Was the Manchester attack explicitly an attack on girls and women — on female culture? The apparently ISIS-inspired bombing, at a concert by Ariana Grande, whose fans are disproportionately young and female, has inspired heated argument about the roles gender and sexism play in terrorism. For some, it was an explicit salvo against women’s autonomy and the value of feminine culture. Conservatives fired back that this line of commentary represented just another example of so-called Western feminists making it all about them. (Men died in the attack, too!)
Another picture emerges, though, if you bypass the culture wars and speak to scholars who focus on terrorism, or to members of communities most affected by terrorism: It's clear to them that extremist groups bend gender dynamics to their advantage in sophisticated ways. Too often, the topic of gender, as it relates to terrorism, is treated as superfluous — a nice-to-have extra. It’s cultural analysis that you might indulge in your free time, perhaps, but, in the end, a distraction from the hard-headed work of combating terrorism. But our adversaries are exploiting gender dynamics in very sophisticated ways, and counterterrorism needs to catch up.
Whether your goal is to understand the world or protect against security threats, it’s crucial to grasp the ways in which extremist groups manipulate gender norms and gender dynamics. Here are four key ways:
First, terror recruiters customize messages to promise women a life beyond perceived victimhood. Counterterror messaging has no good answer.
While women have long been involved in violent extremist groups around the world, the proportion joining ISIS from abroad — including the US — is strikingly high. Among ISIS members who have come to the Middle East from Europe, roughly one in five is female. ISIS recruiters create messages targeted at women and girls — and far more complex than the oft-cited cliché that becoming a “jihadi bride” is a noble calling. Recruiters, often females themselves, tap into the narrative that Western societies don’t respect Muslim women.
Approaching other women in person or through social media, they assert that Muslim women are viewed in the West solely as victims, supposedly oppressed by their own communities and mocked (or worse) by those outside them. Photos circulate depicting mass rape of Muslim women in Srebrenica, and attacks by Israelis on Palestinian children. Hijab-wearing women are told they’ll never escape the label of terrorist so long as they remain in North America or Europe.
(A different version of these gendered narratives is used on men; the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps found the most common justification Jordanian fighters offered for why they’d joined the war in Syria was not poverty or compensation, but protecting Sunni women and children, particularly from rape.)
ISIS recruiters offer (but don’t deliver) a stark alternative to the discrimination they describe. They promise a future where women hold a valued place of honor, where they’ll be “lionesses,” playing a foundational role in building the so-called caliphate. This often means being wives and mothers — but not always. Women are recruited to be informants and enforcers of ISIS rules. Recently, European observers have even noticed an uptick in female recruits who use the language of women’s rights — dignity and autonomy — to talk about their part in actually carrying out terrorist plots.
Around the world, programs aimed at reintegrating returning fighters into communities often overlook the motivations of self-determination that drew women into fighting forces in the first place. The lessons don’t just apply to ISIS. In Colombia, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (known as the FARC) is nearly 40 percent female. Many women say that they joined because they wanted to pursue opportunities for leadership or to escape expectations of traditional roles in the home. Employment programs for female ex-FARC members, however, focus on training seamstresses or hairdressers.
As the US and other nations grapple with the issue of reintegrating former members of violent extremist groups into society, it would be a grave mistake to treat women simply as victims who were fooled by men. In reality, men, women, boys, and girls all have complex perspectives — and distinct and sometimes genuine grievances.
Second, ISIS uses sexual violence for “statecraft” — bonding and intimidating fighters through attacks on women
In addition to what Virginia Tech scholar Ariel Ahram calls “statecraft,” the group also marks and grows its territories through forced marriage and childbearing. As a fighting force, ISIS faces a unique challenge: troop cohesion. Unlike most armies that train together and develop shared culture and practices, ISIS fighters arrive from different corners of the earth. Most don’t speak the same language, have undergone no training, and may never have set foot in the region before. How to build unity in a short time with few resources? ISIS chooses mass rape.
While human trafficking and sex slavery is an income-generating business for ISIS, the systematic rape of non-Muslims is also a commanders’ tactic. Thousands of Yazidi women and girls alone have been abducted and held for months in halls stocked with mattresses, utensils, and food, then repeatedly gang raped. Some girls were as young as 11.
There is a logic to this conduct, however horrifying. Collectively, fighters develop a shared sense of dominance relative to another group (minority women). They’re told that through their acts, they’re building the caliphate by fathering a new generation. For some, their first perceived victory is on the battlefield of women’s bodies.
ISIS links gender identity, dominance and group belonging in order to victimize men and boys as well. While ISIS vehemently proclaims itself anti-homosexual, Virginia Tech’s Ahram notes reports of male-on-male rape, videotaped to be used as blackmail if a fighter wants to desert. Moreover, as Ahram puts it, “group participation helps builds fraternal bonds among perpetrators.”
