The West Needs to Take the Politics of Women in ISIS Seriously
Victim narratives and sensationalist reporting undermine female fighters’ agency.
In recent weeks, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have closed in on the last remaining Islamic State holdout in eastern Syria. The remains of the so-called caliphate occupy less than half of a square mile of a small village called Baghuz, and all but a few hundred remaining insurgents have been driven out of the area by U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish ground operations. Over a thousand fighters and civilians, including many Islamic State militants’ wives and children, have fled. The SDF houses them in camps such as al-Hol, where humanitarian conditions are dire and the application of international law is ambiguous at best.
In the camps, the muhajirat, that is, Western women who joined the Islamic State, are easy to find. And tales of muhajirat like the American Hoda Muthana and the British Shamima Begum “begging to come home” have dominated headlines over the last two weeks. Their stories are part of a wave of recent coverage of Islamic State women, much of it pointing to a supposedly new and uniquely dangerous “Islamic State women problem.” Unfortunately, many of these accounts rest on flimsy scholarship and irresponsible reporting. The sensationalist, politicized, and often factually misleading nature of some reports masks complex political dynamics and peddles tired cliches about women in war, now cast with Iraqis and Syrians instead of Palestinian, Chechen, Timorese, Lebanese, Tamil, or Nigerian women.
The persistent appeal and shock value of the “beautiful but deadly” female fighter depends on an assumption that women have no politics and that their only natural role in times of conflict is to play the (usually sexualized) victim. Media coverage and rhetoric that reduces conflict-affected women to rape victims, sex slaves, or, most recently, “ISIS brides” lends itself to policy responses that have terrible consequences for innocent people. Women’s presumed victimhood has been deployed to justify military intervention, to excuse or obscure widespread human rights abuses of civilians, and to privilege the judgment of external actors or local male elites over the perspectives of local women about what they need in the aftermath of war. Over-simplified victimization narratives are so entrenched that evidence of women’s political agency in wartime reads as either false consciousness (“ISIS lures women with kittens, Nutella”) or as a monstrous upending of femininity and the natural order.
Sensationalized accounts may garner far more clicks than sober social science, but the bland truth is that women in the Islamic State fall into well-established patterns. For one, the idea that armed extremism has only recently become attractive to women is simply false. Since shortly after the Islamic State’s inception, women have taken on armed and unarmed roles in it; they have served as police in the group’s all-female Khansaa Brigade, as members of the all-female counterinsurgency brigade Umm al-Rayan, and as recruiters and propagandists. Both foreign and domestic recruits have participated in the brutal torture of Yazidi captives while also playing more domestic roles supporting male Islamic State fighters. Toggling back and forth between violent and nonviolent activities is not unique to the women who have participated in the Islamic State, however. In fact, this is the norm.
Further, although some reports have painted women’s voluntary participation in the Islamic State as unexpected given the group’s ideas about gender, it is not surprising in light of the histories of women in other Islamist and violent movements. Although less likely in groups that identify with Salafi doctrines, women’s participation, including in combat roles, still occurs. For example, women made significant support and frontline contributions to groups in Kashmir and fundamentalist organizations in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and the Philippines.
More nuanced reporting on women who joined the Islamic State highlights a broad range of motivations for joining, including survival and coercion as well as status and deeply held commitments to the group’s doctrines. This, too, is consistent with extensive research on women’s participation in other conflicts, which finds that their motivations are deeply political and suggests that they generally have the same reasons for joining armed organizations as men do. Portraying Islamic State women’s behavior as unique to this organization is decontextualizing and counterproductive. It feeds into arguments about the singular brutality of the Islamic State that have been used to justify a heavily military-focused response likely to undermine post-conflict recovery.
Western governments would do well to confront the fact that many Islamic State women reported feeling more liberated after they had joined, not because they liked fighting but because they believed that men in the Islamic State respected their commitment as Muslims. Many of the muhajirat in particular reported fleeing isolation, disaffection, and discrimination as Muslim women in the West. Stripping them of citizenship and otherwise treating Muslims as second-class citizens has every chance of contributing to the dynamics that led women to join in the first place. The same goes for blanket suspicion of anyone wearing a niqab.
Portraying the women of the Islamic State exclusively as victims to be saved or monsters to be feared strips women of their humanity and denies them the complexity, nuance, and depth that media and policymakers readily afford to men. Post-conflict policy that fails to take women’s politics seriously will only feed cycles of violence and impede the pursuit of a sustainable peace.
Kanisha D. Bond is an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
Kate Cronin-Furman is an assistant professor of human rights at University College London.
Meredith Loken is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a non-residential fellow at the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Milli Lake is an assistant professor of international security at the London School of Economics.
Sarah E. Parkinson is the Aronson assistant professor of political science and international studies at Johns Hopkins University.