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Published on Aug 29, 2020
The Islamic State’s gendered recruitment tactics

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham effectively uses propaganda to recruit and indoctrinate its members. One of the most widespread English publications is Dabiq, which was re-named Rumiyah after ISIS lost control of the Syrian town of Dabiq. These magazines exhibit ISIS’ strong ambitions to control narratives and the ways in which it seeks to recruit Muslims from all over the world. While these publications are largely targeted towards men who can answer ISIS’ call to arms, they also address their ‘sisters’ in various corners of the world, encouraging them to join the Islamic State.

The significant presence of women in ISIS serves to legitimise it as an enterprise, so that it is depicted “not just as a violent male adventure but as a purposeful social revolution”. In fact, since its inception, 15 percent of volitional migrants to ISIS have been women. Hence, it is necessary to explore the differences in the way ISIS attempts to recruit women in particular. This article investigates the distinct ways used by the aforementioned magazines to understand what inspires women to join, and if it is different from their male counterparts. 

Differences in recruitment strategies 

ISIS’ propaganda magazines are circulated in various languages all over the world. They are explicit in how they promote extremist ideology—through gory images that depict violence, injury, and death to create shock value and desensitise the reader. However, the ways in which Dabiq and Rumiyah target men and women vary significantly. While propaganda targeting men focuses extensively on violence and military conquests, women are expected to assume a less active role in the organisation. Men in ISIS are exhorted to follow the message of Allah and fight for the Islamic State. This is reiterated through interviews, case profiles of soldiers, speeches and addresses, and analyses of the enemy’s words, such as former American President Barack Obama (Dabiq, Issue 5).

Both magazines have a separate section that is aimed at women, consisting of articles (allegedly) written by other women attempting to incite them to join the Islamic State. A significant focal point of these articles is the woman’s “duty” to give birth to the next generation of fighters. Having children, especially sons, who can eventually fight for the IS, is seen as their unwavering obligation towards Islam. It is not only important for women to have children, but also ensure that they remain “steadfast” (Rumiyah, Issue 2), and raise them to be good mujahideen. This is brought home in Issue 1 of Rumiyah: “Whoever prepares a fighter for Allah’s cause has himself fought, and whoever takes care of the family of a fighter for Allah’s cause has himself fought.” An article by a Finnish woman who emigrated to the Caliphate further emphasises how it is the perfect place to raise children: “Here you’re living a pure life, and your children are being raised with plenty of good influence around them.” Such testimonials are likely to resonate with women who feel the obligation to raise their children in such an environment. A place that may have seemed unsafe or unfit for children thus becomes the ideal.

Additionally, the marginalisation and lack of opportunities that women tend to face make them more vulnerable to recruitment. Using this to their advantage, the IS co-opts the notion of female empowerment, which is often ignored in mainstream discourses focusing on ideological factors that drive radicalisation. Women who join the IS are often attempting to fulfill their desires for “belonging, purpose, adventure and empowerment.” Despite the group being blatantly misogynistic, they promise women an ideal life of power and privilege that otherwise seems unattainable. Issue 9 of Dabiq, for example, boasts that ISIS has medical schools that are open to both men and women. It goes on to say, “The Islamic State offers everything that you need to live and work here, so what are you waiting for?” The IS also has schools where girls are taught religious studies, sciences, arithmetic, etc., thus providing them an avenue to be educated and have jobs within the quasi-state.

The IS also offers radical and seemingly progressive views on women leaving their husbands to join them. Issue 10 of Dabiq argues, “If, however, shows arrogance and his pride in his sin takes hold of him, then it’s upon you to abandon him in the dunyā so that you may succeed in the Hereafter. And here I call on you to make hijrah to us here in the lands of the blessed Islamic State!” Here, the group cleverly provides women with an opportunity to leave their husband in a way that is seemingly in line with their religion.

What is further likely to draw women to join an organisation that is violent towards them is the fact that this violence is framed as being religiously-sanctioned. On the abuse of ‘slave-girls’, Issue 9 of Dabiq asserts, “These slave-girls represent kufr and hence it is necessary that they are humiliated”. They also claim that women who have escaped and written about the abuse they faced were blatantly lying, calling them “devious and wicked slave-girls with stories that would turn a newborn’s hair grey”. Additionally, the larger rhetoric that encapsulates the abovementioned propaganda is that of the “good” Muslim woman — several aspects of which are appealing to women all over the world. Vulnerability to this sort of extremist propaganda is also exacerbated by a disproportionately lower rate of religious literacy in women. 

Ideals versus reality: the role of women in ISIS today 

Traditionally, women were only allowed to take part in the everyday bureaucratic processes of the Islamic State and were prohibited from engaging in combat activities. However, over the past few years, the nature of women’s participation in the IS has shifted, due to various losses and setbacks that the organisation has suffered. Recent recruitment numbers are unclear, but from South and South-East Asians there are regular examples of those who join the Islamic State. It is also evident that women in the Islamic State now more explicitly take part in the organisation’s military campaigns and combat activities. Women are now often encouraged to participate in battles happening on the frontlines. This is done to increase numbers but also to “to shame available men into rejoining the fight”. Seemingly, therefore, there is divergence between what the Islamic State expects of its female followers in an ideal situation, versus the reality on the ground. It has abandoned its previous ideological stance of disallowing women from combat zones and is now leaning on other interpretations of Islamic teachings in order to ensure its survival.

The shifting role of women in recent years is only now being acknowledged in global counter-terrorism efforts. While the conventional notion remains that these women have been coerced into its activities against their will, women like Shamima Begum, a British-born ISIS returnee, serve as a counter to this view. Despite Begum’s claims that she was never involved in any of the Islamic State’s brutality, reports have asserted that she was indeed a part of the organisation’s ‘morality police’ and recruitment activities. Cases like that of Begum shed light on the often-overlooked multiplicity of roles that female recruits play in the Islamic State. Further, the UN CTED’s July 2020 brief on the rehabilitation of ISIS returnees confirmed that women who joined ISIS facilitated war crimes and terror attacks. However, women’s active involvement within the organisation as perpetrators of violence has not been prominently documented due to restrictive gender norms.

Emerging information about women’s role in the Islamic State necessitates the broadening of counter-terrorism strategies to include a preventive focus on systemic issues. It is therefore crucial to keep in mind the factors that seem to pull women to the Islamic State while devising these policies. To ensure that marginalised factions of society are not driven to radicalisation, it is necessary to work on countering the violence, economic disempowerment, financial insecurities, and lack of opportunities that they often face in everyday general life.

Nethra Palepu and Rutvi Zamre are Research Interns at ORF Mumbai and Delhi respectively.

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