozens of women who either were prevented from leaving the country to join ISIS or have returned have been held briefly without charge.

In Jordan, dozens of young women who have been turned back attempting to enter Syria and join ISIS from Turkey have been pardoned, without spending a single day in prison.

Their sentences pale to those of young men in Jordan, who often are sentenced for five years just for a Facebook post sympathizing with ISIS, or in Tunisia, where young men can face two years in prison before they even go before a judge.

Experts say many of the dozens of women returning from Syria or leaving prison are ideologically motivated and are unlikely to shed their extremist views without extensive rehabilitation – support that is unavailable in the Arab world.

“Women jihadists have proven themselves as capable fighters, ideologues, and recruiters,” says Abu Haniyah.

“To underestimate or neglect women jihadists would be a huge mistake for security services across the region – and one they may pay for in the near future.”