By Sudarshan Gupta, Contributing Writer

With the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2018, a new challenge has emerged over the fate of the returning foreign fighters. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that around 41,490 people traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS from 80 countries. Around 10%-13% of these were women, and 9%-12% were minors (Cook and Vale 2018, 22). The countries which contributed the largest number of females were Russia (1000), Tunisia (700), France (382), China (350), and Morocco (293) (Ibid., 22). The female motivations to join ISIS are explained by “push and pull factors”. Push factors include feelings of discrimination, persecution and marginalization within the home country societies. The pull factors include ideological zeal, the portrayal of women as “empowered” by ISIS, the desire to live in a Sunni utopian society, seeking adventure, and supporting ISIS in state-building (Ibid., 26). 

The misnomer “ISIS brides” (i.e. “jihadi brides”) fails to faithfully represent the crucial role of women in Islamic State. Azadeh Moaveni, Senior Gender Analyst at the International Crisis Group, refers to the use of the term “jihadi bride” by commentators and media as “appalling.” She further argues that media sensationalism prevents a complicated and necessary debate about to what extent these women should be held accountable for their actions as members of ISIS (Moaveni 2019). The central problem, she identifies, is the concept of female militancy itself. This concept of a woman being a militant is alien to most societies, and leads to the downplaying of their actual roles within terrorist organizations. Some of the prevailing views of the “jihadi bride” are that female ISIS members do not hold political grievances and are indoctrinated to accept Salafi Jihad. There is also a widespread belief that women hold marginal positions within the caliphate. Thus, there is a degree of infantilization attached to any description of militancy that includes the word “bride.” However, this thinking ignores female agency and obscures the true role of women in ISIS. Women in ISIS served as doctors, midwives, language instructors, recruiters, intelligence agents, and members of the morality police (Moaveni 2019).  As an example, one of the most brutal and famous brigades was the al-Khansaa brigade, made up of mostly French speaking women who were involved in moral policing. They were often the most brutal enforcers of the draconian community rules (Mekhennet and Warrick 2017).   

foreign governments are reluctant to allow these women to travel back home as they are uncertain and fearful of their future conduct.

With the territorial defeat of ISIS, the debate now focuses on the future of female ISIS members. Many of these women have even asked their home countries to allow them to return with their children. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military alliance led by a mostly Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG) who are in charge of these ISIS members, are eager to get rid of them (Khalil 2019). Captured ISIS members have proven to be sources of pressure and a burden on judiciary institutions and detention centers within former ISIS-controlled territory (Cook and Vale 2018, 61). However, foreign governments are reluctant to allow these women to travel back home as they are uncertain and fearful of their future conduct. In addition, there may be potential backlash from within their countries, which could spur further radicalization of returning women and children. Furthermore, the prosecution of  returning women is also problematic due to the difficulty of obtaining sufficient evidence. Even if returnees are tried and convicted for terrorism offences, they present a radicalization risk both within and outside of prison. Lastly, the monitoring of these individuals would require considerable government resources, and the prospects of rehabilitation are uncertain (Ibid.). 

The proliferation of populist leaders in Europe and the United States has resulted in the politicization of this issue. These leaders have used it to bolster their public support in the name of national security and nationalism (Vinopal 2019). The media, especially social media, has also played an important role in creating a narrative on this subject based on interviews of some women returnees. It is important for governments to judge the women individually and to not be influenced by any prevailing media discourse. There is a high probability that many of these women realized their mistakes and no longer support ISIS ideology. In addition, many of these women have lost their husbands in combat and are now in refugee camps with their children; where camp conditions are dangerous, unhygienic, and unsuitable for children. These women and children are still legitimate citizens of their home countries, and their governments have legal and moral obligations to take appropriate actions to ensure that they are treated in a humane way.

Refugees from Syria and Iraq in a refugee camp in Turkey

The home country governments should consider repatriation of these women and establish contact with the SDF and other authorities in Syria and Iraq to identify the location and the number of their citizens who were captured as ISIS members. This can assure that female detainees are treated according to international law (Cook and Vale 2018, 61). Secondly, effective de-radicalization programs remain the best tool for governments to use on female ISIS members who are still sympathetic to ISIS ideology (Ibid.). With advancement in technologies such as artificial intelligence and face recognition, it is possible for governments to track not only physical locations but also their behavioral traits during the de-radicalization period. These de-radicalized women can be encouraged to speak against ISIS and challenge the myths of life under ISIS rule and therefore prevent and discourage others from joining. Leaving women in refugee camps or handing them over to already overwhelmed and inadequate Iraqi or Syrian criminal systems carries considerable risks of further radicalization. Additionally, there are serious health and safety risks within these camps for these women and their children which can lead to even further radicalization. 

Governments around the world should not succumb to popular media pressure and should consider the repatriation of women and their children. Due to various push and pull factors, these women have made the wrong decision to support ISIS, but they cannot be left to suffer in sub-human detention centers of Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, governments should address the root causes of radicalization at home, such as the low socio-economic indicators of Muslim immigrants, lack of political representation and increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric 

Sudarshan Gupta is a M.A. student at Jindal Global University’s, School of International Affairs. He keeps a track on international politics and diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East.  


  • Cook, Joana, and Gina Vale. “From Daesh to Diaspora: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State.” International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, 2018.
  • Khalil, Lydia. “Behind the Veil: Women in Jihad after the Caliphate.” Lowy Institute. June 25, 2019.
  • Mekhennet, Souad, and Joby Warrick. “The Jihadist Plan to Use Women to Launch the Next Incarnation of ISIS.” The Washington Post. November 26, 2017.
  • Moaveni, Azadeh. “Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants.” The Guardian, February 26, 2019.
  • Vinopal, Courtney. “Should thousands of ISIS fighters and their families be allowed to return home?” PBS. April 5, 2019.