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The Role of Women in Terrorism

September 17, 2020

By Lucy Hall

Despite women’s direct and active involvement in terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), their participation and contribution to violence has been overlooked.[1] However, there is a current shift occurring in the academic literature which is beginning to re-examine women’s role in terrorist groups – not as passive actors, but as autonomous agents.[2] This article will discuss the perceptions around women’s role in terrorism along with the active role women play, and ultimately comment on need for women to be included in counter-terrorism initiatives.

The Domestic Role  

Women, particularly in the context of ISIS, are considered to be the home-makers, wives and child-raisers.[3] Therefore, the life of a women in ISIS-held territory is largely consumed with cooking, cleaning, completing the daily chores and occasionally studying religion and learning Arabic.[4] However, the strict set of rules do not begin and end inside the home. Every time a woman leaves the house she must be escorted by her husband, and at the very least, with other women, as being outside alone is prohibited.[5] For reasons such as these, women have been primarily seen as the subordinate domestic caretaker, rather than autonomous agents. This has begged the question, why would women actively choose to migrate to a ‘state’ where their rights are restricted?  

Radicalisation and the Question of Autonomy  

A particular narrative has been that young women are ‘groomed’ by men in order for them to join terrorist groups.[6] Here,women are thought to have been naïve, with the assumption that they were‘brainwashed’.[7] This therefore discounts women’s own autonomous decision-making and agency in deciding to join a terrorist group. Additionally, women have been said to be drawn to terrorist groups out of wanting to find a husband, have a family and live a stable life.[8] Despite this holding some truth, there are many compounding factors that influence women into making this decision, rather than simply from ‘grooming’. For instance, young women have moved to ISIS-held territory out of religious obligations, or political commitment to the group’s aims.[9] Moreover, women may wish to start a family in order to contribute to building a Utopian state through raising the next generation of future fighters.[10] While the life of women in ISIS is indeed overshadowed by the responsibilities of being a wife and mother, women do in fact play a much larger role in the contribution to the groups aims than originally perceived.[11]  

Recruiters and Propagandists  

Women have played a pivotal role in the recruitment of other women, and in disseminating propaganda online. For example, Asqa Mahmood and Sally Jones, both from the United Kingdom, were active recruiters and propagandists of ISIS.[12] Mahmood was 19 years old when she left her home in Glasgow, Scotland, to move to Syria.[13] She has since been an active propagandist for ISIS online, through various social media platforms.[14] Mahmood has additionally been thought to have used social media to radicalise Amira Abase, Shamima Begum and Khadiza Sultana, three British teenagers who migrated to Syria.[15] Sally Jones was also a prominent recruiter, and was in charge of a female battalion for ISIS.[16] Here,she trained female recruits from Europe to become martyrs by completing suicide attacks in the West.[17] Mahmood and Jones are just two examples of direct female participation, and demonstrate how women are not just “silenced [and]excluded”[18]domestic homemakers. Acknowledging the role women play in terrorism is crucially important, as it reflects that there needs to be gendered response to counter-terrorism.

Active Counter-actors 

A study in Indonesia found that women are often the first to respond to radicalisation and extremism within communities.[19] On the community level, women have been found to counter extremist ideologies in schools, at home, in community and religious groups as‘inside mediators’.[20] Within this, women have also advocated for gender equality within religious groups, which can break down the prevalence of gender bias or discriminatory practices – sometimes resulting in women adopting extremist views.[21] Additionally,the number of women in the police force, security sector, law-enforcement and peace-building is crucial in preventing extremism.[22] It has been found that there is an increase in trust between communities and the state when women are included and provided a voice within security services and the peace-building process.[23] This trust is crucial to preventing radicalisation, as grievances, personal or political, can be exacerbated when a lack of trust occurs.[24] Therefore, women’s agency in countering violent extremism should be placed at the forefront of policies and initiatives, and viewed in an equal light to the role of men.

