Images of masked individuals pumping guns into the air and carrying out acts of violence have flooded social media as examples of life for members of the Islamic State (ISIS). While the images and videos are used to recruit new members to the terrorist group, the people wrapped under disguises are men, not women. Life for female members of ISIS is drastically different than the vision conjured by propaganda.
The exact number of women trying to join the group is unknown, but analysts told The New York Times about 10 percent of recruits from Western countries are women. Women’s roles in organizations like ISIS, from violence to housework, are vital for the group’s survival, says Max Abrahms, a professor of political science at Northeastern University and an expert on terrorist group behavior.
“They want to create a group but also a state, and women are essential to state creation because the Islamic State leadership wants to breed future generations, state members and citizens," he says. "Women are seen as useful — just as facilitators of future terrorists.”
Life for the women of the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — is about homemaking, getting married and having children. In fact, their days are spent predominantly in the home and their outside movements are restricted, according to a recent report on the life of some female members of ISIS: Becoming Mulan: Female Western Migrants to ISIS , published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in January. The report details the journey and lifestyle of women who join the Islamic State, particularly from Western countries, through content posted on the women’s social media accounts.
[One subject] explains that women should strive to be good mothers and obedient wives, rather than focusing on martyrdom operations. ... Overall therefore, it is clear that women’s current role in ISIS is not to fight, but to support their husbands and raise their children to be the next generation of mujahideen [the plural term for one engaged in jihadist activities].
“A lot of people go to join up with ISIS, and they have ambitions of being important fighters — and when they get there they are tasked with all sorts of mundane jobs, like cleaning toilets and changing bandages,” says Abrahms. “There is a common disconnect between the exciting life the Islamic State sold via social media and the reality on the ground for those who have the misfortune of moving out there.”
Mia Bloom, a professor at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, says there are benefits for terrorist groups to having women involved. “The Islamic State has not hidden the fact that they have very homemaker roles for women,” says Bloom. “[Women] shouldn’t be surprised if when they get there, they are in for a rude awakening when they realize the roles are not militant roles.”
The Violent Future For Women In ISIS
That said, women have been participating in modern terrorism for centuries. From neo-Nazis to the Chechen Black Widows and Palestinian female terrorists, many women have joined the ranks of terror organizations and have participated in a variety of means. And while the laws of Islam forbid violence against women, even in war, this rule cannot be applied to ISIS’ behavior. The group has raped and murdered women throughout their campaign.
The authors of Becoming Mulan hypothesized that women who migrate abroad to join the group could partake in violence later. The authors found that some women returned to their home countries after the death of a husband and, despite their location, may still feel a connection to the people they left behind.
As the conflict progresses, it is reasonable to assume that the returnees would be affected were any of their friends who remain with ISIS killed. These deaths could potentially trigger the women to become further radicalized and carry out acts of violence in the West.
However, Bloom says she doesn’t believe the women who have joined ISIS might partake in revenge missions like other female terrorists. In fact, she continued, many have already lost husbands and haven’t retaliated. Some women try to leave ISIS — if the group members don’t kill them for trying to flee.
Trying To Escape ISIS' Clutches
"Many members of ISIS want to leave the group and return home because they are so disenchanted, but they aren't allowed to, and the Islamic State kills them," says Abrahms. "Many, many women who are going out there are finding out that their decision is a huge mistake... They might be 15 years old and lured out there, and then they could become the victims of gang rape or being married off to a very old, disgusting man."
But getting home can be very difficult. Depending on what country a person hails from, they could face jail time for their involvement with the group. That is why it’s crucial to take the right steps when reporting a missing person who may be traveling to Syria, Bloom said.
Last year, two teenage sisters in Denver, Colorado, told their father they were staying home sick, and instead headed to Syria, according to The Associated Press . They got as far as Germany before they were stopped by authorities.
After they went missing, their parents alerted the authorities and they were able to stop the women from flying to Syria. If they had made it, getting them home and without severe punishment would have extremely difficult.
“[These members] have nowhere to go,” says Bloom. “They need a pathway out.”
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