Women as Victims and Perpetrators of Daesh Violence

Although foreign policy is a field overwhelmingly dominated by men, feminist scholars have recently been adding their voices, theorizing and empirically illustrating that greater inclusion of women can dramatically improve political aims.  Studies show that the consideration of gender as a variable in counterterrorism efforts is invaluable. It is crucial that efforts to counter the self-proclaimed Islamic State (referred to as Daesh throughout this article) similarly consider a gender perspective as well.

Consider this apparent paradox: Western news media is rife with accounts of Daesh committing horrific acts of abuse toward women, such as rape and sexual violence. And yet, unprecedented numbers of women are leaving their homes in Western countries to join Daesh. As of 2015, an estimated 550 women from the West were living in Daesh-held territory. Although it has likely risen in the past year, this number represents nearly one-seventh of the group’s foreign migrants - a percentage far greater than what has been reached by other jihadist terrorist groups. Many are left wondering: are women victims or perpetrators of Daesh violence?

One thing hindering our understanding of this phenomenon is that when women are acknowledged as terrorists, their motivations are often considered emotional rather than rational. Daesh women are labeled as “jihadi brides” enticed by “jihotties” in popular depictions. A BBC comedy show satirizes Daesh women through a ‘Real Housewives of ISIS’ sketch, which includes one character stating, "It's only three days to the beheading, and I've no idea what I'm going to wear." Female Daesh recruits are often considered to be manipulated by male terrorists, or simply misled and acting against their own interests. Ideas such as these not only trivialize these women but also hinder policymakers from gauging the true threat posed by female recruits.

Despite rejecting the notion of female fighters, Daesh has devoted significant resources toward recruiting women, suggesting that women are central to the group’s aims. The role of female Daesh recruits is within the home, caring for their husbands and children, raising the question: why do women, particularly from Western countries, travel great distances and risk their lives simply to be reduced to domestic roles? 

These women are not simply short-term homemakers; they are long-term state builders.

To understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to look at Daesh within the context of other terrorist groups. Daesh differs from its jihadist predecessors in its intent to establish a caliphate. As such, Daesh has made the recruitment of women a priority, essential to its long-term state-building goals. After all, states not only need men to fight and establish a caliphate but also need women to sustain it and raise the next generation. Thus, women are needed as wives and mothers who will form the foundation of a stable society. These women are not simply short-term homemakers; they are long-term state builders. 

Fertility, then, is of prime importance to the group, and to this end, the protection of women is paramount. The fertility of a population is dependent on its number of women, not men. Thus, men are more expendable than women. Excluding women from participating in direct combat roles ensures their physical security, furthering the long-term capacity of the caliphate.

In the aim of establishing a state, Daesh must distinguish between in-group women, who are needed to preserve the state, and out-group women, who symbolize the same long-term capability of the enemy. Scholars have theorized that the widespread use of rape in times of conflict is a tactic used to traumatize and destabilize one’s enemy at the community and familial level. Targeting enemy women and sanctioning systematic rape and enslavement not only devastates enemy populations, but also serves to attract and maintain male Daesh fighters with promises of “spoils of war.” 

Women continue to join Daesh despite its prohibition on female fighters, suggesting that the domestic role of women may be an appealing way to air one’s political grievances and further the caliphate in a way consistent with expected gender norms. Research demonstrates that women are not, in fact, “jihadi brides” intent on finding a husband, but instead are committed jihadis irrespective of their male influences. While Daesh women frequently denounce feminism on social media, many have expressed a sense of empowerment since joining the caliphate. Under this paradigm, empowerment is achieved by living in accordance with God’s will and supporting one’s husband, children, and community.

Indeed, perhaps these women do not join Daesh despite its rigid gender division, but because of it.

Although joining a terrorist organization and living in its occupied territory is inherently dangerous, domestic roles provide a certain barrier to the danger. Female recruits, due to the prohibition on women fighters, are substantially less likely to die than male recruits. The decision to join Daesh may be a rational, calculated decision. Indeed, perhaps these women do not join Daesh despite its rigid gender division, but because of it.

The significant number of Western female recruits also indicates that women continue to join Daesh despite the group’s persistent and well-documented abuse of women. Interestingly, Daesh propaganda not only acknowledges the distinction between in-group and out-group women, but justifies the use of violence against out-group women on the premise of promoting the rights of Daesh women. The use of sexual slavery, for instance, is openly acknowledged by the organization’s publication Dabiq and then unexpectedly justified as a promotion of women’s rights. The publication argues that since the desertion of slavery, adultery and fornication have risen, which is ultimately a disgrace to women, whose husbands are led astray. The solution, Dabiq argues, is to legalize slavery so that the ensuing relations are legitimate, and therefore not a disrespect to men’s wives. The notion that the enslavement of some women is necessary for preserving the honor of other women illustrates a dual conception of women: those within Daesh who are worth protecting, and those outside Daesh, who can be used and abused with the justification of enhancing women’s rights within the territory. 

Statements from Dabiq and Daesh members’ social media postings allow researchers to understand how Daesh wants to be portrayed to recruits. The dual conception of women is one factor that is readily apparent. It is likely that female recruits, particularly those avid readers of Daesh propaganda, recognize this division and understand that by joining Daesh, they will be part of the women within Daesh who are to be protected and not subjected to violence. 

Daesh’s strategy of recruiting women is consistent with the long-term interests of the organization, and according to propaganda, liberation and empowerment stem from a woman’s submission to domestic and traditional feminine duties. Yet, enemy women are viewed as possessing the same capacity in Daesh’s enemies and their long-term utility needs to be suppressed. This dual conception of women allows Daesh to simultaneously appeal to some women while justifying the use of violence against other women. Unfortunately, the organization has effectively done both.

Women are neither exclusively victims nor exclusively perpetrators because women are not a monolithic group.

This situation illustrates that women are crucial in countering the long-term state building goals of Daesh. Recognizing these women not simply as homemakers, but as strategic state builders is a necessary first step to preventing further radicalization. It will, however, challenge many firmly held ideas about gender; women are neither exclusively victims nor exclusively perpetrators because women are not a monolithic group.  Understanding the role of women within Daesh is essential to countering the terrorist group’s recruitment efforts, and would be exceedingly difficult without the gender lens provided by feminist scholars.

Lucy Leban is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago where she obtained her Master's degree in International Relations.  Follow her on Twitter: @LucyLeban