Essentialization of Women in Terrorist Organizations

By Alyssa Chassman

Director of Communications

We see it all of the time, splashed on the front page of The Evening Standard, in the voices of reporters on the BBC, ingrained in daily conversation. It is an understudied topic but extremely relevant. Women are traveling in masses to join terrorist organizations like Islamic State. 

Islamic State is gaining ground and increasing their members impressively, using social media as their main tactic to lure Western men and women to joining their group. According to the BBC Documentary "Britain's Jihadi Brides," there are over 45,000 active Twitter accounts attached to Islamic State, with hundreds being suspended every day.

On 21 June, 2015, Europol vowed to set up a police force to battle propaganda being published online by Islamic State. 

It is easy to blame Islamic State's appealing social media tactics as a reason for western women traveling in the hundreds to Syria, however, this narrative is essentializing and demeaning. There are several risk factors that could accelerate the normalization of the ISIS message that have no ties to social media: for example, the victimhood narrative, hatred for all things western, the belief that it is part of a Muslim's journey to form a caliphate. Assumptions that these women are joining Islamic State for the appeal of social media, or that they are traveling to find a husband ignores these risk factors. 

Recently, three women and their children traveled to Syria through Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and their families were plastered all over the BBC pleading for their safe return. We have seen it with Aqsa Mahmood, Zahra and Salma Halane, Kadija Dawood, Sugra Dawood, Zohra Dawood, Umm Haritha, Yusra Hussein, and Khadija Dare - promises of a reunion with their family if only they come to their senses and return home. However, men hardly face the same reaction from Western media. 

By assuming that Western women have in some way been brainwashed, manipulated, or driven to join Islamic State by the idea of finding a husband, these women are stripped of their power, and the idea that a women's identity relies entirely on that of her partner becomes enforced. As well, it ignores the agency of Muslim women, playing on the stereotype that Muslim women have no agency or control over their own bodies and decisions. The West's view of the angry Muslim man and the oppressed Muslim women is problematic as it leads to perceptions that all Muslim women are victims who cannot be held accountable for their own decisions in conflict.

According to a study called 'Becoming Mulan,' Western women who migrate to ISIS territory do so for the same reasons that men do. Many cite revenge for oppression for Muslims as a reason, as well as desire to form a caliphate, individual duty, sense of identity, and for a feeling of sisterhood. "Not only do women believe that building a Muslim caliphate is desirable, they believe it is their mandatory religious duty to assist in the process," says the results of the study. 

Most of these extremists have been radicalized far before turning to social media as an outlet. According to Sara Khan, Director of Inspire, nobody is teaching counternarratives to religious extremism to help critically assess what Islamic State is saying. In order to fully understand the power that ISIS has to reach out to young, radicalized, Western Muslims, it is crucial to understand risk factors. But assuming that women are traveling for the appeal of what they see on social media, or that they are seeking a husband is ignorant and does not hold these women accountable for their actions.

Alyssa Chassman is the Director of Communications at International Women's Initiative. To contact her, please email a.chassman@internationalwomensinitiative.org.