With the “defeat” of the Islamic State at Baghouz, there has been an influx of over 50,000 refugees and fighters into the Al Hawl Refugee Camp in Syria since December. Among these recently displaced people are scores of foreign women who flocked to the Islamic State between 2011 and now. In the media narrative on these women, there is a worrying trend to dismiss them as mere “jihadi brides,” as passive civilians who were both the victims of the Islamic State and of their own femininity. While some of the women within these groups are undoubtedly victims, this narrative homogenizes feminine identity within the Islamic State, ignoring the unique roles which many of the most publicly visible “jihadi brides” played in the perpetuation of the atrocities of the Islamic State. To recognize the suffering which some of these women have suffered while holding others accountable for their atrocities, the media must complexify its narratives surrounding the roles of women within ISIS.
The media narrative of these women focuses primarily on their passivity in the actions of the Islamic State. An article in USA Today calls Hoda Muthana, an Alabama woman who joined ISIS in 2014, a girl “who married into ISIS.” Articles from NBC, CNN, Fox, ABC, CBS, and the Washington Post all refer to her primarily as an “ISIS bride.” The Washington Post article even goes so far as to portray Muthana as a victim not only of the Islamic State, but also of the tyranny of the United States. While these descriptions are not wholly inaccurate from a factual perspective, they do carry the assumption that these women are objects being acted upon, rather than subjects with their own agency. In fact, it seems that many women were convinced to join the group because of a desire to exert their autonomy in the face of Western culture. Research by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, which followed the online activities of about 100 British women, found that women often joined ISIS as a way of exerting their agency against the modern, Western interpretation of femininity and freedom. Neither do these beliefs and actions come from a place of ignorance, as the only noted commonality between these women is their intelligence and their awareness of the world.
Further, it seems that these women played a huge role in the recruitment of Western women to the Islamic State. A 2015 report found that as many as 550 Western women had been lured to the Islamic State by men with whom they fell in love. However, after arriving, these women became key recruiters, grooming other women to be brought into the organization. For example, Sally Jones, a prominent UK punk singer, is believed to have recruited hundreds of extremists from the UK. Her prominence within the Islamic State is so apparent that she has been placed on a UN sanctions list and had her assets frozen. Hoda Muthana used social media to spread anti-Western messages and to promote specific “operational advice intended for terrorists,” which appears to have had an effect on the frequency of use of those operational principles. This image contrasts with the public narrative surrounding her as a brainwashed victim of the Islamic State. She and her family have actively supported this narrative, giving multiple interviews in which they portray Hoda as a victim, with her even saying that she hopes the United States will “forgive [her] for being so ignorant”. The actions of these prominent women reveal that, far from being purely victims, female ISIS members have contributed to the violence and the exploitation that ISIS has undertaken. In fact, the continuing effectiveness of female recruiters in bringing in vulnerable individuals and in promoting violent tactics has led to their “optimization,” both within the Islamic State and within white supremacist organizations.
Finally, many “ISIS brides” have been guilty of violent or repressive actions against Yazidi captives, a minority ethno-religious group whose women and girls were imprisoned and forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State. According to Pari Ibrahim, the executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, “[the wives] would lock our Yazidi women in the houses so they could not escape. They would force them to do manual labor, humiliate them in captivity; they were beaten and tortured by the ISIS wives.” In some cases, the wives would force Yazidi women to dress up and put on makeup before they took them to the men to be raped. It is notable that while many former female ISIS members have begged for forgiveness in interviews, none have expressed concern about the thousands of Yazidi women still missing.
The previous evidence suggests a need to complexify our understandings of former female ISIS members. The current Western media narrative, by focusing on these women purely as victims, ignores the far more complex reality of overlapping victimhood, agency, and violence that typifies these women’s lives. Lacking this nuance, it is very possible that these Western women who were a party to violence and repression will never face justice for their actions, and may pose a future security risk. In the words of a writer for the UAE-based TV network, Araba Al Aan TV, some “ISIS members will get away with it because the[ir] victims are [often] not Westerners, live in a far-away land and don’t speak English.” Western media cannot, in good conscience, remain ignorant to this.
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Evan Schleicher is a Master’s Candidate in the Security Policy Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He is currently interning at the Department of State, working on humanitarian and intelligence issues. He has a degree in International and Area Studies from the University of Oklahoma, with minors in intelligence studies and Environmental Sustainability. His research currently focuses on transnational threats, humanitarian issues, and organized crime in the Middle East and North Africa.