ISIS rapes and enslaves women, yet they are coming from all over the world to join ISIS’s jihad. This article reveals how ISIS is appealing to women, to make that possible.
Why some women are actively seeking ISIS out
Even if ISIS has its reasons for seeing women as useful to its mission, why would women be willing to join ISIS — a group that not only imposes strict restrictions on women’s dress and behavior, but also has a record of appalling abuses against women, including forced marriages, the use of rape as a weapon of war, and the enslavement of women from the Yazidi religious minority?
Although there is limited data available, the experts I spoke to believe that women join ISIS for similar reasons that men do. McCants said that men might join the group out of a “desire for adventure, a feeling that they are protecting a persecuted Sunni community, or enthusiasm and fervor that the end times are approaching, and wanting to be a part of it.” Those same arguments could appeal to women as well.
Within Iraq, for instance, ISIS’s rise has been fueled by sectarian violence targeting Sunni communities, and by the Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s marginalization of the Sunni minority.
“Generally, women share the same political culture as the men of their communities,” Gowrinathan said, so there is good reason to presume that that the same events that motivate men would also motivate women.
Some women may also see ISIS as a protector of women, rather than an oppressor of them. McCants noted that jihadist groups have often appealed to Arab men’s sense of honor, by claiming that Muslim women had been raped and that joining the jihad was a way to avenge their mistreatment. ISIS’s campaign against other Sunni groups in Syria, for instance, was expressly couched as a battle to protect women’s virtue.
“They believed that ISIS women had been raped by other Sunni rebels, so they framed their whole counter-offensive against other Sunni rebels as a retribution for this,” McCants said. That message could certainly resonate among women are already sympathetic to ISIS.
How ISIS is appealing to women in the West
But that doesn’t explain why a surprising number of women in the West have been leaving their homes to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Dr. Erin Saltman, who researches processes of political radicalization, estimates that one in ten of ISIS’s foreign recruits are women. She sees three reasons that ISIS may be appealing to some women in the West; the first two are gender-neutral messages that reach women as well as men, but the third may be targeting women directly.
The first reason, Saltman said, is an “adventure narrative” that encourages young women to think of traveling to ISIS’s territory as not just a religious obligation, but an exciting expedition to a “Muslim utopia.”
The second narrative was a humanitarian appeal, which presents ISIS’s struggle as an effort that began as a fight against the oppressive Bashar al-Assad government and is now even more necessary because “global powers” are turning against Muslims.
And finally, Saltman said, ISIS has successfully targeted western recruits via “romance” narratives. Some of those are directed at women, promising them that they will find a “strong Muslim man, who is a true Muslim, who is fighting for this very heroic cause.” (Similar appeals directed at men, Saltman said, talk about how foreign fighters are marrying “young, nubile local women.”)
None of this is to suggest that ISIS does not violently oppress women (it does) or that its behavior towards them should be condoned (it should not be). But understanding ISIS’s appeal to women is crucial to understanding its popular support in Iraq and Syria. The Obama administration has said that it is hoping a second “Sunni Awakening” of Sunni civilians will drive ISIS out. If ISIS’s female members are part of its strategy to maintain its power and popular support, we should pay attention.