Understanding the Recruitment of Women and Girls to the Islamic State

While many women worldwide are working to build peace, locally and globally, it is important to remember that the connections between men and war and women and peace have never been accurate representations of reality. Women also provide necessary support for war. Despite the brutality and repression being currently inflicted by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on civilians, a significant number of women and girls are among the thousands of locals and foreigners joining the ranks of ISIS. As international law specialist Julia Brooks points out in this brief Q&A, women, like men, are participating for a variety of motivations.

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Why do women join armed groups?
Women join armed groups for a variety of reasons, some unique and some common with men. Some women are abducted by fighters, or otherwise forced or coerced into joining the group. Many join voluntarily, whether convinced by the group’s ideology or attracted by the sense of mission and purpose. Some join armed groups out of retaliation for suffering inflicted by “the other side”, or as a means to escape problems at home, alienation or disillusion in their communities. Others follow their husbands into combat, or join for economic or survival reasons, motivated by financial gain, access to resources or enhanced status as group members.

Why are local women joining ISIS?
In the territories under its control, ISIS has attracted female members with many of the same motivations as men. As Nimmi Gowrinatha notes, ethnic, religious or political grievances; ideological motivations; humiliation, abuse or assault by opposing forces; or simply survival have been driving factors:

As elsewhere, most Iraqi women take up arms because they fear for their safety or because they feel ISIS represents their political interests. In many cases, violence also appears to be the only available means of political expression. For many women, and especially for women from the marginalized Sunni community, violence becomes a vehicle for political agency.

Last year, reports surfaced of an all-female brigade in Raqqa, Syria, established for policing purposes to enforce strict religious law among other women. “Jihad,” said an ISIS official in Raqqa, “is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well” (Gilsinan).

As Amanda Taub notes, “ISIS’s approach towards female recruits is driven by a calculating military strategy designed to further specific recruitment, military, and state-building goals — and there are signs that it is working.” Female recruits are particularly useful in generating popular support, argues Gowrinathan, since “they have better ability to access civilian women, to engage civilian women, and also to recruit” (Taub).

Why are Western women joining ISIS?
A significant number of women and girls from Western countries have also answered ISIS’ call to jihad, as part of an active online recruiting campaign. As reported on incredulously in Western media, teen girls from countries such as Austria, England, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States have sought to join the group; an estimated 100 women from Germany – mostly between the ages of 16 and 27 – have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, some with their husbands while others went on their own to marry or fight in the movement; others have been stopped by authorities en route. Last week, three British schoolgirls dominated the headlines when they traveled to Turkey, presumably en route to Syria.

Some young Western women are attracted to ISIS by the same messages as Western men: ranging from religious obligation to adventure to solidarity with Syrians in the fight against the Assad regime. In other cases, ISIS has used a romanticized narrative of marriage to attract women as wives and future mothers for jihadi fighters. “Women give birth to the mujahideen [warriors] and they are the ones who raise them and teach them,” notes one Western Jihadiwoman (Dettmer).

Countering the lure of violent extremism
In order to combat this type of extremism, we must question our assumptions about women and war in general, and ISIS in particular. As Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, notes:

Women and girls have scant rights under the medieval control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. Our instincts say they would never join in its abusive rule over other women, and yet they have. We’re used to thinking that men have a monopoly on violent extremism — except they don’t. We need a better understanding of what drives women to take part in, and even give their lives for, violent movements that insist on their inferiority. We can’t counter radical narratives if we don’t understand the motives of the radicalized.

Leaving aside the ongoing debate in the media over whether ISIS’s violence is “medieval” or in fact highly “modern,” a limited understanding of violence paints men as perpetrators and women as victims misses the much more complex reality. Women, as men, fill diverse roles in armed movements such as ISIS, yet their experiences and perspectives are often overlooked. “Women fight for personal as well as political power,” writes Gowrinathan, “often sacrificing one for the other. If the world ignores that fact, it will miss a chance to deal with the identity politics that sustain war.” In countering ISIS’s narrative of violence, we cannot overlook the motivations, grievances, contributions or crimes of women in armed groups. Missing that chance will not only cripple efforts at cutting off support to ISIS and facilitating a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria and Iraq but also hinder the equal participation of women in the creation of a more inclusive post-conflict order.