It also appears that ISIS’s noxious strategy builds on a preexisting connection between gender-based violence and extremism and societal violence. Studies have found that, across religions, ethnicities, and ideologies, a significant proportion of perpetrators of mass killings (politically motivated and otherwise) in the US have histories of domestic violence. Data collected by New America found that more than a third of individuals who have conducted or been involved in deadly violence inside the United States inspired by jihadist ideology had a record of domestic abuse or other sexual violence or harassment against women.
Path-breaking work by Texas A&M’s Valerie Hudson shows that societal rates of gender-based violence are stunningly predictive of mass violence. She found that the single biggest predictor of whether a state experiences civil war or war with its neighbors is not its GDP, its predominant religion, or even its neighborhood. It’s how its women are treated.
Third, ISIS and other extremist groups exploit the relative absence of women in police and military forces when they execute their plots
In many countries grappling most directly with violent extremists, the proportion of women serving in the police and military is miniscule. Violent extremist groups have turned this into a tactical advantage. From Sri Lanka to Chechnya, groups have counted on the ability of women to move free of suspicion or scrutiny.
In Pakistan, for example, women make up less than 1 percent of the police. Last year, militants kidnapped the son of a Pakistani supreme court judge. They attempted to drive over the border with him hidden in a burqa, because they knew two things: Only a woman can search another woman, and the probability of encountering a female police officer at a checkpoint was extremely small. The police lucked out: One woman was on duty and the kidnappers were caught.
Fourth, ISIS — unlike some other extremist groups — has developed a narrative about its attacks that explicitly highlights and extols its targeting of women and girls
ISIS propaganda and how-to journals consciously seek to counter concerns that potential recruits (or sympathetic observers) may have about killing civilians —women and children in particular. The group has made unexpected and extreme violence one of its calling cards, and it has publicly embraced and promoted the shock value of hitting “soft targets” like a concert audience full of young women and girls.
When it does so, ISIS makes an explicit connection between its chosen targets and the suffering of civilians at Western hands in conflict across the Middle East. “We terrify as they terrified,” as an ISIS fighter identified as Abu Ithar al-Jazrawi said in a propaganda video. “We scare as they scared. We make widows as they made widows. We make orphans as they made orphans.”
Extremist groups have taken up these strategies without the benefit of gender studies courses. Counterterrorism, too, can make itself much smarter without taking positions on the gender debates of our time. The field needs to pay attention to the different experiences, and voices, of people in various social positions — women included — in various societies. Including our own.
One of us recalls a Tunisian woman laughing as she listened to policymakers at a Western security conference talk about ISIS’s “sophisticated” use of social media and exploitation of gender roles. If you’re starting from a position of zero understanding of gender’s role in the world, ISIS’s appeals may seem sophisticated, she said. But in reality, much of what these groups are doing is basic and intuitive if you’re paying attention and thinking pragmatically.
Scholars and analysts have identified several ways in which examining terrorism through a gender-conscious lens can make an immediate difference, and some military and counter-terrorism professionals have begun to take advantage of these insights. One of the first warnings that ISIS was setting up infrastructure in Libya came when an analyst noticed a flow of Western female recruits going there. That wasn’t consistent with ISIS’s usual operational habits, but it could be explained by the group’s need for wives where senior fighters would be headquartered.
Had Libyan women’s own voices of alarm been listened to, analysts would have also learned of other early indicators of rising radicalism, such as women being increasingly harassed for driving alone.
Whether it’s increased harassment in public spaces, or difficulty sending their daughters to school as spaces become segregated, women are often the first line of resistance on radicalization. Regrettably, they are often ignored, by their own leaders as well as by outside counterterrorism “experts.” Afghanistan activist Wazhma Frogh recalls women reporting to a government minister that they’d observed young men being recruited at weddings. He laughed condescendingly and said, “The militants we’re fighting are much too sophisticated to recruit at a wedding!” A month later, those same young men killed 32 civilians on a bus.
Those same local women must play a critical role in countermessaging and de-radicalization — in armed forces, police, and peacekeeping, as well as in government and civil society. Not because feminism (though we also believe yes because feminism), but because violent extremists are acknowledging and targeting women’s perspectives. Combating requires also including women’s perspectives in messaging and society more broadly. Inclusive governance begets authentic peace.
In counterterrorism, as in other areas of life, women are not simply small men. In this regard, it was telling to see the photos of row upon row of workers at computers in the new counter-terrorism center President Donald Trump inaugurated in Saudi Arabia — with not a woman in sight. That approach is not a winning strategy.
Heather Hurlburt is director of the New Models of Policy Change initiative at New America's Political Reform program. Jacqueline O’Neill is president of Inclusive Security.
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