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Voluntary Recruitment of Women in Terrorist Groups


Historically speaking the general understanding of terrorism has been associated with ‘masculine’ aggression, and an underlying assumption that terrorists are often men. The field of gendering terrorism is an area of study that has gained traction especially in the last two decades. It aims to view terrorism from a gendered lens.

The three specific ways of terror that have been recognized by scholars include- ‘The Anarchist Wave’ of the 1880s to 1920s, ‘The Anti-Colonial Wave’ of the 1960s to 1979, ‘The New Left Wave’ and ‘The Religious Wave’ from 1979 to present times. The first wave focused on the ideal of rebels who attacked oppressive political regimes, like the rule of the Tsars in Russia. The second wave was a range of anti-colonial movements and natives who fought back colonial masters for their freedom. The third wave was an ideological war, also called international terrorism and embodied conflicts like the Vietnam war, with a rise in communist ideology worldwide. The last wave included the rise of religious pushback, with Islam at the heart of the wave and a clash between religious and ethnic values.

The 1980s witnessed the Tamil Tigers and groups like Hezbollah recruiting and delegating work to female suicide bombers. Wafa Idris was the first female suicide bomber from Palestine. In 2004 Hamas deployed its first female suicide bomber, Reem el Riyashi. Women have always been a part of terror groups as both supporters and fighters. In the most recent wave they have said to contribute to various insurgencies in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Kenya etc.

Al-Shabaab as a Case Study:

The active involvement of women has attracted a keen interest in the nature of recruitment tactics of terrorist organizations. In Kenya, the role played by women in organizations like Al-Shabaab has been studied closely. Such recruitment is most prominent in Kenya’s coastal and north eastern counties. Women are recruited in  roles of logistics planner, spies, conveners of terror cells and in some cases the masterminds behind an attack.

Al-Shabaab stands for ‘the youth’ and emerged in the 2000s after the rise of the Jihadist movement which took place during Somalia’s civil war. It remains active in Somalia, Uganda and Kenya. Fathima Badurdeen conducted primary research in this by interviewing 36 women who had returned back from terror camps, out of which 16 claimed to have voluntarily joined the organization. There are various cases of not just direct abduction and assault of women but also being lured or deceived by false economic opportunities provided by recruiters of such terror organisations. ‘Voluntariness’ is perceived as joining due to one’s own volition and not being forced, threatened or deceived to join the network.

Women terrorists calculate their actions “inside a matrix of constraints, social expectations and political pressures” which are not merely influenced, but are the very constituents of their decision- making processes. Hence such decisions are not made in a vacuum, but are defined by various cultural factors including their interpersonal relationships, religious beliefs and status in society. Al-Shabaab is an interesting case study because it analyses women’s autonomy within these social structures.

Political Motivations and Religious Beliefs:

As sexist notions of subservience are predominant, especially within the household, some women feel devalued and join terror groups to be emancipated through the caliphate. Women state that the ideology of the organization gave them a purpose in life, by supporting tenets like Shahid (martyrdom) or Jihad ( a struggle against the non-muslims or kafirs who are enemies of Islam).

Al-Shabaab propagates a theory deeming Kenya to be a Christian state that oppresses Muslims in Somalia and Kenya. Many women are moved by such an ideology and would like to protect their community against a dominant religious group that threatens their identity. Two women explained their motivations to be wives of martyrs and to play their role to support the Muslim Umah, or community. Nine interviewees explained how ideology influenced their decisions to support the Al-Shabaab. These statements are contrary to the view that all women are ‘lured’ and manipulated to be ‘jihadi wives’ or have been brainwashed for the same. 

Kenyan women play a more indirect role and are not involved in instances of violent extremism or particularly combative roles. Women want to escape their roles in the domestic sphere, by attaining political positions within the organization to elevate their social status. Despite this, they are not provided with high-ranking positions unlike men and replicate the roles in the private sphere as ‘supporters of men’ in the organization.

Personal Trigger Events:

Recruiters use the idea of seeking revenge as a tactic to employ more women. Such justice is sought mostly against the violent, male ‘state’ whereby government security actors often kill their loved ones. Excessive violence has been observed as a prevalent practice in Kenyan policing. To avenge the death of a husband or a son, some women end up joining the organization. Such women believe there is no hope left, and the state is the reason for their suffering. It hasn’t provided them with important resources, opportunities or any particular benefits. Especially, if family members or friends belonging to the organization have been killed by law enforcement agencies, women end up filling in the roles these members previously had. Acts of rebellion against the state seem to be a last resort for these women to assert themselves.

Social and Interpersonal Relationships:

One of the most integral reasons is the influence of family, friends and peers that influenced nine out of sixteen individuals in Badurdeen’s case study. Also looking at a wife’s role within the household which is extremely gendered, a woman often has to follow the commands of her husband or other male relatives. Here, a woman’s choice may be coerced within conjugal or affinal relationships. Often, women are socialized to be excessively passive and deferential within the family structure. Hence they often end up agreeing to avoid unhappy marriages, any conflict within family structures or divorce.

Role played by Women in the Organization:

Interestingly, women often play a significant role as recruiters in terrorist organizations and seek out new members. Organizations like ISIS too have used women for such roles to penetrate grassroots networks and recruit members through family and kinship networks. They target both men and women, in various roles they play in familial structures in terms of building trust. For women especially, the idea of trust and belonging is essential and women recruiters often look at the various needs of the women they want to recruit, mostly economic and social before deploying different convincing tactics. Ndungu and Salifu also analysed how these women carefully seek out members with specific skills while recruiting, for example a good knowledge and preaching of Islamic values. 

Women also play a role in various intelligence networks. In Kenya women are not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as men are at check posts. Hence, they gather information, play the role of spies and also often carry weapons in and out of different cities for the organization. In particular, women are said to be recruited as spies within the Amniyat, Al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing.

Coercion or Volition?

It is of utmost importance to evaluate the independent or autonomous decision-making that women in such organizations use to join the group. Liberal feminists would argue that women are rational beings who are capable of independent thinking. Cultural feminists are women who highlight differences between men and women and believe masculine values and views of the world shape society. They would argue that cultural factors surrounding women’s conditions like the social, cultural and psychological as discussed above, affect their choices.

Autonomous agency and the patriarchal structures need to be deconstructed to analyse if one takes precedence over the other, or if they are working in tandem with each other to motivate women to join terror organizations. On one hand, women joining groups as a form of liberation from traditional oppressive gender roles would be considered liberating and on the other hand feminists would say that these very structures oppress women and propel them towards joining terror groups. If they had a real choice, or were not stifled in the first place, they wouldn’t have to prove themselves and hence their choice is affected by undue influence. The debate between reducing women’s choices to their environment is blatant infantilization and to not consider their socio-cultural environment is a reductive reading. This debate is ongoing and can be argued both ways. The idea of relative autonomy needs to be studied further to understand women’s agency more comprehensively. 

As Radical feminist Catherine Mackinnon says, a key aspect is to materially alter women’s conditions by aiming at grassroots inequalities, like providing them educational and economic opportunities first, for them to make informed decisions and be active participants in any decision-making process.

Diya Narag is a first year LLB student at Jindal Global Law School interested in the intersection of human rights and policy-making.

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