By Jayne Huckerby
Jan. 21, 2015
SINCE the terror attacks in Paris two weeks ago, the French police have been on the hunt for Hayat Boumeddiene, the partner of Amedy Coulibaly, one of the slain gunmen. She is now suspected to be in Syria. Some news reports speculate that Ms. Boumeddiene, 26, may have been “the more radical of the two.” Yet one of the first questions that French authorities intend to ask her is, they say, “if she did this under influence, if she did it by ideology, if she did it to aid and abet.”
While much will be made in the coming months of France’s intelligence failures, the West’s inability to appreciate the role that women play in terror should come under the highest scrutiny. Take the role of women in the Islamic State group, also known as ISISor ISIL. While the group oppresses many women, many also flock to its ranks. Roughly 10 percent of its Western recruits are female, often lured by their peers through social media and instant messaging. The percentage is much higher in France: An estimated 63 of the 350 French nationals believed to be with the group are women, or just under 20 percent.
This story is both a new one and an old one. Women have long been involved in terror of all stripes, from female neo-Nazis in Europe to Chechen “black widow” suicide bombers.
Indeed, despite stereotypes about their domesticity and passivity — the idea that they must always be under men’s influence or tricked into joining — women are drawn to groups like the Islamic State by many of the same forces as men: adventure, inequality, alienation and the pull of the cause.
Once there, they commit violence against other women, including as part of all-female brigades enforcing female morality codes requiring modest dress and sex segregation. They operate checkpoints and go on home raids; they are also reportedly recruiters, trainers of female suicide bombers, wives and homemakers, fund-raisers and propagandists. They also help sanitize the group’s image by posting photos of themselves drinking milkshakes on Instagram and writing chatty, lighthearted tweets.
But the news media and policy makers are playing catch-up when it comes to understanding the full extent of women’s roles in jihadist groups. A large part of the problem is the tendency to fixate on terrorist violence against women, whether it be Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria or the Islamic State’s sexual violence, slavery, kidnappings and forced marriage. We prefer to see terror through the lens of gender, positing radical Muslim men against women, with the West as their only defender.
Myths and misinformation abound. Islamic State fighters are afraid of Kurdish all-women brigades (they aren’t). Women join groups like the Islamic State only to become “jihadi brides” (they don’t). The Islamic State mandated female genital mutilation in Mosul, Iraq (it didn’t).
Aphorisms about the motivations of terrorists are appealing; if only it were true that, as the saying goes, “what terrorists fear most is educated girls.” But building schools and investing in girls’ education should be long-term investments that are ends in themselves, not knee-jerk reactions to extremist violence. Merely defining the West in contrast to “barbarism” and talking of “rescuing” women fall short at best; at worst, doing so sets women up as symbolic targets for terrorist violence, squeezing them between terror and counter terror.
Instead, more attention must be paid to the specific factors that attract women to terrorist groups and the roles they play once there. For example, European women in the Islamic State have spoken of how alienation and restrictions on their religious practices back home, like France’s ban on wearing Burqas in public, helped push them into the group (Ms. Boumeddiene’s reported loss of her job as a cashier for wearing the Niqab should be examined in this light).
Efforts to prevent women from leaving for Iraq and Syria need to address such grievances, just as programs for those who return must be tailored to their specific experiences in the group. The strong influence of social media and peer networks also points to including more young women in these efforts, as well as female community leaders and family members.
This may not sound like much, but for some governments, such targeted approaches are a long way off. Many still deny women’s involvement in terror at all, particularly in jihadist groups, or focus only on women’s role in preventing men from radicalizing. Meanwhile, those same groups are deploying more female suicide bombers who can easily evade detection because of such blind spots. Earlier this month Boko Haram detonated bombs strapped to three girls — possibly some of the abducted schoolchildren — who were able to make it past security guards because of their age and gender.
Terrorists are strategic about using women, in increasingly chilling ways. To fight them, we have to move past simplistic assumptions about gender and terror and get serious about helping women and girls who are on this deadly path, as well as their would-be victims.
Jayne Huckerby, an associate clinical professor of law and the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Duke University School of Law, is a co-editor of “Gender, National Security and Counter-Terrorism: Human Rights Perspectives.”