A report released by Europol’s European Counter Terrorism Centre delves into the multi-dimensional propaganda within the Islamic State (IS) and further explain the exact roles of women, as well as the means used to gain their active and voluntary participation. The role of women in the Islamic State (IS) is inherently contradictory: women are recognized as indispensable tools often weaponized for IS, while simultaneously being expected to maintain their domestic role as stay-at-home wives and mothers.
Women play a multitude of roles within IS, including doctors, teachers, ‘moral policers’ and – more controversially – combatants. Nevertheless, IS stresses that their main role remains that of stay-at-home wives and mothers. IS is a group that fully supports and practices patriarchal authority, making the more active roles of women a new development that strays from the limited active participation of women in previous jihadist organizations. Clearly, IS recognizes the importance and influence that women inherently possess within any given community.
IS Recruitment: Propaganda, Incentivization, and Motivation
Producing and disseminating propaganda is an integral part of the IS process of recruitment. Women play a large part in this process and Europol’s report says IS realizes the value of, “investing resources into reaching out to its female constituents.” IS propaganda is full of gender-neutral incentives to recruit women. According to the report’s key findings, “Its propaganda focuses on ideas and concepts that speak to the emotions of both men and women in equal measure, namely the revival of the Islamic caliphate and the defense of the umma.” The umma is defined as a concept that encompasses the Muslim community worldwide, eliminating cultural, ethnic or national identities and adopting instead an identity based exclusively on religion. This concept is an integral part of IS and a large motivating factor for many of its members.
“Its propaganda focuses on ideas and concepts that speak to the emotions of both men and women in equal measure, namely the revival of the Islamic caliphate and the defense of the umma.”
In terms of the gender-neutral approach to incentivization and motivation, IS propaganda presents female jihadis to be as ideologically motivated as their male counterparts. In addition, women are portrayed as seeking martyrdom and divine compensation, with their sense of empowerment lying in contributing to the building of an Islamic state. To help explain this ideology, Europol quotes from a female operative actively engaged in recruitment: “Let these crusaders take heed, for just as the [caliphate] is filled with men who love death more than the crusaders love life, likewise are the women of the Islamic State.”
The propaganda released by IS does not hide the danger that is attached to life for men, women, and children in the caliphate, but rather portrays the suffering and adversity as a stepping-stone to paradise. This concept goes back to the umma felt by both genders and the motivation that comes with a strong devotion to religion and the Islamic State.
Despite unifying qualities of belief, there are still some stark contrasts between the roles and expectations of women and men in IS. The report states that “offensive jihad is not obligatory for women”, for example, and that a woman’s honor lies in being a “producer of jihadis,” rather than a warrior herself; nevertheless, the organization encourages women to carry out attacks against the enemy. The image of a docile and submissive housewife turned upside-down in late 2017 when IS explicitly called on women to become actively engaged in battles and legitimised combative jihad for women. The singular role and expectation of women to be homemakers has transformed as the strategies and realizations of IS have progressed.
As new needs arise and strategy and thought develop, new narratives concerning women and their role within IS are becoming commonplace. These narratives encompass the traditional role of wife and mother with a violent new twist. According to the report, “Examples of women who either carried out terrorist attacks or were arrested preventively prove that women are willing to use violence if the ideology allows them to do so.” As seen by this new shift in permission granted by the ideology, women are at the whim of the transitions based on needs consistent with IS. The report adds, “For now, it is not yet their role, but this balance may easily shift depending on the organization’s strategic needs and developments.”
“Offensive jihad is not obligatory for women, and a woman’s honor lies in being a ‘producer of jihadis’, rather than a warrior herself; nevertheless, the organization encourages women to carry out attacks against the enemy.”
The narrative used in propaganda that sees women as mothers first and foremost as well as patient and steadfast supporters is still very much a reality in IS culture. These positions within the home are guided by well-defined parameters, rules, and regulations. Incentives used in IS propaganda use these values as motivating factors in IS devotion and action. The transition from the kitchen to the battlefield is made clear with connections being made to the ultimate duty that is to devote oneself completely to religion and IS.
The Europol report does not claim to analyze the manifold psychological and sociological factors that could motivate individual women to join IS or subscribe to its ideology. IS is a complex organization and the means of motivation used to corral individuals into action is no different. However, reports such as the one released by Europol aim to shed light on how IS – a group that supports a patriarchal authority – attempted to appeal to and recruit women. The role of women as tools within the organization is a factor to recognize when studying IS. This realization can improve awareness and understanding of the intricacies of IS, and lead to more effective counter terrorism and radicalization prevention efforts.