The lack of understanding of female jihadis has led to an over-simplified treatment of the topic, writes Rachel Bryson.
All too often we see a one-dimensional representation of female jihadis in the media, but in order to defeat Islamist extremism, a thorough understanding of the challenge is required.
Part of the reason for the binary approach to gender and extremism may be due to the fact that Salafi-jihadi groups have often maintained clear and distinct roles for men and women: men train for battle and women remain at home to raise the next generation of jihadi fighters. Importantly, in practice, gender roles are not as dichotomous as that, and this projected (or presumed) reality cannot dictate our comprehension of their motivations in subscribing to these groups.
On 1 August, the Pakistani Taliban released a magazine for women called Sunnat-i-Khaula, translating to ‘The Way of Khaula,’ which refers to an early female follower of the Prophet Muhammad. This was the first such magazine aimed at women, reinforcing a global trend where women are increasingly required, and relied upon, in the jihadi ranks. The magazine calls on females to join the group, and offers pointers on how they can engage in jihad, advising them to “distribute literature reflecting on the obligation of jihad, arrange physical training classes for sisters. Learn how to operate simple weapons. Learn the use of grenades." This certainly is not just ‘staying at home and raising children.’
The content of the magazine challenges the often over-simplified view, where women are painted as passive victims and non-violent agents, and men as those who lead with a hunger for violence.
In reality, a report released this week revealed women have been involved in nearly one in four of Islamist plots across Europe in the first five months of 2017. While this figure is similar to that of the 22 per cent in 2016, it was 13 and 5 per cent in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Evidently women's involvement in Islamist extremism appears to be increasing.
Yet there is still a lack of understanding as to why women would partake in violent groups. Conventional wisdom holds that women lack the natural inclination for carrying out violent acts, or joining groups that do so. Women are often depicted as those lured by men and lacking understanding. They are regularly described as ‘jihadi brides,’ desperate to fulfil the ‘housewife dream’ of raising children and serving their ‘honourable’ husbands. As a result, women are backstaged by having their agency and motivations marginalized or denied on the basis of gender.
In the recent case of the 16-year-old German ISIS female who was found in Mosul, there appeared to be confusion over what her role within the group entailed (as has also been the case with many male foreign fighters). She went missing for a year, and upon discovery alongside 20 other suspected foreign female ISIS members, early reports suggested she had been trained as a sniper for the group. Developments revealed she was in fact a member of the al-Khansaa Brigade, the all-female religious enforcement unit that has also been called the ‘moral police.’ It initially appeared almost inconceivable that a 16-year-old European girl was actually trained to kill.
Reporting surrounding the German girl depicted her as being ‘groomed,’ ‘persuaded to join’ by a faceless male jihadi. While it may be the case that part of her radicalisation occurred online and she was convinced that travelling to join ISIS was the best move for her, it is outrageous to suggest she had little or no active decision making in the process. It has to be acknowledged that the question of female agency is inevitably much more complex than that.
Globally women are actually pioneers in the jihadi movement. In September 2016, the first all-female cell emerged in Paris and it was behind a failed terrorist attack near Notre Dame Cathedral. In February 2016, the first use of female combatants by ISIS in Libya was recorded. Later in the year, women wearing explosive vests were used in a desperate attempt to try and maintain the group’s stronghold in Sirte. In the recent Pakistani Taliban’s magazine, there was an interview with the wife of the group’s leader. She revealed that she runs and teaches women and girls in a big madrassa in Swat valley. This exercised leadership and influence reveals further how we have misunderstood the role of women.
The facts above are only a snapshot of the gendered approach to extremism, but it shows a chasm between reporting and what is taking shape on the ground. Until there is more of an appreciation that the treatment of jihadis is being limited by a one-dimensional gendered interpretation, we will not be able to thoroughly approach and defeat the problem. The roles that men and women play may differ in cases, but simply presuming men are violent and angry, and women as passive, submissive, and ultimately manipulated, prevents a deeper comprehension of extremism. Equally, continuing in this light will impair our ability to rehabilitate men and women who have lived their individual journey to jihadism.