Thinking about women’s roles in terrorism

“To underestimate or neglect women jihadists would be a huge mistake for security services…– and one they may pay for in the near future.” – Abu Haniyah

I recently read two article about the roles of women in extremism (specifically, Islamic State), and how we need to change how we view them.

In Article A, the authors list four ways extremists manipulate gender norms. The first way is in the way recruiters customize their message for women. They promise a better life for the women, free from oppression. The second is that Islamic State (IS) uses sexual violence for bonding or intimidation among the fighters. Third, IS and other terror groups exploit the lack of women in security roles (i.e. police) when they execute operations. This is true, to a point. But more often are reports of women being used in places where their presence will not attract attention (such as markets), and knowing they cannot be searched. Finally, IS has developed a narrative about its attacks that highlights the targeting of women and girls. This is a bit skewed. The authors open the article specifically mentioning the targeting of girls at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. The problem with this message is that in the claim of responsibility, IS does not mention girls or children, but Crusaders. There have been instances in the past of messages from IS threatening revenge for the killing of Muslims, including women and children.

Women play MANY roles in & around IS. And women’s roles have evolved under IS. There are brides, recruiters, planners, fighters, and victim/slaves (as with the Yazidi women). The brides of jihadis often get passed around after their husbands are martyred. Fighters, in IS, is a newer development.

The article doesn’t give much as far as changing the way of thinking. The most important point in the article is tucked in at the end, almost as an afterthought, as a passage briefly mention of the role of women in countering extremism. In my opinion, this is important, not just in a professional capacity. Wives and mothers can play a role in dissuading their sons (and daughters) from joining IS. This is something that should be discussed more in countering extremism, along with how the roles of women in terror groups evolve. This leads me into the second article I read.

Article B is more articulate. It tells of women of IS being “trivialized” or “marginalized” by the media & public. (They’re victims or brainwashed). Societies have a hard time coming to terms with women being violent, and ACTUALLY believing in the IS cause. Because of these societal views, women who join IS or other terror groups usually get lighter sentences. The public just has a hard time believing women are joining these terror groups because they actually believe in the cause. This is true of many terror groups. One point I would like to counter is the statement in the article about al Qaeda relegating its female members to raising the next generation of jihadists. Al Qaeda has used women in support and operational roles, something I’ve written about before here.

Unfortunately, the authors mention, is that cultural attitudes in Muslim societies can make it difficult to conduct investigations. In more conservative societies, a man talking alone with women is not allowed. In some extreme cases, this is being exploited, as women can operate without the scrutiny that some Muslim men involved in terror face. The women are just harder to watch.

As the roles of women in these groups evolve, those in the business of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism need to shed the preconceived notions of women-as-victim. Women are increasingly playing active roles in the organizations, and doing so voluntarily. The terror groups will certainly use this to their advantage, whether we accept it or not. But the sooner we do, the sooner we can address these issues.

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