On the Frontline: The Under-Told Story of Women in Extremist Movements

29 July 2020   ·   Jennie King, Eisha Maharasingam-Shah

Governments should recognise and confront women’s growing engagement with extremist movements: to avoid reinforcing stereotypes, they must acknowledge the agency of women who choose to join such groups and differentiate between the various roles they play. Only then can drivers of radicalisation be addressed and recruitment efforts undermined

Extremist groups are often assumed to be male-dominated and united by a form of ‘toxic masculinity’. Compounded by images of high-profile attackers, who are often male and affiliated with violently misogynist ideas, this belief is further reinforced by tropes around ‘Jihadi brides’ or ‘ISIS wives’ which have become central to both public discourse and extremist groups’ own propaganda. Such a framing either downplays or ignores the unique factors at play for women.  In analyses of Islamist and far-right groups, women are generally portrayed as victims or bystanders rather than active participants; in reality, they are often a mix of all three. By neglecting drivers and roles which are unique to women, policymakers narrow their field of vision and oversimplify how, where, and why groups are successful in recruitment. In turn, this limits their ability to effectively combat the mobilisation and deployment of women by terrorist actors, and honour commitments made under the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

Intersectional Prejudice and Notions of ‘Sisterhood’ Play a Key Role in Radicalisation  

The appeal of extremist movements often relates to women’s lived experience, both within ethnic and religious minorities and white majority groups. Push factors for radicalisation are innately complex, but often heightened by the acute forms of exclusion women face – Muslim women in particular suffer intersectional prejudice based on race, religion, and gender across many European countries, whether in their families or wider society. Research by ISD and others shows that many women are thus drawn to a notion of ‘sisterhood’, alongside broader state-building efforts: while this may not equate to a ‘Western’ concept of feminism, the women in question nonetheless desire to regain independence and control through an Islamic frame (e.g. by joining and marrying within the ‘caliphate’). Although their organisational structure can vary, powerful networks run by and targeting women have formed, providing mutual support and advice both on- and offline.  Such platforms fuel strong bonds and present a ready-made entry point for groups like ISIS, who can then pursue tailored outreach and mobilisation. In some cases, women may be radicalised under false pretences; they can become trapped in cycles of physical and economic violence or be deprived of their basic human rights. However, by making simplistic assumptions and pigeonholing all female foreign fighters or group members, we risk reinforcing the stereotypes and biases that strip women of their agency.  

Women Are Used to Make Far-Right Extremist Ideas Socially Acceptable  

Women are also becoming key assets in the branding and engagement strategies of far-right movements, in particular to launder extreme views into the mainstream. Young women are seen to provide a more ‘accessible’ face for neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, whose image is otherwise tainted by historic associations. This re-branding has been notably effective online, where articulate and attractive social media stars such as Tomi Lahren, Lauren Southern, Brittany Pettibone, Lana Lokteff and Candace Owens draw in large followings and can facilitate the ‘redpilling’ of young, vulnerable followers. Originally a reference to 1999 film The Matrix, this slang term is central within alt-right circles, conspiracy groups, and other internet subcultures, suggesting society has been defrauded by mainstream ideas and must become ‘enlightened’. Having been ‘redpilled’, people will supposedly see the world in its true form, usually characterised by taboo ideas and theories surrounding race, gender, power, and so on. These female influencers can help legitimise views which would otherwise be deemed sexist, such as Tradwives promoting regressive gender roles. Interestingly, rejecting ‘contemporary feminism’ seems a potent driver for both Islamist and far-right groups – for the latter, the objectives of movements like #MeToo and TimesUp are skewed as victimising, while LGBTQ+, feminist, or racial justice causes are deemed an effort to ‘destroy the nuclear family’. Such discussions increasingly serve as a gateway to other more extremist positions, including those surrounding eugenics, the threat posed by ethnic minority men, or social order writ large. The narratives used often capitalise on so-called maternal pride and instincts, alongside a sexual conservatism that persists in many communities (e.g. Christian Evangelicals). As such, these narratives become a channel to harness broader cynicism and disenchantment with women’s role in society, and the increasing visibility of systemic issues around harassment, sexual abuse, and discrimination. As outlined in an ISD study on the far-right in 2018, the subjugation of women can thus be converted into something empowering and female-led, with a renewed celebration of ‘traditional’ gender roles.  

