By 2050 there will be 2.8 billion Muslims in the world, of whom almost half will be women. If women are integrated in efforts to confront violent extremist ideology, through equal opportunities and participation in social, political, and economic life, this demographic could positively alter the future of the Muslim world. Currently, traditional, conservative, and patriarchal societies in most Muslim-majority countries tend to ignore women’s education, their participation in the workforce, and their rights. This enables Islamist groups, which reject the concept of women’s rights being equal to men’s rights, to target women as potential recruits for their extremist cause. Personal, cultural, and societal factors, along with the broader grievance culture amongst Muslim populations, have contributed to some women supporting and joining Islamist extremist groups.
Women’s participation in the workforce, in national parliaments, and even in schooling lags behind in countries geographically as far apart as Egypt and Indonesia, which share Islam as the religion of most of their population. Women’s inclusion and status in Muslim-majority countries does not necessarily improve with enhancements in a country’s economic standing. Gender inequality affects richer Muslim-majority countries as well as poorer ones (World Bank n.d.).
Women’s rights, already challenged by tradition and social conservatism, are coming under greater attack by radical Islamists who seek to reshape societies in the mold of how things stood in earlier centuries of what they deem to be pristine Islam. For decades Islamists and traditionalist Muslims have questioned the Western ideal of full and equal participation of women in public, especially political, life.
According to the Islamist worldview, the role of women is clearly defined in the Qur’an and elaborated further in Hadith and tradition. This definition rejects the notion that women have the right to an equal say in all matters that have an impact on their lives. In the initial phase of modernization of most Muslim-majority countries, there was great resistance by religiously conservative elements against giving women equal rights, with some clerics going to the extent of denying the right to women to sit in legislative bodies or to even vote.
In recent years, a few political Islamist groups (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, Iran’s revolutionary regime, and the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and Pakistan) have embraced the idea of “democracy” at least as a means of acquiring power through mobilization of popular support. The objective of acquiring such power for them, however, remains to establish an Islamic State. These groups seek women’s votes in elections but remain committed to rolling back women’s rights upon seizing power.
Women are not only part of Islamist groups that have embraced electoral politics, but also play a role in groups that have chosen the path of terrorism, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. There are also a number of women’s Islamist social conservative movements that work with, but are not part of, the Islamist political groups.
In a majority of Islamist and jihadi groups, women’s roles were traditionally limited to the spread of propaganda and incitement of husbands and male relatives to jihad. In the last few years, the leadership has been responding to both the change in context as well as to Islamist women’s requests to play a larger role in offensive combat. This is reflected in the fact that between 1985 and 2010, there were over 230 suicide bombing attacks by women belonging to Jihadi groups (Bloom 2011).
There are many reasons why these groups use women operatives. Women provide structural support which varies from teaching their children how to be “defenders of the pure faith,” maintaining the household for the fighters, encouraging other women to join them in their task, and, in the case of educated women, even translating extremist propaganda. When women participate in an act of violence, they provide an element of surprise. Experts say that female terrorists have a four times higher kill rate than their male counterparts (Bloom 2011).
In “When Women Become Terrorists,” Jane Huckerby (2015) points out the challenge of Islamist women’s role in public life. About ISIS, she writes, “While the group oppresses many women, many also flock to its ranks.” Almost 10 percent of ISIS recruits from Western countries are female, “often lured by their peers through social media and instant messaging.” An estimated 63 of the 350 French nationals believed to be with the group are women, just under 20 percent. According to Huckerby, “despite stereotypes about their domesticity and passivity, women are drawn to groups like the Islamic State by many of the same forces as men: adventure, inequality, alienation, and the pull of the cause.”
The women of ISIS feel no compunction in violence against other women. The all-female Al-Khansa Brigade of ISIS enforces the group’s morality codes for women, requiring modest dress and segregation of the sexes. They operate checkpoints and participate in home raids in addition to being recruiters, trainers of women suicide bombers, wives and homemakers, fund-raisers, and propagandists.
Author Mia Bloom in her book Bombshell: Women and Terrorists puts forth the “Four R plus One” framework to explain why women become terrorists. The four Rs are revenge, redemption, relationships, respect, plus rape—the death of a relative (revenge), relatives being involved with jihad (relationships), respect for female martyrs in patriarchal societies (respect), need to avenge a personal or familial shame (redemption), and sexual exploitation by jihadis (rape) (Bloom 2011, 234).
Other existing motivations include the perception of the Muslim community being under attack all over the world, the feeling of contributing to a cause, as well as personal incentives such as the allure of marriage and transition into adulthood. The feeling of community, sisterhood, and identity within the jihadi groups and larger community are a huge draw. For some female jihadists, Western feminism may be found unfulfilling or disappointing, and Jihadi groups provide an alternative of sorts, when personally chosen, as a path they interpret as a chosen way to avoid discrimination and abuse. These women see women’s roles as complementary to men’s, rather than equal. The growth in numbers of women living in the Western world who join these groups can be traced to factors such as grievances about Muslim-majority regions being under siege, belief that joining these groups gives them a goal in life and a way to contribute to a cause in which they believe deeply. There are also motivations like the desire to marry a true Muslim, bonds with other women who have joined these groups and are friends and provide sense of community, and finally a theological/doctrinal belief in an obligation to provide support for jihad.
