By Dyan Mazurana, Dallin Van Leuven and Rachel Gordon

This blog is part of a series on gender and ISIL. For a full discussion see Van Leuven, Dallin, Dyan Mazurana and Rachel Gordon (forthcoming), “Analysing Foreign Females and Males in the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) through a Gender Perspective,” Foreign Fighters under International Law and Beyond, edited by Andrea de Guttry, Francesca Capone and Christopher Paulussen, ASSER/Springer Verlag.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has pursued a campaign to control of a wide swath of territory, build a caliphate, impose its own version of Shari’a law, and create a new society. These goals require the recruitment of significant numbers of men and women from outside their areas of control. Why do men and women willingly leave what are often stable home countries to enter a war zone? A central message coursing through ISIL’s recruitment efforts is the promise of fulfilling idealized gendered roles.

ISIS projects a rigid set of gender roles: men as the masculine fighter, husband, father, provider, and protector; women as the feminine wife, mother, and protected. These roles are promised to foreign recruits and imposed on the local populations they control. The recruitment efforts exploit cleavages between potential recruits and their home countries and characterize the Syrian civil war as a war against Muslims and “true” Islam. Recruits are told that they will build a new society where they no longer face discrimination and abuse, where they can live a holier life, and where they will realize their potential as devout women and men.

The success of this recruitment effort is nearly without peer in both its pace and quantity. ISIL claims to have established a new state, the caliphate, and its leaders argue it is a principal part of an apocalyptic script. Centrally for ISIL, its doctrine “requires believers to reside in the caliphate if it is at all possible for them to do so.” To attract international recruits to join their cause, ISIL operatives manipulate and shape their message through a highly gendered religious and identity-based lens. International fighters, their wives (or those destined to be ISIL wives), and children are traveling to the (supposed) caliphate to live under what they believe is true Shari’a law, and many intend to die as martyrs.

ISIL’s propagandists, recruiters, and supporters use highly gendered language to claim that those who are not part of the so-called Islamic State are neither truly masculine nor feminine. They suggest that the Western lifestyle is emasculating, and Western culture “restricts” Sunni Muslim women’s ability to be “feminine” – and thus men’s ability to be “masculine.” According to an issue of Dabiq, ISIL’s online magazine, the Western work life is “modern day slavery…that leaves the Muslim in a constant feeling of subjugation to a kāfir [infidel] master.” In addition, a manifesto purportedly published by the al-Khanssaa Brigade—an all-female police group based in the Islamic State’s de facto capital of al-Raqqa—declares that contemporary women “are not fulfilling their fundamental roles” because “women are not presented with a true picture of man and, because of the rise in the number of emasculated men who do not shoulder the responsibility allocated to them towards their ummah, religion or people, and not even towards their houses or their sons, who are being supported by their wives.” Under ISIL’s ideology, femininity is a requirement for masculinity: “If women were real women then men would be real men.”

ISIL’s propaganda gives the illusion that ISIL-controlled areas offer a safe and holy haven, where Shari’a law reigns. It is this ideal that, in part, attracts Muslim males and females with promises of opportunities to directly or indirectly wage jihad and practice their idealized masculine (the fighter/husband/father/protector) and feminine (the wife/mother/protected) gender roles within this contrived society.

But their materials go even further to tailor their message for different audiences. What follows are two blog posts separately discussing ISIL recruitment materials and tactics for older girls and women, and for boys and men.

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