Western Women in ISIS: Naïve Victims, or Violent Terrorists?
“It was a really hard life.”
Said by a shaken 16-year-old named Marilyn Nevalainen, these words represent a girl’s realization about life under ISIS rule. Not knowing what ISIS was, she traveled to Iraq in 2015 where she says, “I didn’t have anything. No water. No electricity. I didn’t have any money either.” This description contrasts starkly with the image of an “idyllic Islamic community” created by ISIS recruiters online to lure western girls into Iraq and Syria.
A recent report by the New America Foundation found that women are now represented in terrorist organizations in “unprecedented numbers,” with one in seven western recruits in Iraq and Syria being female. This is a drastic increase from the years between 1990 and 2010, when, as the report states, “practically all western jihadists” were male.
This growth raises the question: are these women and girls naïve victims or violent terrorists?
The conflict against ISIS challenges traditional concepts of warfare under international law. As former Attorney Adviser for United Nations Affairs Michael P. Scharf noted, “The 9/11 attacks forced States to reevaluate the long-standing notion that only a State has the capacity to commit an armed attack against another State.” Today, an enemy or ally cannot simply be identified by their nationality.
The fight against ISIS does not consist of countries fighting countries, or indeed just men fighting men. As former ABC News foreign affairs correspondent Greg Dobbs put it, “It’s a war against adversaries with no front lines, no uniforms, [and]no Geneva rules.”
The influx of western women and girls travelling to Iraq and Syria to marry ISIS fighters further muddies the waters.
This is not to say western women who support ISIS are somehow immune to the suffering of war, which disproportionately affects women. Director of the Fund for Congolese Women Juliene Lusenge argued that women and girls “are the first victims of war.” While the fight against ISIS is unlike wars of the past, this is still very much the case. ISIS recruiters and their supporters scour the Internet, explicitly targeting lonely and impressionable girls to lure to Iraq or Syria for a life of captivity.
Girls are targeted differently than men online, with utopian visions of sisterhood and honor. Author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism Mia Bloom reports that girls receive a “flood of attention” or what she calls “love bombing.” A 23-year-old American woman under the pseudonym “Alex” told the New York Times in June of 2015 that an ISIS recruiter, Faisal Mostafa, sent her money, gifts and chocolate. After meeting him online, Alex said she felt a sense of belonging for the first time in her life.
Similarly, a 15-year-old French girl under the pseudonym “Joanna”, who was targeted by ISIS recruiters online, told CNN in January of this year, “I received loads of messages from them, I was constantly in touch with them … They made sense of my life, made me think I had an important role on Earth. I really felt like I was loved, even more than by my own family.”
Those who actually travel to Iraq or Syria are oppressed and treated inhumanely. Women and girls are reportedly imprisoned, raped, forced to marry ISIS fighters, forbidden from leaving the house without a guardian, lashed, and stoned to death for breaking the rules.
Congresswoman Kathleen Rice notes, “There’s no question that many, many women have been victimized by ISIS.”
Yet Rice also adds, “When it comes to conversations about ISIS and women in particular, there’s a tendency to oversimplify, to focus on women as victims, maybe even to think of Muslim women as docile and obedient… But there are women who are actually going to join the fight—not on the frontline but as enforcers, as wives, as mothers.”
A fixed perception of women as victims may divert from the women who embrace ISIS’s warped ideology and commit heinous crimes. Jayne Huckerby of Duke University School of Law argues that there is a “tendency to fixate on how terrorists oppress women, a fact that many find difficult to reconcile with female involvement in violent extremism.”
She contends, “Women can be terrorists too.”
Aqsa Mahmood left her home in Glasgow in November of 2013 for Raqqa, Syria after being radicalized online. Currently 21 years old, she is now an active recruiter and goes by the name “Umm Layth” (which translates to “Mother of the Lion” in Arabic). Mahmood recruits young girls to marry ISIS militants, enticing them by glamorizing the role of an ISIS wife and glorifying atrocities committed by ISIS. She also attempted to plot attacks on the United Kingdom
Yet women who attempt to join terrorist organizations are not always labelled as “terrorists”. Some are perceived as psychologically ill or simply deluded.
Shannon Conley, 19, was arrested at the Denver International Airport on April 8, 2014 for conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Although she was sentenced to 4 years in prison, she was framed as a girl who was “led astray.” The judge presiding over her case, Raymond Moore, ordered that Conley receive a psychiatric evaluation, implying that Conley was ill—not a terrorist.
With such discrepancies concerning whether these women are naïve, psychologically ill, or terrorists, there is considerable inconsistency in how to punish those who return to the West. Girls under the age of 18 are typically labelled as naïve victims and are therefore not arrested. Nevalainen, for instance, was described as a misled, young girl who was rescued, rather than captured, from ISIS. Yet Conley, only a few years older, was arrested, tried and punished without ever making it over to ISIS territory.
These discrepancies may stem from how females are viewed more generally. Huckerby argues, “The phenomenon [women as terrorists]still seems to shock and tropes about female passivity and domesticity hold firm.”
In discussing Tashfeen Malik, who along with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook perpetrated the gruesome San Bernardino attacks in December 2015, Huckerby notes that the media described her as a “shy housewife,” and struggled to grapple with how she could be also be a murderer, or more specifically, a ruthless terrorist.
“We have a dangerous blind spot in seeing how someone can be a wife, a mother and a terrorist,” Huckerby says.
Obscuring the differences between female victims of ISIS and female terrorists mean that contradictions in how they are perceived and treated will persist. Understanding their stories and their differences is crucial for combatting ISIS’s targeted recruitment strategy.
“Just as women are perpetrators and victims, they are also part of its solution.”
Danielle Warren is an assistant at NYU Law School and is pursuing her Master’s degree in International Relations at NYU. Her regional focus is the Middle East and North Africa and her areas of research include women’s rights and international law. Previously, Danielle interned as a writer for The Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the global poverty crisis. She graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Women and Gender Studies.