ISIS has succeeded in the recruitment of women because of underlying causes within Muslim communities both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries. Even in relatively tolerant Muslim societies, patriarchy and paternalism are widely embraced, leading women to accept gender roles assigned to them. Polls indicate, for example, that a majority of women in several Muslim-majority countries feel it is their duty to obey their husbands and that spousal abuse is acceptable because it is allowed in Islam (NPR 2015). Extremists take this “submission to the will of God” one step farther and convince women that engaging in acts of violence is also divinely ordained.
In the West, Muslim diaspora communities from Paris to Toronto have seen an upsurge in anger and alienation from the broader community. One of the attackers linked to the November 2015 blasts in Paris was a woman, Hasna Aitboulahcen, as was one of the two San Bernardino attackers, Tashfeen Malik. Muslims, particularly youth and women, have felt ignored, hated, and apart from the larger society. Women, whether young girls or adults, feel that they are the easiest, most visible targets because of the hijab, and we have seen the backlash against it in places like France.
Within schools in Western countries, Muslim teenagers, because of their religious demands, often feel or are made to feel different. Teenagers growing up in Muslim households—fasting for the month of Ramadan, wearing the hijab, not dating or being able to drink alcohol—start feeling like “outsiders.” ISIS and other extremist recruiters often tap into such feelings of alienation, especially at impressionable ages.
In Muslim-majority countries, other forces are at work: easily-understandable triggers like unemployment in Tunisia and unhappiness with the nascent democracy’s inability to deliver, as well as forced secularity by dictatorial regimes. Today, Tunisian women and youth are the world’s greatest exporters of ISIS recruits. More Tunisians join ISIS in terms of percentage than citizens of any other country (Byrne 2014).
The recruitment tactics of the Islamic State have also been groundbreaking in social media. From Facebook pages to Twitter and Tumblr, the outreach has had an enormous impact on women all over the world—particularly in MENA and the West. Magazines, letters, and stories by women wanting to join active jihad and mothers’ proud remembrances of martyred sons have all been utilized in the Al-Qaeda affiliated al Shamikha and in Tayyabiat, which is linked to Hizb-u-Tahrir. The ISIS magazine Dabiq in a recent issue featured a message from the wife of the Paris supermarket gunman, advising women to study religion and support their jihadi husbands. This feeling of a community of believers, a group of acceptance, and a social experience is available in this online world of Jihadi women.
Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS, or Daesh do not just want to eliminate Western allies in the region and attack Western systems. They have already put down the foundations of a state alongside the old states. The imposition of Sharia has begun in the regions they control. A barbaric form of warfare and control which puts all women—especially women belonging to minority religious groups like Yazidis, Shias, and Christians—at greater risk of death or debasement.
According to Ravina Shamdasani of the United Nations, “educated, professional women, particularly women who have run as candidates in elections for public office, seem to be particularly at risk” under ISIS rule. The revival of the slave trade of women from areas conquered by ISIS has increased the physically and sexually violent crimes against female children and women. The rise of ISIS has rolled back gains women made under secular governments like in Iraq and Syria (Shahabian and Sonenshine 2016). A similar fate awaits women and religious minorities in parts of other Muslim-majority countries that might fall under control of extremist groups.
The United States needs a comprehensive policy to deal with these developments in Muslim societies and beyond. Former Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine acknowledged in a February 2016 op-ed article in The Hill, co-written with Leon Shahabian, that the United States has still not comprehensively defined “Countering Violent Extremism” or “Counter-Extremism.” The next president of the United States must define both the problem and its solution in clear terms. As Sonenshine points out, several government agencies currently deal with countering violent extremism, often working in a vacuum and with different institutional agendas.
Moreover, violent extremism in the Muslim world cannot be dealt with without addressing the broader issues of religious freedom and women’s rights. Strategic considerations have lead U.S. policy to ignore marginalization of religious minorities in Muslim countries and to accept limitations on women as cultural or traditional. A more robust linking of U.S. foreign assistance and arms sales with policies on women’s rights and religious freedom could force governments in Muslim countries to tackle these issues.
The problem stems from the gender gap in the Muslim world, with low levels of literacy and low levels of labor force participation by women in all spheres of life. It also stems back to the traditional Muslim societies that have resisted what they see as Western human rights including rights for women. Instead of military dictators, orthodox ulema, and jihadis defining what are women’s rights, women should have the right to do so.
It is here that the foreign policy of the United States can be proactive by placing women at the heart of its policies. This includes more aid for women’s education and scholarships for women students to study both in their countries and in the U.S. Support from the United States, both monetary as well as symbolic, for women activists in majority-Muslim countries will be further boosted if a global network of such activists is created and sustained. If the president takes the lead, policy confusion can be replaced with a comprehensive strategy that rebuts the culture of Muslim grievance—a grievance culture which enables extremists to recruit and operate. Instead of interacting just with clerics in token gestures, the United States must embrace Muslim modernizers including human rights activists, scholars, and writers. Moreover, U.S. officials must stop assuming that modernist Muslim women are somehow unrepresentative. Despite oppression and persecution, they remain as much part of Muslim societies as conservative women.
Women must, in particular, be the cornerstone of the anti-extremist effort. There are many positive historical and modern day examples of women and Muslims that can be used to show positive role models. It is imperative to make a distinction between Islam and its extremist distortions. It must be understood, moreover, that the consequences of inattention to combating extremist Islamist ideology would not be different from the results of ignoring the rise of totalitarianism in Europe before the World War II.