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Reports that women have formed their own brigade within the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have confounded experts -- and worried them. For many, the idea of women as violent extremists seems paradoxical. After all, why should women want to join a political struggle that so blatantly oppresses them?
That question reveals more about the experts than the fighters. Those who ask it assume, first, that women are more peaceful than men by nature; and second, that women who participate in armed rebellion are little more than cannon fodder in a man’s game, fighting foolishly for a movement that will not benefit them. As the women of ISIS prove, both assumptions are false.
To understand the women of ISIS and their motivations, it helps to place them in their historical context, among the legions of women in El Salvador, Eritrea, Nepal, Peru, and Sri Lanka who voluntarily joined violent movements and militias, sometimes even as highly ranked officers. In each of these cases, women joined for the same basic reasons as men. Living in deeply conservative social spaces, they faced constant threats to their ethnic, religious, or political identities -- and it was typically those threats, rather than any grievances rooted in gender, that persuaded them to take up arms.
ISIS’ particularly inhumane violence can obscure the fact that the conflict in Iraq is also rooted in identity: at its base, the fight is a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with several smaller minorities caught in between. It makes sense, therefore, that the all-female al Khansaa Brigade of ISIS relies heavily on identity politics for recruitment, targeting young women who feel oppressed as Sunni Muslims. Indeed, anonymous fatwas calling for single women to join the fight for an Islamic caliphate have been attractive enough to draw women to ISIS from beyond the region.
If policymakers overlook such motivations, treating female fighters as nothing more than instruments of male leadership, they will find it difficult to prevent female extremism. As Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, wrote in a recent op-ed, countering radical narratives requires understanding the radicalized.
To be sure, for women, gender and politics can overlap in ways that they do not for men.
For most female fighters, the path to the battlefield is a brutal one. Many are driven to fight by a practical desire for safety. In war zones across the world, women absorb a disproportionate amount of the fallout from conflict, including material deprivation in refugee camps, daily harassment and fear in militarized zones, and a constant vulnerability to rape. Joining the fight is sometimes the only way to survive.
In 2005, I visited Sri Lanka to understand what drove women to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist terrorist group that sought an independent Tamil state on the island while also preserving culturally entrenched gender roles. For female commanders, security appeared to be a primary motivator. “The constant fear of living in militarized areas made me realize that life is unfair for Tamils,” said one commander. (For safety reasons, the commanders declined to be named.) “So, I wanted to fight for equal rights.”
Other female Tigers cited rape, or the fear of rape, by government forces as a central reason for joining the movement. As both a political act and a gendered one, rape is a unique motivator. “I was vulnerable because I was a woman, but I was targeted because I was a Tamil,” said another female commander, reflecting the inherent difficulty of navigating between identities. Indeed, in the confusion of war, survival can depend on choosing which identity to prioritize. Tamil women, for example, often recognized the patriarchy of the Tamil movement yet still fought for it, tying their hopes for long-term security to a nationalist flag.
Consider the case of another Tamil commander I met, who spent her days patrolling local villages and posting leaflets that listed appropriate dress, hairstyle, and behavior for Tamil women: no short skirts, no short hair, no biking unless seated sideways. She herself sported combat boots and wore her hair short and closely cropped. I asked her how she reconciled the rules on the leaflets with her own decision to buck gender roles and take up arms. She said, “I fight to protect these values, to preserve the Tamil identity from being eliminated by the oppressor.” The role of women thus becomes the anchor for the construction of a national identity.
At first glance, the experiences of women fighters in Sri Lanka seem to have little to do with the experiences of women fighters in Iraq, particularly because ISIS is so radically violent -- reports have surfaced of ISIS soldiers slashing women’s stomachs and burying children alive -- and so conservative toward women. But they are more similar to their counterparts in Sri Lanka and other conflict-ridden countries than they appear. As elsewhere, most Iraqi women take up arms because they fear for their safety or because they feel ISIS represents their political interests. In many cases, violence also appears to be the only available means of political expression. For many women, and especially for women from the marginalized Sunni community, violence becomes a vehicle for political agency.
To combat female extremism, the West must understand the grievances that motivate women to fight and then eliminate them. The usual fixes -- providing financial or occupational support to young women and girls, for example -- are unlikely to work, as women in war zones are deeply marginalized in every area of their lives. This sort of aid is important, of course, but it does not do enough: women in war zones, in addition to being poor, lack access to politics; and when they are unable to air their grievances publicly and nonviolently, extremism becomes more tempting.
Ironically, of course, female extremism rarely yields gains for women’s rights. In Eritrea, for example, after the victory of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, a secessionist movement in Ethiopia, female fighters were given control of social policy but had no real political voice. It appears likely that women in the envisioned Islamic State in Iraq will also be marginalized after the conflict ends.
If the West is ever to truly understand the women of ISIS, it must also reevaluate its preconceptions about gender and violence. In Iraq, Gaza, and elsewhere, the media are quick to paint women as victims and men as violent perpetrators. But that isn’t always true. And this limited understanding of women’s role in violence has implications beyond the conflict itself. Indeed, peacekeeping initiatives often leave women out of strategic discussions, relegating them to tasks explicitly concerning women’s rights. This approach is unsustainable. In the end, peace is built through the inclusion of diverse perspectives, and so long as gendered assumptions persist, female voices will go unheard. Women fight for personal as well as political power, often sacrificing one for the other. If the world ignores that fact, it will miss a chance to deal with the identity politics that sustain war.