Understanding the Recruitment of Women and Girls to the Islamic State

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Despite a growing reputation for brutality, inhumanity and repression – including the rape of women and enslavement minorities – the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has managed to recruit a significant number of women and girls among the thousands of locals and foreigners joining its ranks. Counter to popular assumptions about women’s participation in armed groups, many of these women are joining voluntarily, driven by a variety of motivations.

Why do women join armed groups?

Women join armed groups for a variety of reasons, some unique and some common with men. Some women are abducted by fighters, or otherwise forced or coerced into joining the group. Many join voluntarily, whether convinced by the group’s ideology or attracted by the sense of mission and purpose. Some join armed groups out of retaliation for suffering inflicted by “the other side”, or as a means to escape problems at home, alienation or disillusion in their communities. Others follow their husbands into combat, or join for economic or survival reasons, motivated by financial gain, access to resources or enhanced status as group members.

Why are local women joining ISIS?

In the territories under its control, ISIS has attracted female members with many of the same motivations as men. As Nimmi Gowrinatha notes, ethnic, religious or political grievances; ideological motivations; humiliation, abuse or assault by opposing forces; or simply survival have been driving factors:

As elsewhere, most Iraqi women take up arms because they fear for their safety or because they feel ISIS represents their political interests. In many cases, violence also appears to be the only available means of political expression. For many women, and especially for women from the marginalized Sunni community, violence becomes a vehicle for political agency.

Last year, reports surfaced of an all-female brigade in Raqqa, Syria, established for policing purposes to enforce strict religious law among other women. “Jihad,” said an ISIS official in Raqqa, “is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well.”

As Amanda Taub notes, “ISIS's approach towards female recruits is driven by a calculating military strategy designed to further specific recruitment, military, and state-building goals — and there are signs that it is working.” Female recruits are particularly useful in generating popular support, argues Gowrinathan, since “they have better ability to access civilian women, to engage civilian women, and also to recruit.”

Why are Western women joining ISIS?

A significant number of women and girls from Western countries have also answered ISIS call to jihad, as part of an active online recruiting campaign. As reported on incredulously in Western media, teen girls from countries such as Austria, England, the Netherlands, and the United States have sought to join the group; an estimated 100 women from Germany – mostly between the ages of 16 and 27 – have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, some with their husbands while others went on their own to marry or fight in the movement; others have been stopped by authorities en route. Last week, three British schoolgirls dominated the headlines when they traveled to Turkey, presumably en route to Syria.

Some young Western women are attracted to ISIS by the same messages as Western men: ranging from religious obligation to adventure to solidarity with Syrians in the fight against the Assad regime. In other cases, ISIS has used a romanticized narrative of marriage to attract women as wives and future mothers for jihadi fighters. “Women give birth to the mujahideen [warriors] and they are the ones who raise them and teach them,” notes one Western Jihadi woman.

Countering the lure of violent extremism

In order to combat this type of extremism, we must question our assumptions about women and war in general, and ISIS in particular. As Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, notes:

Women and girls have scant rights under the medieval control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. Our instincts say they would never join in its abusive rule over other women, and yet they have. We're used to thinking that men have a monopoly on violent extremism -- except they don't. We need a better understanding of what drives women to take part in, and even give their lives for, violent movements that insist on their inferiority. We can't counter radical narratives if we don't understand the motives of the radicalized.

Leaving aside the ongoing debate in the media over whether ISIS’s violence is “medieval” or in fact highly “modern,” a limited understanding of violence paints men as perpetrators and women as victims misses the much more complex reality. Women, as men, fill diverse roles in armed movements such as ISIS, yet their experiences and perspectives are often overlooked. “Women fight for personal as well as political power,” writes Gowrinatha, “often sacrificing one for the other. If the world ignores that fact, it will miss a chance to deal with the identity politics that sustain war.” In countering ISIS’s narrative of violence, we cannot overlook the motivations, grievances, contributions or crimes of women in armed groups. Missing that chance will not only cripple efforts at cutting off support to ISIS and facilitating a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria and Iraq but also hinder the equal participation of women in the creation of a more inclusive post-conflict order.

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