“Jihadi Brides” or Something More? Understanding Why Women Join ISIS

By: Nicole Magney, Columnist

Photo Credit: Members of the Al-Khansaa Brigade, ISIS’ all-female police force (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2967504/Three-runaway-teen-jihadi-brides-feared-heading-clutches-British-women-leading-ISIS-religious-police-dole-savage-beatings.html).

The topic of foreign fighters traveling to join ISIS has been and continues to be widely explored in both media and academic circles. What seems to be lacking is an in-depth, sustained discussion of the Islamic State’s efforts to recruit women to join its so-called Caliphate, and why women in the West are motivated to do so. As of May 2015, an estimated 550 Western women had traveled to Syria to start life anew under the Caliphate.[i] Many in the West find it difficult to imagine how bright young women are persuaded to leave their families and become “jihadi brides” in Syria. ISIS focuses its recruitment efforts on convincing women that joining does not simply mean becoming a wife to a fighter, but includes being intimately involved in the survival and success of the State. As such, women tend to join the group for a multitude of reasons, including a sense of dissatisfaction with the way the West treats Islam, a desire to contribute to the building of the Caliphate, and an aspiration to belong to a movement or a sisterhood larger than themselves.[ii]

What sets ISIS apart from other fundamentalist Islamist groups like al Qaeda is the visibility and relative agency that it bestows on women. ISIS does not allow women to be actively involved in fighting, but it offers them opportunities to help serve the Caliphate in other ways, including, but not limited to, marrying fighters. One woman, who goes by the name of Shams on social media and joined from Malaysia, even serves the Caliphate as a doctor.[iii] While the case of Shams is exceptional, women’s involvement in other activities, like recruiting via social media, shows that ISIS is willing to view women’s roles under an Islamist system in unconventional ways.

“Push” factors from the West and “pull” factors from ISIS stimulate women’s motivations for joining ISIS, and are exemplified in social media posts by the women who have joined.[iv] The discrimination that many Muslim women face in the West causes some to feel isolated and question whether they belong in Western society. In addition, some women feel that the West is persecuting the global Muslim community and that the international community is not adequately responding to protect Muslims.

ISIS recruiters do an excellent job of building on “push” factors and then targeting women in unique ways. Women are drawn to join ISIS because helping to develop the so-called Caliphate offers both a sense of religious fulfillment and a strong bond of sisterhood and community. Recruiters have been largely successful at “romanticizing” the female experience of marrying ISIS fighters and becoming the wives and mothers of the Caliphate. They use women as inherent “pull” factors, convincing other women around the world that joining ISIS will fulfill personal and, above all, religious duties.[v] The women in ISIS operate numerous social media accounts to answer questions and offer advice to those women who are considering joining the organization.

In this regard, ISIS has made the recruitment of women self-sustaining. Women are persuaded to join the group by the women behind these social media accounts, and once they join, these recruits then start accounts of their own and connect with other women. Reports from defectors, and occasionally from women in the group, show that life as a woman in ISIS-held territory is not as rosy as recruiters portray. Nevertheless, the group does a remarkable job of playing to the needs and insecurities of potential converts in the West.

The women’s involvement in recruiting is not just limited to individual social media accounts, but has been incorporated into the broader ISIS recruiting framework. Issue ten of ISIS’ online English-language journal, Dabiq, includes an eight-page article written by a female member of ISIS. The section, titled “From Our Sisters” and written by Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah, offers advice to women who are married to “Sahwat” men, or men that oppose ISIS.[vi] It offers historical and scriptural arguments illustrating how women play a significant role in the survival and continued rise of the group. The article suggests that, not only do women have the agency to leave their husbands if they do not support ISIS, but that they are required to do so as part of their religious duty. The inclusion of such a long and detailed article by a woman member demonstrates to potential recruits that ISIS puts stock in the input of its “sisters”, even if the subject matter is limited to marriage.

Whether the leadership of ISIS actually values the input of women in a serious way or not, it is successfully convincing potential women recruits that it does. The number of women traveling to Syria to join ISIS has not reached the levels of Western male fighters, but the figure is not negligible either. This issue is not as acute in the United States as it is in Europe and Australia, however, it may become more of a problem as ISIS continues to gain and hold territory. As ISIS itself has shown, women are crucial to the survival of its Caliphate because they are the key to the next generation. Therefore, understanding ISIS’ recruiting methods and the motivations behind why women are convinced to join is essential to developing meaningful policy to counter the group.

[i] Erin Marie Saltzman and Melanie Smith, “’Till Martyrdom Do Us Part’: Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon,” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, May 2015: 4.

[ii] Anne Aly, “Jihadi-Brides Aren’t Oppressed. They Join ISIS for the Same Reasons Men Do,” The Guardian, March 3, 2015, accessed November 10, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/04/jihadi-brides-arent-oppressed-they-join-isis-for-the-same-reasons-men-do.

[iii] Atika Shubert, “The Women of ISIS: Who Are They?” CNN, May 29, 2015, accessed November 5, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/29/middleeast/who-are-the-women-of-isis/index.html.

[iv] Saltzman and Smith, 9-17.

[v] Ibid., 15.

[vi] Umm Sumayyah al-Mujahirah, “From Our Sisters: They Are Not Lawful Spouses for One Another,” Dabiq 10 (Ramadan 1436): 42.

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