Traditionally, women have been viewed as victims of terrorists. However, the relationship between gender and terrorism is multifaceted. In some cases, women are themselves recruited and radicalized by violent extremists, supporting the terrorist activities of these extremists in a number of capacities. On the other hand, many women play vital roles in preventing radicalization and extremism. Moreover, in some cases, women (such as the Yazidi women who escaped abduction by the self-proclaimed Islamic State) have the ability to provide critical intelligence and insight about the inner workings of terrorist organizations, which can help governments around the world fight them.
Women are often victims and survivors of some of conflicts’ worst atrocities committed by terrorists. Just as in more conventional forms of war and conflict, where rape and other forms of sexual violence continue to be tools of war, violent extremists use sexual violence to control women and exert power over communities. As I’ve discussed previously, extremist groups such as the Islamic State use violence against women, including sexual violence, as part of their political economy and a tactic of terror. In 2014, the Islamic State kidnapped an estimated three thousand Yazidi women, and the vast majority remain in captivity today. The group subjects those women who have not escaped to organized rape, sexual assault, forced marriages, forced conversions, and sexual slavery. Beyond these abuses and the group’s severe restrictions on women, the Islamic State also forcefully imposes other misguided constraints on women and girls including limiting their access to education and work, as reflected in its “manifesto on women.” Those who do not follow the rules or demonstrate disloyalty face brutal punishment, including being lashed, stoned, beheaded, or otherwise publicly executed.
But beyond being victims and survivors, women have also been perpetrators of terrorism and active members of extremist groups. The al-Khansaa Brigade, (which I blogged about in a prior post), represents just one of the groups that women have joined to support extremists. Notably, the al-Khansaa Brigade represents an extremely small percentage of the women in the Islamic State (despite high-profile coverage of its activities in western media outlets, such as the New York Times and The Atlantic). It is comprised of both local Syrian women (such as those profiled in the New York Times article) and foreign women. The vast majority of women in the Islamic State overall are treated as chattel, whose primary function is to marry foreign fighters (with marriage matches based on a certain pecking order) and birth the next generation of jihadists.
Within other extremist organizations, such as Boko Haram (which is technically now part of Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyah, an affiliate of the Islamic State), women have carried out terrorist attacks, commonly suicide bombings, though it is not always clear whether they do so willingly or are forced into it. While the Islamic State apparently does not allow women to fight on the front lines (with the possible exception of recruits from Europe), some women, in effect, support the group by marrying fighters and giving birth to the next generation.
Alternatively, women can also be part of the solution to extremism. Empowering female leaders and women in conflict zones and other communities has the potential to be an effective strategy to combat violent extremism. Women’s groups around the world, such as Sisters Against Violent Extremism or Women Without Walls Initiative, are in positions to counter radicalization and extremism within their communities. Such local organizations have insights into which community members are at risk of being radicalized and have the ability to advance a counter narrative to extremism in their homes, in schools, and in their communities at large. Oftentimes, the women involved in these groups are mothers and have a finger on the pulse of which youth are susceptible to radicalization. Moreover, the empowerment of women is correlated with economic growth and stronger communities, which helps address many of the grievances—like poverty and unemployment—often cited as the root causes of conflict, violence, and extremism.