In 2014 when ISIS declared its caliphate thousands of women around the world migrated to join debunking the myth that woman did not participate in violent extremism. In fact figures show that with the proclamation of the Caliphate, the number of female departees from EU member states increased significantly for example in Germany the percentage rose from 15% to 36% in the first year after the proclamation. ISIS, like many other terrorist organisations was founded on an extreme and violent ideology with an established role for women as mothers and wives. Findings from studies and reports suggest that there are gendered differences in radicalisation. For example, the radicalisation of women appears to be less visible than men. This difference in visibility resonates with traditional, cultural gender norms and expectations. Women’s access to the public sphere is restricted hence different recruitment strategies are used to target women. Furthermore, women are more likely to be seen travelling with their families or in all female groups thus appearing unthreatening. It is important to highlight here that many sources identify that gender expectations and stereotypes are why women are less likely to be flagged up when travelling due to the myth that women do not participate in violent extremism.
However due to this misconception it may be assumed that women are not vulnerable to radicalisation because terrorist organisations are not interested in recruiting women. This is simply not true. While it is evident that in many terrorist organisations men are the primary players in leadership, combat and operational roles and tend to be more outspoken about their extremist views. For example, more men are visible in far right rallies and Neo-Nazi propaganda is dominated by images of men wearing ideological symbols and shouting violent extremist slogans. This does not mean that women do not participate in extremist activity at all but instead the truth is women take on a different roles; the supporting role. Therefore the way in which women participate is different to men; women are less likely to participate in fighting or suicide bombings. This is not seen as the role of women however in cases terrorist organisations are using women as suicide bombers because they are less likely to be suspected and women are starting to participate in fighting. Despite a few anomalies most women within terrorist organisations or groups tend to take on the role of supporting the men in conflict in the form of providing food, medical help, recruiting and spreading the ideology as well as rearing the next generation of fighters. Women assist their male counterparts in committing vicious acts this is particularly the case with ISIS as many Yazidi women stated ISIS wives would abuse them and prepare them for their husbands to torture and rape. Women have long been considered passive actors when being recruited for causes – however, women have shown to be active actors who have willingly submitted themselves to the idea of the caliphate and who have actively encouraged and recruited others to join through the internet. Although the way in which the radicalisation of women and men takes place differs, as well as there being gendered push and pull factors such as the allure of marriage and playing a more active and fulfilling role than they would do in their current lives.
ISIS propaganda portrayed an image of complete paradise stressing the concept of equality, freedom, social welfare and justice. This drew many people to thinking they would have a better life in ISIS governed territory because in their homelands they faced discrimination, Islamophobia, poverty and a lack of justice. However it is important to note that many ISIS ‘brides’ were in fact teenage girls and there are a number of contributing forces that result in the radicalisation of women and girls. In her book ‘Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS’ Azadeh Moaveni explores the different factors that have contributed to the radicalisation of young girls. She states that many of these young girls that had been radicalised were looking for a safe space, a sense of belonging and autonomy. Between the pressures to succeed, conservative family structures and the ‘freewheeling London environment’ young girls were exploited by ISIS. Once this happened many women migrated and began their path of violent extremism.
Analysing radicalisation from a gender perspective emphasises that women need to be part of the discussion and policy making process to effectively tackle the rise of online radicalisation and create effective counter terrorism initiatives. At JAN Trust we are aware that women need to be part of the discussion to effectively tackle online radicalisation and terrorism. This is why our CEO Sajda Mughal created the pioneering Web Guardians™ programme well over 10 years ago to help mothers and women prevent and tackling online extremism, building community resilience to this harm.