Dur-e-Aden on Women in Radical Groups

Women’s participation in radical groups: What we know so far

Whether the news is about “jihadi brides” leaving Canada or returning with their children, women’s participation in radical groups such as ISIS shocks Canadians more so than men’s participation in the same groups as fighters.  One explanation for this shock may relate to the gender stereotyping of women as maternal caretakers and hence, non-violent. Women’s participation in violence is not a new phenomenon, however: women have increasingly participated in the armed forces of states, in anti-colonial movements and have presided over wars as world leaders.

Damn Patriarchy!

Why women choose to participate in radical groups could be due to the political nature of the groups that they choose to join. Leftist groups who fight state- or class-based oppression often portray their agenda as one of fighting multiple oppressions, which will ultimately result in the reorganization of society in an egalitarian manner. For example, the Tamil Tigers insisted that once the oppression of the Sri Lankan state ended and was overthrown, elimination of caste and gender discrimination would follow suit. Moreover, participation in leftist guerilla groups provides women with the opportunity to escape traditional roles and pursue leadership positions.

The question of why women join violent groups becomes more interesting in the case of women’s participation in right-wing groups that fight for religious or racial supremacy. Because of their hierarchical belief systems, these groups do not hold gender egalitarian views. Therefore, women cannot hold top leadership positions and their actions are often controlled by the male leaders. Women have never penetrated the upper ranks of the Klu Klux Klan and when women formed the women’s branch of the KKK (WKKK) in 1923, the men of the Klan viewed it as an “auxiliary group” not to be taken seriously. Similarly, in the case of ISIS, educated and middle-class women from Western countries have willingly joined a group that partakes in sex slavery and legalizes polygamy to put them under the control of male fighters.

So why do women support groups that openly propagate a patriarchal outlook? We can start by looking at women’s support for non-violent right-wing political movements. Recently, Saudi Arabia gave women the authority to issue fatwas. While some viewed this as a move toward women’s empowerment, Richard Nielsen notes that these women have “staunchly support the Saudi government’s religiously justified patriarchy.” As a result, they uphold the “patriarchal bargain” where women carve out spheres of influence to get a seat at the table, but end up being more hardline than their male counterparts. In the case of the U.S., the support of 53% of white female voters for Donald Trump despite his misogynistic remarks during the campaign was also analytically puzzling. Shikha Dalmia argues however that the women who supported Trump did so because they did not “believe his attitudes and trash talk could ‘translate into a politically threatening program’ aimed at them.”

Using the same logic, it is very important to not take away the agency from women who join violent right-wing groups. ISIS has a specific narrative for potential female recruits that portrays them as lionesses in service of the caliphate, rendering the stereotype of the “jihadi bride” analytically useless. In the case of the KKK, despite the belittling of female members by male members, the men still employed the trope of protecting white women from black men, an image staunchly supported by white women. Hence, if women see the policies of these groups as not severely impacting them (despite the groups’ patriarchal outlook) and providing them with spaces where they feel empowered (even if that empowerment is not equal to the male members), women can and will support a violent right-wing group because of their agreement with its non-gender specific policies.

Why (Even in Radical Groups) Women are Better?

Women are useful to militant groups because they are better at “network connectivity” and are able to portray a more acceptable and “softer” image of an extremist group.  Kathleen Blee notes that members of the WKKK were better at public relations compared to their male counterparts because they could hide their xenophobic agenda behind a façade of social welfare. They used networks such as the parent-teacher association, church groups and school boards to discuss social welfare and better education for their children, while also propagating “the ‘eternal supremacy’ of the white race as an opposition to the ‘rising tide of color.’” Because of its implementation of strict gender segregation, ISIS uses women as informants and enforcers within gender segregated institutions to control the female subjects under its caliphate. Due to these roles, the female recruits of ISIS use the language of women’s rights, autonomy and dignity. Participation in ISIS provides them the agency to follow their beliefs in a way not permissible in a Western context. Women are also critical for ISIS in the spreading of extremist ideology, fundraising and recruiting new members. Finally, female recruits are also beneficial for radical groups when they are desperate for fighters, when they need to attack soft targets (i.e. civilians) or to shame male fighters into recruitment.

Policy Recommendations

So, what can governments do to decrease the appeal of these groups to women?

First, as has been proposed by several scholars, it is important to amplify the voices of former members of racial or religious supremacist groups. Nevertheless, I do want to add a caveat here: There is a difference between a former member who has completely abandoned the group and the ideology behind it versus someone who has left the group but not the ideology. It is very important that states only work with the former—those who have abandoned both the group and ideology. If states were to work with non-violent extremists and amplify their voices, public trust in state institutions could erode in an environment where the public expects the state to protect them from these groups and it would not be fair to the victims of these ideologies.

Second, while engaging potential recruits, it can be useful to use examples of the “out-group” to illustrate the problems inherent within any supremacist group. Research has shown that when similar actions are performed, individuals blame the out-group more easily than the in-group. Therefore, to deter women who might be at risk of joining ISIS, one could highlight examples of women who participate in white supremacist groups but are still treated unequally by the male members, in addition to pointing out the misogynistic statements made by such groups. In this way, potential ISIS recruits might be able to observe similar patterns within ISIS propaganda on their own, as opposed to being forced to by the state. The same logic can be applied vice versa. When the state directly criticizes a group that an individual is already sympathetic toward, it often causes people to shut down and discard any evidence to the contrary. Hopefully using alternative examples can then morph into a broader discussion of how participation in these groups will not empower women in the long run, since the male members already refuse to share power equally.

Women’s participation in violence should not be surprising or shocking. Governments need to deal with this issue the same way that they deal with male recruits: By looking at both the strategic and personal factors that motivate these recruits and devising ways to reduce their appeal.


~ Aden Dur-e-Aden is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.  She is also a Junior Research Affiliate with The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society (TSAS), a Graduate Associate at the Centre for Critical Development Studies and a SSHRC Doctoral Scholar.


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