Germany’s New National Action Plan Should Address the Roles Women Play in Extremist Movements, and Their Importance to Counter-Efforts  

The tendency to frame violence, which remains a male-centric field, as the peak of extremist engagement means we risk missing a far wider ecosystem of extremist messaging, outreach, activism, and recruitment in which women are both figureheads and prime targets. Authorities must avoid reinforcing a victim narrative, and instead acknowledge the agency of those who choose to join extremist movements and the plurality of roles they can play. Steps that governments could take and policies that Germany could enshrine in its new National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security include:  

1. Providing opportunities to those excluded and investing in research on online subcultures

Long-term measures must acknowledge and address the structural inequalities faced by women, both in specific communities and society at large. This includes providing voice and opportunity for those generally excluded from public discourse, such as young women within minority groups, and showcasing female role models across the ethnic, religious, political, and socio-economic spectrum. Such efforts could be matched by a greater investment in female-led initiatives for social change, whether at the local or national level, and civil society bodies focussed on participatory governance, counter-hate, public education, and social exclusion. This is particularly important in communities with strong gender norms, for example where tradition dictates that women are less active in public life or afforded lesser freedom of movement, expression, and choice.  

Governments cannot legislate what happens in people’s homes or social circles; however, they can devise culturally-sensitive ways to engage in community life, and ensure young women see themselves represented in the public sphere as valued, independent citizens. In addition, greater research is needed on how women form ‘in-out group’ identities both on- and offline. The counter-extremism sector would benefit from insight on how being excluded from or marginalised in certain social, professional, and cultural spaces can fuel wider grievance for women. In particular, governments should invest in research on digital platforms and online sub-culture, exploring how young women develop communities (including cross-border), express their religious practice, and try to establish agency in the face of social and economic barriers.

2. Compiling case studies and conducting outreach campaigns that reflect the diversity of women’s experience with extremist movements

Not enough is understood about women’s individual journeys into and the various roles they play within extremist groups, whether far-left, neo-Nazi, Islamist, far-right, or otherwise.  Compiling a series of locally-resonant case studies with a parallel outreach campaign would help undo existing bias, building gender-based insight for both frontline practitioners and the public writ large. Such materials would resonate more directly with those in danger of radicalisation, and highlight how women can be attracted to, weaponised by, and ultimately disillusioned with extremist ideology. Above all, it is important to show that women are more than passive bystanders or naïve recruits. In parallel, governments should match awareness raising with strategic communications to undermine the PR efforts of extremist movements and expose the rampant misogyny inherent in many of their core ideologies, channels, and literature. This includes cases where female figures have been exploited for publicity or to normalise a position, but privately side-lined or abused by male counterparts in the movement.    

3. Supporting women and children returning from ISIS camps and harnessing women’s role in counter-efforts

Female intervention providers remain few and far between in Europe but are integral to support the specific needs of women in an extremism context. This gap is most acute for women and girls returning from the so-called ISIS caliphate, many of whom have endured months in refugee camps across the Middle East. Investing in psycho-social practitioners who are sensitive to the ideological, social, and cultural experience of this cohort is key, not least since the camps have been cited as a breeding ground for extremist ideology and mobilisation. Women also need a clear pathway to re-joining their countries of origin, or at least finding safe harbour for their children who are otherwise stateless and highly vulnerable. Efforts will be most effective if they address women’s distinct fears and concerns, alongside those of the communities they will return to. Female agency is continually disregarded by extremist movements, policymakers, and society at large – governments must acknowledge and harness women’s role in counter-efforts, lest they further reinforce the gender divide.

English Frauen Extremismus

Jennie King

Jennie King is a Senior Policy Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), specialising in education and polarisation. @jkingy

Eisha Maharasingam-Shah

Eisha Maharasingam-Shah is a Research Associate in the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD)’s Digital Analysis Unit.