For another excellent article on the recruitment of young women to ISIS, check out

Works Cited
Dettmer, Jamie. “The ISIS Online Campaign Luring Western Girls to Jihad.” The Daily Beast. 8 June, 2014. Web.
Gilsinan, Kathy. “”The ISIS Crackdown on Women, by Women.” The Atlantic. 25 July 2014. Web.
Gowrinathan, Nimmi. “The Women of ISIS: Understanding and Combating Female Extremism.” Foreign Affairs. 21 Aug, 2014. Web.
Harman, Jane. “Why Do Women Turn into Suicide Bombers.” CNN. 5 August 2015. Web.
Taub, Amanda. “No, CNN, Women Are Not Joining ISIS Because of ‘Kittens and Nutella.’” Vox World. 18 February, 2015. Web.

This article was originally posted on Harvard’s Humanitarian Initiative’s ATHA Blog. You can find it here.

Julia Brooks is the Legal Research Associate for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) at the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard University. Here previous work has included positions with the UN, having worked at UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR) in Sarajevo, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, The Netherlands. Julia holds a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she received the Alfred P. Rubin Prize and Leo Gross Prize for excellence in international law. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Public Policy from Brown University, magna cum laude.

23 Replies to “Understanding the Recruitment of Women and Girls to the Islamic State”

  1. I found it very interesting to actually take the time to understand why would women join such an organization. One reason in particular that shocked me was how women would join ISIS because it is their only way to politically express themselves. As much as it seems crazy in a country like Canada, it is still the reality for women in other countries, they do not all have rights like we do. Therefore, I can clearly understand that someone who has absolutely no political power will do anything in order to be heard. This text also made me realize that ISIS compared to other organization actually depend a lot of women and succeed at making them feel like they are an important part of the group. It makes joining them very attractive since women are rarely given so much importance in such organizations. People should definitively be more aware of those facts.

  2. I think it was important to highlight that women are not purely peaceful and I was glad the point was brought up. The reasons for the women’s motivation to join ISIS made me understand their situation in greater detail. The fact that it was explained that for some of these women, and men, violence is seen as the only vehicle for political agency made me more understanding of their actions. I was surprised to learn that ISIS actually believes that women have to do their part as well, as I thought their views were more traditional about women such as having no place in war. I enjoyed how the article showed the different perspectives of women and their possible motives. Again, I like how it is stated that women can be as violent as men as we need to break the false conceptions about gender concerning war to have a more peaceful world.

  3. This article reinforces the falsehood of the notion of men as warriors and women as peacemakers through discussion of the recruitment of young women to ISIS. I admit that I had no idea women were also joining ISIS (or that they were even permitted to join), as the narrative told by the media only offers the (equally important) images of ISIS’ violent and oppressive treatment of women. Still, their participation makes sense, given the ethno-religious/political/personal/ideological/vengeful motives of local women, and the romanticization and feelings of solidarity that calls to women overseas. It also makes perfect sense that under such harsh circumstances, women see fighting with extremist groups as the only path to gaining freedom and a voice. Unfortunately, in the world at large today, war is too often offered as the path to gaining respect that one could otherwise not require. I hope that more widespread attention is given to the issues of women joining ISIS and other extremist groups so that in combatting them, their uniquely gendered struggles and reasoning can be addressed in upcoming rehabilitation efforts.

  4. I thought that this was very interesting and made me understand why women would want to join ISIS. I was shocked to read that many Western women are joining this extremist group. What I found very shocking is that women and young girls wanted to join ISIS because they could express there opinions, feel safer, economic reasons and to potentially marry the fighters.Also, this proves that the women are not always the peacekeepers and can be just as violent and mean like the men.

  5. After reading “Understanding the recruitment of women and girls to the Islamic state”, it was interesting for me to learn reasons that women participate in war. Before reading this article I had thought that they just wanted to defend their country, but now, I am struck by discovering their motivations to join ISIS. For example, some of these motivations are: using war to get rid of their problems at home, being with their husbands at war or others even have the same reason that men have violent intentions. moreover, I was shocked when I understood that some of them were forced to join ISIS. What was really strange for me was reading about the participating of young western women in ISIS. these different intentions reveal that women are not just a source of peace, sometimes they are just as violent as men.

