The changing role of women in extremism

Extremism organizations offer a new life opportunity for women and girls who can’t identify themselves in western societies. The rejection and the cultural integration failure of the Islamic community by the west, became a powerful argument for the Islamic State (ISIS) or other extremist organizations, to enhance their recruitment.

ISIS orients its propaganda toward young Muslim girls, in a time where they naturally ask questions about themselves and their belonging to the society. Fatima Zaman, a global CVE Advocate at the Kofi Annan Foundation, emphasizes on their strategy to play with girls and women emotional judgement, “these girls find someone saying you don’t belong here, western communities will never accept you, because fundamentally you subscribing to Islam will be rejected.”, “This appeal is extremely seductive and powerful for young girls.” she said. But the societal rejection is only a pull factor, that attracts women to join extremism groups. The factor that pushes them to affiliate with organizations is the normalization of violence.

Nikita Malik, senior researcher at Quilliam, indicates this normalization of violence refers to a highly patriarchal society where rapes, tortures and beatings are entirely accepted. She gave the example of the Yazidy, an ethnically Kurdish community, where women are kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS.  Used as sex slaves by the organization “they don’t have any protection from other women within ISIS.” she said, “often other women encouraging it.”

The acceptation of violence is a mean for women to feel empowered. Charlie Winter, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, explains that “the fundamental thing that underpins the entire appeal of ISIS, it’s not just rejecting the states, it’s offering something else.” Through their propaganda, extremist organizations offer a promise of freedom to women, they give them an opportunity to have a role in the creation of the organization and they give them a purpose.

Women aren’t fighter but represent a key element in the survival of the organization by assisting and supporting logistically the group. Due to that role, the media granted them the title of “jihadi bride”. “It’s reductionist” claimed Fatima, “they are so much more than that.” She argues the massive importance of women as “baking machines”. Women are given the responsibility to give birth to and to educate the next generation of extremists. They ensure the durability and the empowerment of the group, and in a larger extend, its ideology.

Held the future of a community into her hands is an attractive new life opportunity for a rejected young Muslim woman. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different and the United Kingdom, such as other countries, count number of women who travelled in Syria and are desperately trying to come back. Edit Schlaffer, a social scientist, founder of Women without Boarders, shared the story of a young pregnant women, forced to stay in Syria, without the possibility to communicate with her family (full story here). Nikita reminded also the story of Shukee Begum and the Bethnal green girls who left the UK but never came back.

How does media promote a misleading portray of women in terrorist organizations?

Through the definition of women in terrorist organizations as the jihadi bride, the media misinterpret the real role of women in these groups, and more extensively, they underestimate their importance, denounces Fatima Zaman.

Through their images and stories, media portrayed women as submissive victims. The notion of jihadi bride, for instance, pictures the woman through the male identity, she is a bride before being a woman. A selling title which doesn’t represent the truth, said Fatima.

This misconception refers to the striking societal stereotypes reducing women as birth giver and nurturer, while categorizing them as non-violent and affectionate. Therefore, when a woman perpetrates an act of violence or join a group, most of the time, media refers to the personal reasons that could explain her decision (see story here). They tend to give an explanation to her action, suggesting she can’t act rationally under her own will. British Media described Shukee Begum as a “mother who took five children to Syria”, or Joya Choudhury as the woman who join her jihadist husband in Syria. In these examples, they reduce the woman to her social capacity as a mother or a wife.

Nikita also challenges the categorization of women by media as criminal or victim, “there are other nuances that have to be taken in account.” Women are the key support of the propaganda machine, they recruit, facilitate, and manufactured the propaganda tools. She raises concerns toward the media responsibility to portrayed correctly the four hundred fifty British women and eighty British children in ISIS that may come back to the UK.

Charlie raise the awareness about the “damaging coverage by media about analysis”, “we need to be so careful.” he said.

This misinterpretation of women motivation to join terrorist groups is a huge mistake maintains by mass media. The fact that there are 20% of women in terrorist organizations and that half of all suicide bombers across the world have been women, should warn media on the greater emphasize they should put on the women’s role in these groups.

Video of the conference here

For further information and some examples of media coverage

British jihadi Brides

The story of Shukee Begum

The story of Joya Choudhury



Popular Representations of Female Terrorists


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