Where are the Women? The Diverse Roles of Women in Islamic Armed Groups

Publication Date: 
Friday, April 8, 2016

This guest blog comes to us from Brittany Card. Brittany is a Candidate for the MA in Law and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where her focus is human security and gender analysis. Previously, she was the Program Coordinator for the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).


Media depictions of armed groups that use terror tactics often feature familiar imagery: armed boys and men who are labeled terrorists, insurgents, or freedom fighters. As a result, these armed groups appear exclusively to be made up of men. In reality, women serve a variety of critical roles in these groups that have heretofore remained largely unseen and unacknowledged by the international community. However, understanding the roles of women in armed groups is increasingly recognized as critical for informing humanitarian programming that reflects women’s agency, structural constraints, and the internal dynamics of armed groups. Utilizing a gendered analysis reveals that the roles of men and women in armed groups are not uniform, but rather reflect conceptions of femininity, masculinity and gendered power relations in different societies. These realities must be taken into account by humanitarian practitioners in conflict-affected contexts.


The works of feminist authors help show that one-dimensional depictions fail to recognize the inextricable internal and external factors that culminate in each woman’s participation in an armed group. For example, in Mia Bloom’s article, “Bombshells: Women and Terror,” she argues that when female terrorists are depicted by the media, they are often siloed into one of three categories: 1) the dutiful, supportive mother and wife, who cooks, cleans and cares for her children; 2) the coerced victim, who participates out of devotion to her husband; or 3) the fetishized, sexual deviant, whose personal history is analyzed in an attempt to pinpoint which character flaw led her to commit such an “un-womanly” act.


In a recent paper published in the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, Laura McElroy, Maida Omerovic, Rebekah Glickman-Simon and I apply a gendered analysis to analyze the roles of women in al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). To move beyond a one-dimensional assessment of the role of women in these groups, a comprehensive analysis must contextually examine: the history of the armed group; the societal role and status of women, including the impact of shifting economic, political and social factors; and the group’s ideology. These elements create a framework through which to holistically analyze the scope of female participation in the group and how their roles may be static or shifting.By applying this framework to al-Shabaab and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), we can see how examining these often disparate components together results in a more comprehensive understanding of women’s participation and experiences in armed groups. Key findings in this regard include:


  • A contextualized, gendered analysis reveals that the roles of women in Islamic armed groups are not uniform, despite many of these groups’ shared ideological roots. This more nuanced assessment yields insights into the roles of male leadership, women’s agency, as well as why and when women’s roles may shift. The case studies of al-Shabaab and AQI indicate that the roles women hold are not arbitrary; rather, they are the result of strategic decisions made by male leaders. The locus of this decision is crucial to fully understand women’s power and position in armed Islamic groups: regardless of a woman’s dedication to a group or cause, her participation and the scope of her role is contingent upon male leaders’ approval.


  • The private roles that women hold in these groups includes wives, mothers, caregivers, logistics, fundraisers, and recruiters. The largely private nature of the roles held by women in Islamic armed groups does not diminish their importance. These roles are vital for the success and longevity of the group. Not only do they perform administrative functions that are crucial for the day-to-day maintenance of the group, but their roles as wives and mothers serve to preserve the morale of fighters and to raise future generations of group members. Thus, analysts must examine roles beyond the front-line positions that men often hold and ask, “where are the women?”.


  • Al-Shabaab’s marginalization of women and girls to the group’s private sphere is part of an intentional strategy designed to reinforce the Somali patriarchy, which benefits the group. Indeed, as Dyan Mazurana writes, the "exclusion of women from visible positions is in part a reaction to decades of internal warfare in Somalia which fundamentally altered the economic and social expectations placed upon women and girls, and consequently challenged patriarchal Somali notions of masculinity and manhood.” By doing this, al-Shabaab seeks to reclaim masculinity as part of how it projects of power.


  • In contrast, AQI has utilized women in both public and private roles as part of group’s brutal and violent tactics, including the use of female suicide bombers. Female suicide bombers provided AQI with multiple strategic advantages. For example, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. soldiers had generally not been trained to look for female suicide bombers. By the U.S. only viewing women as civilians or victims in need of protection, female attackers were able to take advantage of this perception as well as both local and religious customs to get through checkpoints without being searched.


The case studies of Iraq and Somalia highlight how gender and power analyses reveal singular and cross-cutting trends. Rather than accepting one-dimensional depictions, a gendered analysis allows for more nuanced understandings of why and how women join armed groups, how women exercise agency when joining or participating in armed groups, and how notions of masculinity and femininity determine roles within the group. These insights have numerous applications for humanitarian practitioners focused on creating people-centered, inclusive, gender equitable and contextually tailored programs, including those aiming to stem armed group recruitment, or improve the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of female and male members of armed groups.

The full version of “Women in Islamic Armed Groups” can be read in the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis. The authors presented their findings at the Conference on National and International Security at Syracuse University on March 8, 2016.


Hakimi Abdul Jabar's picture

This statement on suicide bombing was made by an Islamist/Muslim cleric and reported on the 28th August 2005 : https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2005/aug/28/uk.terrorism

These are the reported statistics on suicide bombings and victims in Iraq in 2006 alone : https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrorist_incidents_in_Iraq_in_2006

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