By Luke Waggoner and Valerie Dowling
With the recent capture of Linda Wenzel, the German teen who traveled to Iraq to join ISIS, the topic of female jihadists is back in the news. In many ways, the role of women in Islamist extremism has been a leitmotif since the earliest days of the “war on terror.” Part of the enduring fascination with women jihadists derives from sheer irony: women are casting off their traditional roles to fight and die for a cause that seeks to rob them of their agency.
This incongruity has been compounded by the success of ISIS in recruiting women to their cause, at the same time as they have consigned thousands to the status of chattel and murdered many more. Roughly 40 percent of France’s foreign terrorist fighters are women, and dozens of women from North America and Western Europe— including 60 women from the UK—have joined ISIS to perpetuate “family jihad.”
ISIS may be losing territory, but it retains a talent for adaptability. As women are increasingly targeted by recruiters, the necessity of engaging women and ensuring they are active agents in the fight against ISIS is more critical than ever.
To this end, new research by the International Republican Institute (IRI) based on group interviews comprised of women from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen reveals interesting opportunities for engagement that could help to stem recruitment of both men and women.
Before identifying potential avenues to engaging women in the fight against ISIS, our interviewers wanted to first get a sense of what life is like for women on the ground in ISIS-controlled territories. According to interviewees from Iraq, in ISIS-controlled areas, the punishments for dress code infractions range from fines to corporal punishment and even public execution. Ironically, many of these restrictions are actually enforced by women, such as the all-woman al Khansaa security force in Raqqa.
One participant noted that the restrictions on women in particular has increased the power of harsh, violent fatwas throughout ISIS-controlled territory. On the more disturbing end of the spectrum, interviewees reported women being forced into sexual relationships with fighters and prevented from moving freely within the community or attending school.
At the same time that women are facing unimaginable forms of oppression, they are paradoxically being forced to step out of their traditional roles at home to fill the labor gap as men leave home to fight. A Yemeni interviewee noted, “because of violent extremism, women lose their families. They lose their breadwinners and must find a job.” Another interviewee from Iraq noted the taboo on women remarrying even after being widowed, resulting in increased physical and financial insecurity. Accordingly, the rise in the number of widows has contributed to the growing pool of women vulnerable to recruitment.
Psychological terror has also crept into their mindset as ISIS and other violent extremist organizations have infiltrated otherwise peaceful communities with promises of money, adventure, and absolution. The fear of increased violence has even effected the way mothers are parenting. One interviewee from Yemen described that after every suicide bombing, she is afraid that her sons may have been killed, or worse: that they blew themselves up. She has even taken to pleading with her husband and sons to stay home during Friday prayers.
In this environment of repression, it’s tempting to write off the possibility of engaging women in any meaningful way—let alone enlist them in the fight against a brutal and unforgiving enemy like the Islamic State. But as the civic leaders who joined our focus groups have shown, there are opportunities to appeal to women and engage them in this struggle in even the most desperate circumstances.
Despite the overwhelming daily struggles they recounted, IRI’s interviewees expressed a desire to resist ISIS’ calls for death and destruction. They underscored the unique position that women continue to hold in their households and communities, even in the areas most severely affected by war and ISIS occupation. This role makes them fundamental to any successful strategy to defeat ISIS.
In addition to long-term goals to fight extremism by increasing women’s equal engagement as voters, politicians, and even as soldiers, there is a crucial role to be played by ordinary women who can exercise a great deal of influence within their traditional roles. Mothers, daughters, and sisters can serve as crucial influencers within the home, and the strong, informal networks of women in communities can also serve as an invaluable source of information about the rise of violent extremism on the ground. Additionally, the small but important minority of women in parliament and local government can use their legislative powers to develop policies and enforcement measures that build resilience and foster peace.
Regrettably, women’s perspectives remain remarkably absent from strategies to deliver peace and security. When it comes to the prevention of violent extremism, conflict resolution and, eventually, reconciliation and rebuilding, women can and must play a vital role. If women are not empowered in the fight to defeat ISIS, the violence and its increasingly diverse group of perpetrators—including women themselves— will continue to grow.
Valerie Dowling is the Director of the Women’s Democracy Network at the International Republican Institute
Luke Waggoner is a Senior Governance Specialist at the International Republican InstituteTop