ISIS and Women: With, Against and Victims

Last week, an ISIS fighter was dressed in women’s clothes as he attempted to bomb refugees. This is not the first or the last time that a women’s attire was used as a tool by violent extremists. In 2015, a group of ISIS fighters wore women’s clothing in an attempt to flee a battlefield.

This almost suggests that woman are immune to threats or reciprocation, a “safe passage” of sorts could be available to those dressed as women. The truth is women themselves are frequently participating in a significant amount of actual fighting, like in the recent attack in Mosul  which was carried out by women. As many as 20 women blew themselves up over the last week. Groups like Boko Haram, an ISIS-affiliate in Nigeria, are also using women as suicide bombers.

Source : flickr/kurdishstruggle

Yet, the media ignores female fighters. The strongest argument is that gender stereotypes underpin the recruitment strategies of ISIS and other extremist groups in relation to both men and women.


The internet is full of stories of young girls and women joining ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but these stories are one sided. The media focuses disproportionately on the notion of “Jihadi brides” and “brainwashing” of women and girls. The truth is there are female fighters on both sides, and many of these women do not see themselves as “victims” or “brides”.  They see themselves as fighters striving to remain strong actors in the caliphate.

On the other side of this “war”, women are also fighting to take the caliphate down. A woman named Batul, interviewed in a daily newspaper proudly stated that she braved her clan, her father, her mother and now she’s braving the enemy (ISIS).  Women like Batul are breaking down patriarchal barriers, and gender stereotypes.

These women are underlining the importance of gender perspective in the fight against extremism.  

The main tool in including a gender lens is the UNSC RES1325 that came to life in 2000, encouraging nations to include women in prevention, management and resolution of conflict. It has inspired nations to take concrete actions and highlighted that a gender perspective in security operations is highly important. In Afghanistan, training of female military and police have been highly significant for country’s overall security. Afghan women in the security sector are motivated by helping other women in conflict, yet the number of female actors in areas of conflict-prevention, counter-terrorism and post-conflict reconstruction remains low.

While ISIS continues to recruit from different parts of the world, they are heavy on recruiting Muhajirat (female migrants). The women that join the caliphate today function as strong communication assets. Most of them are active writers for the ISIS magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah, these magazines are highly professional and have contributed to strengthening the Caliphate’s public diplomacy. There is no doubt that these women are rapid recruiters, but they also serve as a strategic advantage; their deaths secure eight times as much media coverage than their male counterparts. Some have family ties to jihad, however a large number are well informed about the network that they are joining.

Most of these women have clear ideas of whom they are fighting, and why they need to fight. Focusing on women as actual actors in a conflict is different from victims of a conflict. While the latter is not to be forgotten the light should be shed on one place.

Originally published in Aftenposten

Samina Ansari

Samina Ansari

Editor, Middle East at InPRA
Afghan-Norwegian Samina Ansari is an Intern at NATO Secretary General’s Representative for Women, Peace and Security Office. She has background in Cyber Security law, Globalization law and International-Public Management from University of Oslo, Maastricht and SciencesPo.
Samina Ansari