Of the many things that horrify and appall us about terrorism and ISIS in particular, the involvement of women in the carnage is one of the most evocative. When women are found to be complicit in acts of terror, torture, and even rape, society asks, “how could this happen? How could women do something like this?"
In recent years, the foremost examples of female violence have come from women involved in Islamic terrorist organizations. Dr. Katherine Brown, a lecturer in the department of Religion and Theology at the University of Birmingham, specializing in gender, jihad, and counter-terrorism, and an expert witness to the UK High Courts, told The Daily Beast that “women join radical Islamist groups that promote violence for a combination of personal and political reasons.” Both men and women are motivated by emotional appeals, but “for men it’s an opportunity to display their prowess, to defend their women, and to have a life that’s more fun than the Call of Duty computer game. For women the journey is presented as cleansing and exciting, an opportunity to help those suffering, and a chance to have a shape history.”
Initially, at least, women are attracted to radical Islam for somewhat idealistic and altruistic reasons. What’s strange, however, is the rise in female suicide bombers. In 2002, after Palestinian Wafa Idris blew herself up, a number of Islamic groups denounced the use of women in jihad. Their rationale was that jihad violates a woman’s modesty if she travels alone and her body is displayed after death. But data compiled by the FDD’s Long War Journal reveals that in 2016 at least 29 women detonated suicide bombs. By comparison, in the first three months of 2017, Brown explained, at least 27 women have been used as suicide bombers in Nigeria and Cameroon alone: “This is a relatively new trend; while women have long participated in extremist violent groups, they have been less involved in suicide bombing and direct violence.”
Brown identified two main impetuses for the use of female suicide bombers in particular. At a personal level, women became suicide bombers in pursuit of glory, the forgiveness of individual sins, and in hopes of attaining paradise. There is also, she mentions, a financial motivation, as suicide bombers are assured that their families will be materially provided for after their death. Interestingly, the rewards of martyrdom are gendered here: the sins that women atone for with their deaths are often sexual in nature, which is not the case for men.
For the organization itself, however, the use of women actually has a strategic advantage over the use of men: women can more easily evade detection and security measures, and their deaths, Brown said, secure eight times as much media coverage as that of their male counterparts. Terrorist organizations are able to manipulate our sense of outrage about the deaths of women in order to publicize their cause.
Approximately 10% of members of radical Islamic groups are women, a rate of participation that is comparable, Brown said, to rates of membership in far right anarchist groups, where a higher rate of female leadership is observable. But this doesn’t mean that women are welcome
Of course, even asking the question, “why do women become suicide bombers?” or “why are women committed to violence?” implies that there’s something normal about male violence. Not only do deeply ingrained gender biases and caricatures of women as non-violent lead us to the assumptions that women shouldn’t do this, they also subtly excuse male violence. Rape, torture, and violence should not shock us more merely because the perpetrators are female. The reason that they do is in part due to historical precedent: for example, criminologists agree that murder is a largely male phenomenon. In general, when women do kill they are more likely to murder those closest to them.
Another reason we find female radicals especially shocking is due to the association of women with notions of pacifism and maternal love. Often women are thought of or function as enablers of jihad via their children. A Hadith notes that Paradise is laid at the feet of one’s mother, and women play a prominent role in encouraging violence. But women are not only the potential mothers of terrorists. Brown points to the words of Reem Rayishi, a Hamas activist who blew up herself and four Israelis in 2004: “I have two children and love them very much. But my love to see God was stronger than my love for my children, and I’m sure that God will take care of them if I become a martyr.”
The idea of women encouraging their children to become martyrs and becoming martyrs themselves despite being mothers is not unique to Islam. The mother of the seven young men who die as Jewish martyrs during the Maccabean revolt exhorts her sons to embrace martyrdom, and the early Christian martyrs Perpetua and Felicity are content to leave their children in the care of others when they embrace death.
Stories of young girls going off to join ISIS as wives fill our internet browsers, but this tells only part of the story. There is a disproportionate media focus, Brown says, on the notion of the Jihadi bride, and this is unfortunate because it “reduces [these women] to brainwashed and groomed infantilized girls.” The majority of recruitment is performed by women who establish sisterly relationships with potential recruits online. The portrayal of female ISIS recruits as Jihadi brides is problematic, Brown adds, both because women are treated as potentially redeemable victims in a way that men are not, and in that it can conflate the distinction between Jihadi brides and sex slaves. If we want to stop ISIS, she said, we have to look at why the utopian life offered by ISIS is appealing to people. And we need to recognize that women have agency (albeit sometimes in complicated ways).
The problem is the patriarchal way in which women are idealized. We also need to stop idealizing women. Brown mentioned the exceptional way that we tried to explain away women’s involvement in the torture of prisoners by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Multiple media reports presented them as outliers or, simply, duped. “Women have always been involved in political violence across the globe,” said Brown. “Think of the Black Panthers, Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, to name just a few prominent examples from last century.” Our cultural memory, in other words, is much too short.