In 2013, I was at an event discussing the increasing number of foreigners heading to Syria to join diverse and growing number of extremist groups on the ground. I asked about foreign women. Were they traveling to Syria as well? What were they doing? Why were they going? The responses indicated that some women were going over, mostly as family members. However, the consensus was that this was not a major concern. This line of thinking was widespread, yet severely challenged in 2014 when thousands more women from around the world traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS’ ‘caliphate’. Nonetheless, up to 2018, this phenomenon remained poorly understood.
In 2018, my colleague Gina Vale at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) and I established the first global dataset on women, minors and total populations who traveled from 80 countries and became affiliated with ISIS. In the first of two similarly named reports, “From Daesh to ‘diaspora’: Tracing the women and minors of Islamic State,” we established that up to 4,761 were confirmed to have traveled, along with up to 4,640 minors. We presented our evidence to the UN Security Council.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, until 2018, this analysis had not been done on a global scale and there was still not a clear understanding of how many women had traveled to Iraq and Syria. Even in 2018, less than half the countries we looked at had any public data available on women, meaning that these recorded figures were still likely to be a vast underestimation.
By 2019, as ISIS lost its ‘caliphate’ in Baghouz, Syria, the scale of this phenomenon became all too clear. By this point, thousands of women had departed its last stronghold and 5,350 foreign women and at least 8,850 minors, many of whom were born there, were subsequently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in IDP camps or detained in Iraqi prison facilities facing trial. This excluded the thousands that had already returned home, been killed or had simply disappeared.
Almost 12 months later, many governments around the world have still not taken responsibility for their citizens and the status of these thousands of foreign women remains in limbo. For those that have returned to their home countries, a number of approaches have been taken. Some have faced prosecution, others have been placed in detention centres where they undergo deradicalisation before being reintegrated into their communities. Others simply go home, while some communities remain too hostile towards ISIS-affiliated persons to allow for this option.
So, what have the last six years shown us, in terms of what we need to do to ensure that programmes aimed at countering violent extremism (CVE) take account of gender dynamics and of women specifically–as potential members of extremist groups, as returnees, and as supporters of deradicalisation and reintegration efforts? Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that we need to account for women specifically, and gender dynamics more broadly, in all aspects of violent extremism-from prevention to interjection, rehabilitation and reintegration. Only then will women be seriously and appropriately considered and engaged in all aspects of CVE–as recipients of, and actors involved in, CVE work. This prompts four key reflections and recommendations.
Women in Violent Extremist Groups
Firstly, we know there remains a lack of analysis or consideration of women as potential supporters or members of violent extremist groups. More specifically, there is a lack of a gender lens when analysing why supporters or members may be drawn to such a movement and how many women this may include.
As countries started to get to grips with the numbers of young males traveling to Iraq and Syria and getting engaged in violence on behalf of ISIS, CVE policies began to ramp up around the world. Problematically, women were often overlooked in these interventions. CVE programmes in some north African countries focused only on young men, addressing perceived grievances such as a lack of employment or disenfranchisement, leaving women neglected in preventative efforts.
Secondly, in the West (and beyond), a number of problematic tropes were applied to the women who did travel. These women were ‘duped’ or ‘groomed’ into going. They were ‘jihadi brides’ going to marry fighter husbands or perform ‘sex jihad’. While these may have held some truth, there was still a lack of acknowledgement that women could have complex and diverse motivations for joining or supporting (in different ways) a violent extremist group like ISIS. As such, responses developed to prevent women from traveling and supporting ISIS often fell short.
Unless we have a full understanding of the diversity of people drawn to violent extremist groups, and the unique and shared ‘push and pull’ factors that facilitate this, we cannot develop adequate CVE initiatives. It is imperative that a gender lens is applied at every stage to assess the factors that draw both men and women to such movements, and that these are reflected in preventative and responsive programming.
Women in CVE
Thirdly, the way in which women have been engaged in CVE policies and practices is often limited or flawed. Their roles may be pre-defined in programming, for example as mothers or peacemakers. They may be engaged only through a security lens, neglecting their broader needs and concerns in their home community. They may also not be given a voice to define how they understand problems related to (violent) extremism, or how they may best be able to contribute to addressing these concerns in their home community (if they so choose to). If they are engaged in CVE work, yet concerns in their community still persist, they may be blamed for the actions of others, such as members of their community who have traveled abroad to join armed groups.
Building up the skills and knowledge of women in this space, and supporting them in the approaches they recommend, are crucial to all programming. Also, ensuring they are adequately consulted in CVE programmes and can feed back into programming that is not working, or otherwise flawed or problematic, are key ingredients to improving interventions.
Finally, women are often a secondary or neglected group in deradicalisation and reintegration programming. Existing deradicalisation and disengagement programmes have been developed largely for males and do not consider the needs of female participants. The case of ISIS mothers highlights this point–female supporters of ISIS who have borne children may require special attention and, in some cases, support if disengaging from the group. Ensuring that gender considerations are inherent in deradicalisation and reintegration programmes and that adequate numbers of trained and qualified women are available and engaged in this work is essential.
Women and CVE Going Forward
Countries around the world are currently dealing with diverse and pressing local and inter-linked global threats. There are growing concerns about the far-right and women have been members of diverse violent outshoots of this movement, including perpetrators, recruiters and disseminators of propaganda materials. Women have also historically been active members in far-left, environmental, nationalist and other terrorist groups and will continue to be so.
The case of ISIS demonstrates a number of things. First, there can be no more myths about women’s diverse roles in violent extremist movements, even if they may not be the most frequent perpetrators of mass violence (the perpetrators of which often receive the lion’s share of attention). Second, women must be included, consulted and active agents and partners in efforts to understand and respond to such groups including at preventative, active engagement and rehabilitative levels. Third, a gender lens must be utilised at every step.
If governments, security agencies and civil society organisations neglect gender dynamics, the diverse and active roles that women play in these movements, and their existent and future potential in CVE work, then we will remain limited in our understandings of, and responses to, concerns from violent extremism.