by Christina Chatzitheodorou
In much of the academic discourse on terrorism, the role of women tends to be overlooked. However, women have held a variety of roles in terrorist organisations. Such roles vary from logistics support to espionage, giving birth to a new generation of fighters, and sometimes operational and leadership positions. Ideology tends to have an effect on the roles women can hold in each organisation. For instance, in leftist organisations, women tend to hold more operational positions than in Islamist organisations, where their participation tends to be more about being a wife, a mother, a proselytiser, and a teacher. In the case of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the role of women changed from being wives and mothers of the fighters to more combatting roles out of operational necessity due to its territorial losses, or as Rita Katz mentions, “How Do We Know ISIS is Losing? Now it’s asking women to fight”.
More precisely, up until 2019, when ISIS lost its last piece of territory, many women travelled to join ISIS despite its exceptional violence against women. Since its zenith in 2014, women have joined ISIS for the same reason that men decide to get involved: attraction of a new, noble cause to fight for and sentiment of inequality and marginalisation in their current societies. For the above reasons, some women travelled to Iraq and Syria to get involved romantically with ISIS members. Despite the reasons behind women’s decisions to join the terrorist organisation, their roles have been underexamined in the literature, especially the ones concerning the combat operations.
Therefore, despite ISIS’ treatment of women, which has placed the organisation among the world’s worst perpetrators of gender-based violence, women support the organisation through various roles, from simply being wives and mothers of ISIS fighters or even by recruiting new members to participate in the jihad, in a struggle against non-believers and a moral betterment against one’s sinful proclivities. Consequently, even though the mistreatment of women in ISIS does not need further analysis, women were recruited both willingly and unwillingly, which shows women’s agency and the lack of it respectively and depending the case. Since 2015, 15 per cent of voluntary migrants to the Caliphate have been women, which makes it difficult to support a manichaeistic division, where women in ISIS are seen either as complete victims of sexual violence or women as independent agents that willingly travelled from the West to fight for the organisation.
The most popular role of women in ISIS that was presented in the Western media revolves around the notion of the jihadist bride. Both women who travelled to Iraq and Syria and locals were expected to marry an ISIS fighter and give birth. The issue was first mentioned when the religious police female al-Khansa Brigade published a manifesto setting out the ideal role of women in the caliphate. As such, in 2014, their role could be summarised in giving birth to as many children as possible, as the concept of family in building the caliphate was essential. Women were to stay hidden, and only remain in the background, as keepers of the Islamist family values and morals. ISIS opposes the notion of gender equality and female education, which leads to abandonment of family values. Contrary to the expendability of men, women need to stay alive and give birth to the next generation of jihadists. Accordingly, it was common for jihadist brides to celebrate their husbands’ martyrdom and, at the same time, re-marry as soon as possible. However, it must be mentioned that even though women in ISIS had to build and maintain the Ummah and theoretically were prohibited from combat roles, it was an oxymora that the al-Khansa Brigade, acting as a hisba, a morality police force, were patrolling the streets with rifles in their shoulders.
Moreover, women also helped recruit new members. Especially if a woman was a widow or remained unmarried, it was more possible to assign her such roles. Additionally, ISIS’s strategy relied on Western female recruits in order to motivate more women from abroad to join the organisation. Those women were also responsible for helping newly possible female members with technical issues on what to bring with them and what not to, any vaccinations that may be needed, and navigating them through the whole process.
Even though ISIS at its zenith repeatedly refused engaging women in qital, which means fighting in the way of Allah and it is not such a broad term as jihad, it reconsidered its firm position as soon when it started losing most of its territory. Such shift became apparent in 2017, when women’s involvement in combat operations from tenuous became permissible under circumstances. The abandonment of that ideological approach towards the role of women came as a result of ISIS territorial and military losses, which made the use of women in combat roles necessary. For instance, the Zura Foundation, a female-focused media platform aligned with ISIS, influenced women’s opinion in a variety of issues from carrying guns to cooking for ISIS fighters. The platform pointed out that it is permissible for women to fight due to operational necessity, at least in a defensive context and if they were instructed to by their emir, in case there are not enough men to defend their land. Moreover, in October 2017, ISIS openly called on women to fight against unbelievers and engage themselves in qital. ISIS did not frame the participation of women in such extended roles as a result of losses, but as a natural extension of woman’s duty to defend the caliphate by using examples of women that fought for the Prophet. Their participation in the fight was seen as necessary in order to fight against evil, and hence, it was legitimised through the defence of their collective honour.
Some women also became suicide bombers in the name of faith and religion. Such a development came as a result of the sustained attack against the organisation. Therefore, in comparison with Boko Haram in Nigeria, where female suicide bombers became a famous tactic already since 2014, the first incident of female suicide terrorism in the caliphate only took place in 2017. It was in Mosul, in the last ISIS-held territory, that the Iraqi television crews filmed a woman being exploded with her baby. Since then, dozens of female suicide bombers have tried to approach the Iraqi troops with explosives, which points out the change of attitude concerning women’s participation in combat.
Hence, as Charlie Winter argues, despite the established convention that derives from a doctrine dating back to the early years of Islam, where women stayed in the private sphere and were not supposed to fight, there are specific circumstances in which this becomes permissible. Accordingly, ISIS tried to reconcile its radical Islamist ideology, where women are not supposed to bear guns, and the practical need of recruiting women for combat roles due to its territorial losses to the Iraqi and Syrian government. These losses shifted IS strategy from the offensive to defensive and as a response to this new reality its rhetoric on women bearing arms also changed.
In sum, women’s participation in combat has been justified based on operational needs, where the need for survival led to an ideological rationalisation that justifies the participation of women in combat roles due to the existential threat against the caliphate. The bifurcation of gender roles where women are seen as wives and mothers and men as the provider and the protector, or what Guidere calls the “theology of sexuality,” remained as long as it was beneficial to the organisation. However, the ideological change that appeared may end up more decisive for losing the support of its population base than the military and territorial losses in the area since 2017, as the gender division based on traditional roles was one of the elements that united the caliphate. Subsequently, other terrorist organisations may gain the support of a radicalised population by presenting themselves as the true believers in comparison with ISIS.
Born and raised in Greece, Christina Chatzitheodorou studied International, European and Area Studies at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens. She has a keen interest in strategic studies, irregular warfare and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.
She currently studies War Studies at King’s College London and she volunteers in the Churchill War Rooms. She speaks English, Italian, French, Spanish, Turkish and she is currently learning German and Arabic.