Last month, two female suicide bombers killed 24 people in northeast Nigeria. In September, Paris police arrested three women for plotting a terrorist attack on behalf of the Islamic State (ISIS). The same month, in Kenya, police killed three women who attacked the main police station in Mombasa. In a headline fairly typical of the news and commentary in such cases, the Daily Beast reported that “ISIS is turning women into cannon fodder.” But the findings of more than 80 interviews we conducted with women involved in or close to violent movements belie that idea of an entirely passive role, and it’s a dynamic that the international community must understand more fully to effectively prevent or counter extremist violence.

Afghan women visit the department for women's advancement in Pul-i-Kumri, Afghanistan. Deprived of jobs and government services, people in Baghlan Province turned to the Taliban for speedy justice and work. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Eros Hoagland
Afghan women visit the department for women's advancement in Pul-i-Kumri, Afghanistan. Deprived of jobs and government services, people in Baghlan Province turned to the Taliban for speedy justice and work. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Eros Hoagla

As the use of the term “cannon fodder” suggests, public discussion of the role of women in extremist groups often implies that they are passive actors who don't really know what they are doing. It overlooks the reality that women can be actively interested in groups such as ISIS or al-Shabab, seeing violence as a legitimate way to protect their interests. As a result, both public debate and programs meant to counter violent extremism fail to recognize or address these women’s motivations and the underlying causes.

Government policies and programs meant to counter violent extremism too often assume that women by nature are peace-seeking, and that where they are involved in violence, they are only victims who are being “used.” But an examination of women’s roles in movements such as ISIS, Boko Haram and Afghanistan’s Taliban,outlined in our new USIP special report, shows that the parts they play vary widely.

Women are potentially powerful actors who can either support violence or oppose it, so programs to counter such violence must not assume that women are their allies and must work to understand the motivations of women who support it, as well as those who don’t. Further, these programs must then address the underlying factors that drive those motivations.

These efforts are becoming more urgent as extremist movements appear to escalate their recruitment and use of women. Again this month, women were identified as perpetrators by Nigerian authorities after soldiers killed three female suicide bombers they said were trying to penetrate the northeastern city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram.

We conducted 123 interviews of women and men involved in militant movements as well as policymakers, researchers, experts and assistance professionals working on the issue of violent extremism. Of the total, 68 were Afghan wives, mothers and daughters of current and former Taliban, and an additional 20 were women who were involved with the movement of Afghan mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of their country during the 1980s.

Motivations Much Like Men

The interviews underscored that Afghan women are motivated much like men. They can be moved to support violence by desire for revenge, a sense of honor, or belief in defending their country. They can act out of wanting to be part of something important, or simply to secure an income for the household.

We found women playing a variety of roles, whether in promoting peace or engaging in violent extremism. On the side of extremism, they have been front-line combatants, spies and intelligence-gatherers, recruiters, logistics organizers, gun-runners or tacit supporters from the sidelines, as in providing a home or emotional or psychological support for a fighter’s activities.

Like other extremist movements, the Taliban keep women in a deeply subordinate position. The group’s ideology isolates women within narrow roles in the home. Women we interviewed who were family members of the Taliban told us they have no source of information except their male relatives and the sermons broadcast by mullahs over loudspeakers at their neighborhoods’ mosques. They said that social convention generally bars them from engaging men—even a husband or a son—in a conversation about violent extremism.

“My husband joined the Taliban to earn an income,” one woman in a Taliban family told us. “I was against his decision but had no choice—our children would have died from hunger had he not joined the Taliban.”

Thus, women of Taliban households provide support to their male family members not necessarily out of an ideological commitment, but rather by virtue of their restricted role in society.

These responses contrasted with Afghan women who participated in the mujahedeen movement of the 1980s, which, like the Taliban, also was widely considered by its supporters as a jihad. In those interviews, the women revealed themselves to have been far more directly involved, knowledgeable and committed in that era’s war against the Soviets, possibly because women’s rights had advanced further up to that time and provided a more conducive environment for women in society.

Among current violent extremist groups worldwide, others are more willing than the Taliban to incorporate women into their fight. The Palestinian Hamas movement allows women to engage in combat without their husbands’ permission. Since 2007, Hamas has included an all-women’s battalion, and the group has strong support from women in other ways as well, including women participating in pro-Hamas protests or serving in political positions, for example.

'Honored Roles'

ISIS until recently barred women from direct combat, even though it published recruitment material showing women carrying arms. It instructed women strictly on their “honored roles” as wives and mothers to provide sustenance and support to male jihadists. ISIS’ female-only brigades – Al Khansaa and Umm al-Rayan – are an exception created primarily to attract female foreign fighters to play these support roles. The brigades also reinforce ISIS’ ability to monitor women in areas it occupies.

However, as the recent arrests of women in Paris and Mombasa illustrate, extremist groups are opening greater roles for women. We may see this trend continue as recruitment needs outweigh the ideological imperative of extremist groups to maintain narratives that limit women’s roles.

International efforts to counter violent extremism will miss the mark if the work is based on assumptions that women are solely duped or victimized into supporting violence. The focus on women as a moderating force fails to recognize that women can and do play a direct role in radicalization.

As extremist groups open up more space for women to be involved in their ranks, we are likely to see highly motivated and better-informed women join in increasing numbers. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to assume that the international drive to empower Afghanistan’s women will always result in enlisting more women to peace; some may very well use their newly energized role to act on grievances or other motivations, as do men.

Thus, it’s more important than ever to tailor efforts at countering violent extremism to women as well as men. Counter-narratives, for example, should equally target women, and be based on an understanding of women’s interpretations and their access to information—or lack thereof. One woman in a Taliban family reflected her uncertainty in our interview, clearly lacking information about the Islamic concept of “jihad,” which translates as ideas such as effort or struggle, including positive connotations such as spiritual struggles.

“I don't know what is jihad and what is not,” the woman told us. “I do know this much—that jihad is war with infidels. But then when I hear the mullahs, who say jihad is a religious duty and that there are infidels in our country, I get confused. I don't want to say that I don't support jihad, because I would have committed sin by saying that.”

Campaigns that have used mobile SMS messaging, as another example, won’t reach women who don't have access to a cell phone. To the extent that efforts to counter violent extremism are aimed at women, our research found that religious arguments to dispel common myths might be more effective than human rights promotion. And support for women’s education and economic empowerment, and for including them in leadership can equip them with the knowledge and confidence they need to resist the pull of violent extremism.

“People say that serving the Taliban is equal to doing jihad,” another woman told us. “I have fed the Taliban and have made them tea and food, so I tell myself that I have contributed to jihad.”

Sadaf Lakhani is senior advisor to the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund and works with USIP on issues of violent extremism and conflict related to extractive industries. Belquis Ahmadi is a senior program officer in the Afghanistan program at USIP.

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