Tracing The Literature of Extremist Women: Part I

Terrorism has always been a battle of ideas, reflecting a desire for immediate attention and change in the international world order. Like men, women leave their homes, families and communities to join terrorist organizations, such as The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), to support violent extremism. Because of their gender, women assume an auxiliary role within most male-oriented Islamist-based violent organizations.

Some of these women write. To shame Muslim men. And to convince other Muslim women to join their cause. 

In today’s digitized world, extremist women use a wide range of available technologies to market the capabilities and goals of the group they join.

Female recruits know how to manipulate Islamic text in order to turn passive observers into active participants in violent extremism.

Strategic communications allow extremist women to shape the narrative of intolerance, perceived injustice, and hatred as well as express their grievances and audience perceptions of inequality to manipulate vulnerable populations.

My research has found that women are often the most effective propagandists.

When women write, they draw on their own compelling stories of anger, grief, trauma, isolation, rage, loss, and use other emotional indicators to guide the narrative of resistance that ISIS and other groups espouse against their enemies. Through writing, radical women are empowered and become integrated into a larger community of extremists, while affirming their own self-image.

For others, writing may be cathartic and serve as a way to resolve associated symptoms of post-traumatic stress order. Working as a consultant with psychiatrists and psychologists, I have learned that there are often trauma-related symptoms for women (and men) in prolonged conflict. 

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Empowering Women

The muhajiroon, or female migrants to terrorist groups, play an important role in extremist propaganda. These women contribute to online discussions to recruit, radicalize, and reaffirm their own identity as women willing to give up everything for martyrdom, marriage, and to the men ISIS and other groups. Studies prove that these women find comfort in sharing their stories with other female recruits.

Their writings offer a false sense of empowerment.

Whether extremist women achieve equality or empowerment through their involvement in violent extremism is not entirely clear, but evidence of women’s participation in earlier armed struggles and nationalist causes proves that women’s involvement has not significantly altered their social status within their respective societies.

If women historically have little to gain from joining terrorist groups, then why are women eager and enthusiastic to join?

Because no two women are alike, the answer to participation will vary.

Part II will be posted on Monday, April 4. 

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