  6. I have never known that why women want to join on ISIS where they are not safe. After reading the article I was shocked by knowing that some women join because they think that they will be safer and can marry the fighter, and will be recognized as the future mothers of Jihadi (warrior) fighters. This seems that sometimes they can be as violent as men. Although, I found this article is very interesting to read.

  7. I find it extremely important and interesting to highlight the fact that women, too, are joining the Islamic State. Though it may be often forgotten, it comes as more of a shock to learn that women are joining such a group in my opinion. Perhaps this is due to their stereotypical connection to peace! This shouldn’t be surprising to society, as women have equal ability to be violent and a “warrior” as men.

  8. Before reading this article I was oblivious to why these women joined ISIS. I learned that this is a way to voice their opinions politically. Women aren’t just the so-called “peacekeepers” in this situation; they also demonstrate acts of violence. I found it shocking to read that some women become violent towards others, considering that men usually take such initiatives. There are many factors that ISIS uses to attract females. Whether it be because they are fearful for their lives or generally to obtain their needs.

  9. Women have always been a part of war, whether it was through their support from home or with the troops, their participation was always needed. What is surprising about women’s recruitment to the Islamic State is that they are supporting a system that deliberately oppresses women. Apart from being able to have more political power and to be in a safer environment, I find it difficult to understand why women would support such a group. Still, I hope that women can eventually feel safe and have the opportunity to be heard through less extreme means.

  10. “Understanding the Recruitment of Women and Girls to the Islamic State” gave me a different view towards the women that participated in the war. What really grabbed my attention is that women and girls wanted to join ISIS. This made me wonder, are men really warriors, or do women take a part in that title as well? Women see violence as the only form to gain freedom. It’s a way of letting their voice be heard. Women can be more than just peacemakers, they are just as violent as men.

  11. I found this article very interesting, because it give us a more detailed explanation about the motivations of those women who join ISIS. Indeed, I used to think that these women were either obliged to participate in ISIS actions or saw ISIS as a purpose to live. As I read the article, I realized that I was wrong on many things and that these women had more understandable reasons to join this terrorist group. It really suprised me to learn that ISIS could be a way for them to communicate their political opinions, a way to escape their problems at home and the alienation or disillusionment present in their communities. This gives us a good example that women are capable of being as violent as men and that they are not naturally peaceful.

  12. This article opposes the saying that men are natural warriors and women are natural peace makers. It proves that women, just like men, have the power to violent. It is shocking to hear that many women join armed groups, such as ISIS, for political expression, safety or economic reasons. Due to the way the media portrays ISIS’ behavior towards women, I was not even aware that women were allowed to join ISIS.

  13. I had never thought about women joining organizations, such as ISIS, before reading this article. Online, we see many videos about how these organizations treat women poorly and how they favour men. This article clearly highlights how women are not always peacemakers, as some make them out to be. We are fortunate here in Canada; women can express themselves freely. However, it isn’t everywhere that women have freedom to express their political opinions. Young women are attracted to these extremist groups because they are made to feel important, heard and safe.

  14. I thought that it was quite interesting to see this female perspective on ISIS recruitment that is otherwise not very much talked about. It’s quite important to note that women seem to join the organization for the same reason that men have. I thought that it was also very interesting to see the militant group actively recruiting women because, based on my previous understanding, women were not permitted to have any role in ISIS. The article also dismisses the notion that women are peacemakers and men are fighters because, according to this article, women are just as eager to participate as men.

  15. It seems so unreal that women would want to join ISIS, where it seems that they’re most oppressed. It was very surprising to see how many women, especially European women, have joined – or tried – ISIS. Obviously, this shows that women can be as violent as the men are and are not at all “biologically” peacemakers. The article mentions how some of the women are motivated by the romantization of marriage and teaching the warriors’ sons and for me it seems that it plays into the “motherhood”. ISIS is trying to appeal to women by touching their mothering instinct, and it seems to be working for some of then. Although, as we know already, not all women want to be mothers and have that mother instinct which is why a lot of them do not fall for this trick. This article was interesting to read since it explores in depth the motivations and the reasons behind women joining ISIS, which is way more than they ever talk about in the news.

