The emergence and the onslaught of ISIS have received a fair amount of media attention; however, the complex relationship between women and the newly formed terrorist organization has been largely ignored by the media and the academia. Women are no longer just victims: some women are being radicalized and join the ranks of ISIS, while others put their lives on the line to fight it. To fully understand ISIS impact on women, it is important to examine these different roles in detail.
Women as Victims of ISIS
ISIS is a Sunni extremist group that adheres to an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sharia law. Their views have led to human rights abuses and sexual abuse of captured women. For instance, at the beginning of August, ISIS kidnapped between 1, 500 to 4,000 Yazidi women and girls as it took over the town of Sinjar. The women are now being pressured to convert to Islam and marry a jihadi militant or face indefinite imprisonment. Many captured women were able to get in touch with their families using cell phones; however, some women have been taken to undisclosed locations and were not heard from again. The Middle East Media Research Institute believes that ISIS plans to sell Yazidi women or use them as sex slaves.
This development is not new or surprising. Women are often targeted victims during insurgencies, wars, and civil wars. However, the new development is that ISIS is not only trying to just humiliate the enemy by raping the women, but it is actively working towards its goal of creating a caliphate by forcing women to convert and marry ISIS militants. By adding women to their group, and more importantly creating families and communities that believe in ISIS ideology, ISIS moves away from being a terrorist/insurgent group towards ultimately becoming a likeminded group of people that wants to live in a state that unites them. Indeed, ISIS is already slowly moving towards its goal of creating a state as it is starting to perform some functions of a state such as taxing.
Women in ISIS
Some women believe in ISIS’ cause and have joined its ranks out of their own free will. It is estimated that as many as 15% of ISIS' foreign recruits are women. The numbers are likely to be increasing since ISIS women are actively working on their social media recruitment campaign. The analysts at the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC) believe the current role of ISIS women is mostly limited to being a wife and a housekeeper, and social media recruiters. However, that is rapidly changing. Women are now being trained in how to use and clean weapons, while others are aspiring to have an active role on the battlefield. Furthermore, TRAC states that ISIS formed an all-female police unit called al-Khansaa brigade, which inspects the women at check-points and enforces the strict dress code. All of the members are believed to be under the age of 25.
Women joined insurgent and terrorist groups in the past, but not in such high numbers. What is causing these young women to join ISIS today? Well, they are entering an important stage of their lives where they try to find their own place in the world, outside of their parents’ home. However, in many countries, economic opportunities for them are scarce as unemployment is highest among those under 25 years of age. Moreover, in many countries, 2nd generation youths often feel marginalized. As a result, the appeal of running away to create your own future, be your own boss, make your own family, and shape the forging of a new country may be too tempting. The solution to radicalization of youth is quite simple: provide more economic opportunities to the youth, facilitate integration of the immigrant communities with the “native” population, and set up anti-radicalization and de-radicalization initiatives. European countries are already actively working on these initiatives, but it is important for them and other countries to remember not to exclude women out of such activities as they are also clearly vulnerable to becoming radicalized.
Women fighting ISIS
Other women are fighting against ISIS in order to protect themselves, their community, and the right to their religion. Near Derek City, 7,000 volunteer soldiers have joined the Women’s Protection Unit or YPG, an all-female Kurdish resistance group. Although they are usually only between 18 to 24 years of age, they played an integral part in liberating the Yazidis who were trapped on a nearby mountain top after their city Sinjar was taken over by ISIS. These women are especially feared by ISIS militants, who believe that being killed by a woman will prevent them from going to heaven. Consequently, women can have a very important role in stopping the onslaught of ISIS. Since ISIS is the biggest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East, Middle Eastern countries that want to defeat ISIS should consider how they can use ISIS fears against it.
In conclusion, ISIS impacts women in various ways. Women have often been targeted victims when a territory is taken over by Islamic extremists i.e. take-over of the Northern Mali by terrorists/insurgents in 2012. Women have also joined terrorist groups in the past but not in such a large numbers. However, women actively fighting against an insurgent group is a more unusual and encouraging development. Hopefully, this new development will continue and give strength to women under the threat of ISIS.