You may have seen a viral CNN screencap going around today which claims that women are joining ISIS because of "kittens and nutella." The theory, according to CNN's Carol Costello, is that women see photos on ISIS's social media accounts, are too naïve not to realize that the Islamic State isn't actually a snack-and-pet-filled paradise, and join up.
This is ridiculous and infantilizing. It presumes that women, unlike men, do not join ISIS for political or religious reasons. In fact, as I wrote in October when analysts first began pointing out the trend of women joining ISIS, female recruits have complex political and religious reasons for joining ISIS. They are not ending up in Syria after embarking on a misguided Sisterhood-of-the-Traveling-Niqab-style lark.
And it's equally important to note that ISIS's approach towards female recruits is driven by a calculating military strategy designed to further specific recruitment, military, and state-building goals — and there are signs that it is working. This serious, complex issue should not be dismissed as just a bunch of silly women being misled by cute cat photos.
Just ask Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan, the expert on women in conflict who spoke to CNN in that very segment. She offered a detailed challenge to CNN's characterization of female ISIS recruits, noting that "the fight for ISIS is a fight for a caliphate. It is a political fight, which goes a bit deeper than social media." It's too bad that her nuanced response didn't prevent CNN from running a chyron in front of her saying that "ISIS lures women with kittens, nutella."
The roles women play within ISIS
ISIS reportedly fields two all-female brigades, al-Khansaa and Umm al-Rayan. They do not fight on the front lines of battle, but serve primarily in a policing role. They enforce civilian women's compliance with ISIS's strict rules of Islamist morality, including wearing a full niqab veil and not going out in public without a male escort.
There are also reports of ISIS female fighters accompanying male fighters at checkpoints and on home raids, so that they can search women and look for male fighters who might have concealed their identities under a veil and niqab.
ISIS's female members and supporters also recruit other women to join the group and to provide assistance in less direct ways, such as by marrying ISIS fighters or becoming involved in recruitment themselves.
Why ISIS wants women to fill those roles, instead of men
Women can help ISIS cement its control over civilian populations in ways that men cannot. For all its cruelty to civilians, ISIS knows that it needs some degree of popular support to maintain control, and it sees women as crucial to that.
Gowrinathan, a UN researcher whose work focuses on women's participation in conflict and rebel movements, explained to me that any successful insurgency movement needs to generate popular support among both genders — not just men. Female insurgents, she said, "are particularly useful in that regard," because "they have better ability to access civilian women, to engage civilian women, and also to recruit."
The morality rules that all-female brigades enforce are based in religious doctrine and practice, but they're also a means of ruling and controlling civilians in ISIS-held territory. The Brookings Institution's Will McCants told me he sees three benefits for ISIS in enforcing such strict religious law. First, it allows ISIS to "demonstrate to the people who's boss." Second, it provides a ready-made set of norms and practices to put into place. And, third, it serves as an excuse to tightly control people's behavior.
ISIS's strict Salafist interpretation of Islamic law calls for quite strict control over how people behave, what they wear, and where they can go, which McCants pointed out can be a means by which to "engender fear and routinize obedience." That ideology "just happens to be quite handy if you are trying to establish authoritarian rule over a territory."
Actively enlisting women in "morality policing," McCants said, is "of a piece with the kinds of roles that some conservative women in Saudi Arabia or say Iran might have." But ISIS's approach to women is very different from al-Qaeda's: that group "strongly discouraged" women from fighting and limited women's involvement to just "encouraging their man to fight."
Why some women are actively seeking ISIS out
Even if ISIS has its reasons for seeing women as useful to its mission, why would women be willing to join ISIS — a group that not only imposes strict restrictions on women's dress and behavior, but also has a record of appalling abuses against women, including forced marriages, the use of rape as a weapon of war, and the enslavement of women from the Yazidi religious minority?
Although there is limited data available, the experts I spoke to believe that women join ISIS for similar reasons that men do. McCants said that men might join the group out of a "desire for adventure, a feeling that they are protecting a persecuted Sunni community, or enthusiasm and fervor that the end times are approaching, and wanting to be a part of it." Those same arguments could appeal to women as well.
Within Iraq, for instance, ISIS's rise has been fueled by sectarian violence targeting Sunni communities, and by the Shia-dominated Iraqi government's marginalization of the Sunni minority.
"Generally, women share the same political culture as the men of their communities," Gowrinathan said, so there is good reason to presume that that the same events that motivate men would also motivate women.
Some women may also see ISIS as a protector of women, rather than an oppressor of them. McCants noted that jihadist groups have often appealed to Arab men's sense of honor, by claiming that Muslim women had been raped and that joining the jihad was a way to avenge their mistreatment. ISIS's campaign against other Sunni groups in Syria, for instance, was expressly couched as a battle to protect women's virtue.
"They believed that ISIS women had been raped by other Sunni rebels, so they framed their whole counter-offensive against other Sunni rebels as a retribution for this," McCants said. That message could certainly resonate among women are already sympathetic to ISIS.
How ISIS is appealing to women in the West
But that doesn't explain why a surprising number of women in the West have been leaving their homes to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Dr. Erin Saltman, who researches processes of political radicalization, estimates that one in ten of ISIS's foreign recruits from the UK are women. She sees three reasons that ISIS may be appealing to some women in the West; the first two are gender-neutral messages that reach women as well as men, but the third may be targeting women directly.
The first reason, Saltman said, is an "adventure narrative" that encourages young women to think of traveling to ISIS's territory as not just a religious obligation, but an exciting expedition to a "Muslim utopia."
The second narrative was a humanitarian appeal, which presents ISIS's struggle as an effort that began as a fight against the oppressive Bashar al-Assad government and is now even more necessary because "global powers" are turning against Muslims.
And finally, Saltman said, ISIS has successfully targeted western recruits via "romance" narratives. Some of those are directed at women, promising them that they will find a "strong Muslim man, who is a true Muslim, who is fighting for this very heroic cause." (Similar appeals directed at men, Saltman said, talk about how foreign fighters are marrying "young, nubile local women.")
None of this is to suggest that ISIS does not violently oppress women (it does) or that its behavior towards them should be condoned (it should not be). But understanding ISIS's appeal to women is crucial to understanding its popular support in Iraq and Syria. The Obama administration has said that it is hoping a second "Sunni Awakening" of Sunni civilians will drive ISIS out. If ISIS's female members are part of its strategy to maintain its power and popular support, we should pay attention.
Update: This article originally said that one in ten foreign fighters are women. Saltman later contacted me to clarify that the one in ten figure referred only to ISIS recruits from the UK.