  16. I found this article very interesting in how it shows us why women would go to this kind of organization. I found it strange that women would follow ISIS, thinking they would be safe or to marry a fighter be recognized as a future mother of a fighters. It shocked me to know that many women join ISIS and shows that they can be violent like men.

  17. This article brings to light the notion that women are among the fighters of terrorists organizations such as ISIS. This idea is often overlooked, as women are primarily seen as the victims of war, while men are seen as the perpetrators. Indeed, while war remains a largely patriarchal activity, the role of women is important to consider. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the motivations of women joining ISIS are not so different than those of their male counterparts. Indeed, most seek a chance to fight back against “religious, ethnic or political grievances”. Furthermore, for some local women, joining ISIS can be a sort of personal liberation, as through their violent actions, they finally gain some form of political power. For terrorist organizations, women are particularly useful in recruiting others to join their cause. Today, the notion that women and war are diametrically opposed simply does not hold water.

  18. Women joining the ISIS is sending a message to the world that their truth nature is not all peaceful. It shows that women are more than what society tells them to be. It is a way for them to gain some type of power. To say that they are equal to men. This is a major step for them. Many would say that it just reinforce war, but in a way they do not have the choice than to fight for the ones they love. Men and women reasons to join are very similar. Indeed it is for ”ethnic, religious or political grievances”, or for more personal issues, such as their significant other join. It shows that it is not only about fighting, but about proving a point not only to the world, but to themselves. The fact, that girls and women from Western countries are joining the ISIS lead to showing the magnitude of this organization.

  19. After having read the article “Understanding the Recruitment of Women and Girls to the Islamic State”, I have a much greater understanding of why women would join Isis. The article explains in great detail what motivates women and even girls as young as sixteen, from all around the world, to join willingly. Aside from giving them false hopes and promises, some of the reasons many join Isis is to give themselves a sense of meaning and purpose, for religious reasons, and even to escape problems they are having at home. However, the one motivator which both terrified and alarmed me is that they are lured into marriage to give birth to “mujahideen” or future “warriors” in order to increase their numbers. We must find a way to educate these women before they make the frightening choice to join Isis.

  20. This article really opened me up to something I would have never known had I not read it. I was not made aware of the fact that women are involved in ISIS and played an active role in the terrorism. The reasons for them joining are quite astonishing. The fact that their husbands force them to do so violates their rights as women, however in most of the countries these women reside in they are not granted rights as women. The other reasons that shocked me was that they join to get away from family problems and to make some money. It is crazy to think that these women are doing this without even realizing how many lives they are affecting. Except joining these organizations allow them to feel wanted which is quite sad that to feel wanted they need to join organizations like ISIS.

  21. We are surprised that women would join such a violent movement, but it truly isn’t that surprising. Some (most, I think it is safe to believe) live in a violent, patriarchal environment. I think it’s a classic case of “if you can’t beat them, join them” for the women who feel like they are in danger, the only way to survive is to join in the violence. On the other hand, some women have been so influenced by living in this dangerous environment that they believe in it enough to participate. In both cases, the “innate peacefulness” of women is proven false and if we did not believe since the beginning that women are naturally peaceful, then we wouldn’t be surprised at all that these women, as they are people, are affected by their environment/experiences.

  22. I found it interesting to learn that women are joining ISIS; it is a fact that never crossed my mind. It disproves the notion of women as the “biological” peaceful gender, showing that women are equally as capable of being violent and aiding war. Men and women have the same reasons for having joined, even though they are seen as “opposites’ still in most societies.

  23. It’s important to understand that women are also capable of violence and some will succumb to it. In countries where ISIS has control, it’s easy to understand why women would join, considering they’re exposed to their ideologies constantly without having any other paths. For western women who join, it’s just proof that women are not naturally peaceful and it’s possible for them to commit horrific violence even when more liberal and open-minded ideas are available to believe in.

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