When ISIS declared its caliphate in 2014, thousands of women from around the world migrated to join. The group, which was founded on the lines of an extreme and violent ideology, established strict criteria for women’s participation as wives, mothers and—more recently—fighters.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change is committed to tackling the ideologies behind extremism so that people can co-exist peacefully. As part of that, it is vital to understand who joins extremist movements, and why they do so. The mass migration to ISIS was a reminder that women take part in violent extremism just as easily as men, shattering a widely held assumption that jihadi terrorism is a man’s world.
Data from the Institute’s Global Extremism Monitor recorded 100 suicide assaults by 181 female militants in five countries throughout 2017. These attacks killed 279 people worldwide, 94 per cent of whom were civilians. Boko Haram, the Salafi-jihadi group active across the Lake Chad Basin, is a prime example of the recent increase in women’s participation in terrorism. Between June 2014 and February 2018, 469 Boko Haram female suicide bombers were deployed or arrested before detonation, research by Elizabeth Pearson has shown.
Global jihadi ideologues from across the movement have long debated the roles of men and women. They have justified the ways in which men and women can take part in violent extremism, based on interpretations of Islamic law and doctrine. These are not just theoretical debates: they shape the tactics of groups.
Women have been key members of violent extremist movements in the past, from the Tamil Tigers and Chechen Black Widows to the more recent examples of ISIS and Boko Haram. However, female participation in the global jihadi movement has never been so widespread. This is due to both ideological and operational shifts. While leadership remains resolutely male, groups are adapting and incorporating women in a more active way. And yet, too little is known about how female members fit into these movements. Research and policy must catch up.
For this reason, the Tony Blair Institute has commissioned a series of papers to bust the myths on women, gender and extremism that act as a roadblock to constructive policy. These papers show how the role of women in violent extremism has evolved. They highlight examples of how these changes have played out and point to major weaknesses in policymaking.
In the series, Charlie Winter debunks the myth that jihadi women do not engage in combat, suggesting that today they are more likely than ever to fight. Bulama Bukarti and I show how Boko Haram is divided on the role of women in battle. Drawing on Global Extremism Monitor data, we highlight how the group has increasingly deployed women and girls for violence. Devorah Margolin challenges the idea that female extremists are either radical feminists or weak victims, looking at the Palestinian arena. Katherine Brown shatters myths about Muslim converts who have become extremists, focusing on the case of the ‘white widows’. Elizabeth Pearson argues that male violence should not be taken for granted any more than female nonviolence, a notion borne out by ideological shifts in the global jihadi movement. And Emily Winterbotham asks whether mothers are best placed to spot the signs of radicalisation, an idea on which many counter-extremism measures are based.
The challenge is to move beyond exceptional, sensationalised cases, based on anecdotal evidence, and instead develop an evidence base that reflects what is happening on the ground. To do that, governments, practitioners and researchers need to work together better, sharing raw data and offering access to relevant individuals so that evidence can inform policy. Data-driven research on gender and extremism should inform counter-terrorism security and counter-extremism programmes more. Men’s and women’s motivations for joining groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are complex. Policy needs to respond to this complexity. As returnees come back from conflict zones, a deeper awareness of men’s and women’s motivations for joining, their roles in groups and their reasons for returning is crucial in shaping the response.
There have no doubt been positive shifts in policy, and there is increasing awareness that women are also vulnerable to extremism. For example, the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy released in 2018 spoke specifically about women; the previous version made no such reference, as Emily Winterbotham notes in her paper. Similarly, over the last 18 months, donor agencies looking to commission or fund programmes and research for countering violent extremism are now requesting gender-nuanced methodologies in proposals.
But there remains a paucity of evaluation of the effectiveness of counter-extremism programmes today. Many current initiatives are based on an oversimplification of the role women play in either preventing radicalisation or engaging with violent groups. Not enough resources are invested in seeing whether current approaches work. Future efforts need to be mindful of broader societal biases towards gender difference. These must not blind policymakers and implementers. After all, if policy to counter extremism is based on incorrect assumptions, how can it stop the violence?
Approaching some of the questions raised in these papers is a first step. Following publication, alongside conducting further research into recognised gaps, the Institute will convene a workshop to flesh out how policy and programming interventions should engage with these issues. The views expressed by the contributors do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s positions. However, there is a consensus that gender-nuanced analysis of the global jihadi movement is now urgently needed.
Find all the papers in the series at:
Debunking Myths on Gender and Extremism
Why Men Fight and Women Don’t: Masculinity and Extremist Violence
Neither Feminists nor Victims: How Women’s Agency Has Shaped Palestinian Violence