Extremist groups are drawing in women by presenting a warped vision of female empowerment and gender roles.
Considerations of radicalisation have, for many years, focused solely on men and the factors that drive them to join extremist groups. Yet, as the gender gap in radicalisation gradually narrows, it’s time to ask one very important question: what draws women to extremism?
For the most part, women and girls are drawn to extremist groups by the same push and pull factors that draw men, with the exception of some gendered factors, like online romantic relationships with male extremists.
However, in propaganda intentionally targeting women, these factors are shown through a warped lens of female empowerment. In the case of groups like ISIS, media accounts of “jihadi brides” often frame the women and girls who leave for places like Syria purely as passive and naïve. However, for many women who have been radicalised into these groups, running away to join other women abroad is portrayed as an exercise in female agency — women challenging the expectations of their families and wider society by saying “this is in line with my religion, my political beliefs, the fact I want to live how I want”. There is a seductive sense of sisterhood, and of playing a meaningful part in fighting for something bigger than themselves.
There is also a similar pull for some far-right groups, alongside claims that organisations can offer empowerment through political action, participation and sometimes even leadership, with female leaders in both fringe groups and mainstream far-right parties serving as role models. Joining an extremist group is seen as an act of empowerment.
Curiously though, much of the ‘female empowerment’ offered by extremist groups is also rooted in a rejection of what modern day feminism — a sinister enemy in the minds of many extremist groups — would think of as ‘empowerment’.
Joining groups like ISIS has been described as a way for women to deliberately challenge Western-imposed gender norms which are seen as oppressive, especially in countries where acts of religious expression, like wearing the hijab, are banned or restricted. Girls are sold a kind of devout empowerment — what some have described as “jihadi girl power” — in which they are free to live Islamic lives abroad without the restrictions of Western laws.
In the context of the far-right, for whom feminism is seen as a ridiculous — and even dangerous — invention of the left, the return to traditional gender roles is presented as a radical, countercultural celebration of empowerment against the progressive strands of “radical left-wing” feminism. In these cases, the rejection of feminism also paradoxically goes hand-in-hand with anti-immigration — and particularly anti-Muslim — rhetoric steeped in the language of women’s rights, which has argued that feminism is too embracing of immigrants and Muslims. Much of the far-right’s attraction for women is rooted in propaganda that portrays immigrants as the sole perpetrators of sexual violence, and avows the dangers of immigration by presenting the image of a Shari’a-ruled dystopia in which women are forced to wear the burqa.
And it’s increasingly women themselves that are pushing this narrative. So-called “jihadi brides” abroad have infamously used social media to project idealised images of domestic life under ISIS, free from the pressures of Western feminist conformity — despite the reality of rape, harsh restrictions on their freedoms, and physical violence. For the far-right, the anti-feminist “trad wife” movement — although not inherently racist — has been key in pushing white supremacist narratives in which white women are solely designed to get married and ‘protect’ White culture by raising lots of White (and equally racist) children.
Choosing to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, and finding it empowering, is by no means a bad thing. Nor is the desire to pursue empowerment through adventure, seeking community, and fighting for a cause. But, when these things are co-opted by extremist groups, cast in propagandist terms, and weaponised in favour of violence, they become a dangerous recruiting tactic — as one expert has argued, the recruitment of western women to ISIS in particular is helpful in the “battle of ideas” because it shows that “western women, with all their freedoms, chose this”.
However, women’s empowerment is not only both a tool and enemy of extremist groups — it is also key to preventing and countering extremism. Initiatives to help elevate the voices of women and girls, empower them to participate fully in public life, and build their capacity to tackle radicalisation are cornerstones of building community resilience against extremism. Two of JAN Trust’s projects — Web Guardians™ and Another Way Forward™ — are guided by this philosophy: empowering women and girls with the knowledge and skills to tackle online radicalisation and extremism in their families and communities.