However, there is work being done to include women in security and peace efforts. Countries, such as Australia, are contributing to the inclusion of women through the Australian National Action Plan. The Plan has brought about a heightened awareness of the need to incorporate a gendered perspective in security and peace initiatives to not only protect women’s human rights, but to ensure full participation of women in the peace-building process.[25] There is of course more work to be done to ensure women’s participation, both at the local level and at the civil society, national and international levels. 

 


[1] Pearson, E & Winterbottom, E 2017 ‘Women, Gender and Daesh Radicalisation’, The RUSI Journal, vol. 162, no. 3, pp. 60-72.

[2] Johnston, M,Muhammed, I & True, J 2020 ‘The Lure of (Violent) Extremism: Gender Constructs in Online Recruitment and Messaging in Indonesia’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, pp. 1-20; Pearson, E 2018 ‘Online as the New Frontline: Affect,Gender, and ISIS-Take-Down on Social Media’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 41, no. 11, pp. 850-874.

[3] Hoyle, C, Bradford, A & Frenett, R 2015, BecomingMulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, Institute for StrategicDialogue.

[4] Hoyle, C, Bradford, A & Frenett, R 2015, BecomingMulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, Institute for StrategicDialogue.

[5] Hoyle, C, Bradford, A & Frenett, R 2015, BecomingMulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, Institute for StrategicDialogue.

[6] Pearson, E & Winterbottom, E 2017 ‘Women, Genderand Daesh Radicalisation’, The RUSI Journal, vol. 162, no. 3, pp. 60-72.

[7] Pearson, E & Winterbottom, E 2017 ‘Women, Genderand Daesh Radicalisation’, The RUSI Journal, vol. 162, no. 3, pp. 60-72.

[8] Hoyle, C, Bradford, A & Frenett, R 2015, BecomingMulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, Institute for StrategicDialogue.

[9] Saltman, EM & Smith, M 2015, ‘Till Martyrdom Dous Part’ Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon, Institute for StrategicDialogue.

[10] Klausan, K 2015 ‘Tweeting the Jihad: Social Media Networks of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq’, Studiesin Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 1-22.  

[11] Hoyle, C, Bradford, A & Frenett, R 2015, Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, Institute for StrategicDialogue; Saltman, EM & Smith, M 2015, ‘Till Martyrdom Do us Part’Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon, Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

 

[12] CounterExtremism Project, n.d, Asqa Mahmood, https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/aqsa-mahmood; Counter Extremism Project, n.d, SallyJones, https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/sally-jones

[13] Counter Extremism Project, n.d, Asqa Mahmood, https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/aqsa-mahmood

[14] United Nations Security Council, 2015, Asqa Mahmood, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/individual/aqsa-mahmood

[15] Counter Extremism Project, n.d, Asqa Mahmood, https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/aqsa-mahmood

[16] Counter Extremism Project, n.d, Sally Jones, https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/sally-jones

[17] Counter Extremism Project, n.d, Sally Jones, https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/sally-jones

[18] Crone, M 2020‘It’s a man’s world: carnal spectatorship and dissonant masculinities in Islamic State vidoes’, International Affairs, vol. 96, no. 3, pp.573-591.

[19] Lee-Koo, K& True, J 2017 ‘Recognising women’s roles in countering violent extremism’,The Lowy Institute, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter

[20] Lee-Koo, K& True, J 2017 ‘Recognising women’s roles in countering violent extremism’,The Lowy Institute, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter

[21] Lee-Koo, K& True, J 2017 ‘Recognising women’s roles in countering violent extremism’,The Lowy Institute, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter

[22] D’Estaing, SG 2017 ‘Engaging women in countering violent extremism: avoiding instrumentilisation and furthering agency’, Gender& Development, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 103-118.

[23] D’Estaing, SG 2017 ‘Engaging women in countering violent extremism: avoiding instrumentilisation and furthering agency’, Gender& Development, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 103-118.

[24] D’Estaing, SG 2017 ‘Engaging women in countering violent extremism: avoiding instrumentilisation and furthering agency’, Gender& Development, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 103-118.

[25] Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet n.d Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018, https://www.pmc.gov.au/office-women/international-forums/australian-national-action-plan-women-peace-and-security-2012-2018

 

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