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.

In June 2015, three sisters living in Bradford, England took their nine children – ranging in age from 15 years old to three years old – into Syria to join their brother who is fighting for ISIL. Given that ISIL forcibly recruits boys as young as 15 and sends them into combat,[i] it is conceivable that two of the sisters’ boys (ages 13 and 15) are already being trained to fight or are fighting. And given ISIL’s statements on “marriage,” which can “legitimately” begin for girls as young as age nine, but ideally should be completed by age 16,[ii] the little girls may soon be prepared to become ISIL brides. These sisters are not an isolated case of women volunteering to join the group. There are also multiple instances of school-girls in the US, UK and France leaving their homes, joining ISIL and marrying ISIL fighters within days of their arrival (see here and here).[iii]

Why would these girls and women, some of whom bring their own young children, decide to journey to one of the world’s most dangerous warzones under the control of a violent insurgent group? Of course, not all women and girls under ISIL control have had any choice whatsoever in their circumstances, perhaps the most dramatic and well-documented examples stem from ISIL’s treatment of Yazidi women, who have been sold as sex slaves, as discussed below. But for the growing group of older girls and women who have responded to ISIL recruitment efforts, a range of promises draw them towards the group.

The recruitment happens because ISIL needs older girls and women as a human resource in supporting its operations in Syria and Iraq, forming the basis of a new society, and as wives for the young, often unmarried men who join ISIL. The group has actively sought to engage women in jihad. Abu Ahmad, an ISIL official in the group’s self-declared capital city of Raqqa, stated that, “Jihad is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well.”[iv] As Dr. Bloom reports, “The women are used as a reward… By marrying [the women] off and encouraging children immediately, [ISIL] retains the men and makes it less likely that they will go back to their home countries.”[v] ISIL female recruits boast online that they are paid extra money for every child they produce.[vi] In fact, women and girls interested to join ISIL, but who are reluctant to marry ISIL fighters, are dissuaded by ISIL from coming.[vii]

How does ISIL draw these girls and women to its cause? There appear to be some important differences in the way ISIL recruits females from European and North American countries, as opposed to those from Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia While much media coverage focuses on the role of social media in recruitment, the internet is the leading factor in the radicalization of females in only a limited number of cases, especially when it comes to Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. In these instances, personal relationships play a larger role, especially where structured recruitment programs are in place. For example, recruitment cells for females in Central Asia are often small, secretive extensions of female prayer groups.[viii] Women and girls from the Middle East and Central Asian countries, as well as places like Indonesia, are recruited by emphasizing gender roles that align closely with ISIL’s (all female) al-Khanssaa Brigade’s conception of a woman’s sedentary life.[ix] Alternatively, Western recruiters or Syria-based fighters employ the more masculinized themes of “adventure and excitement” to attract girls to ISIL.[x] Older girls and young women are also lured with promises of romance and marriage to ISIL fighters.

ISIL women and girls also actively recruit other females in the name of “sisterhood,” promising real and loving friendships. “On the social media accounts, these women shower each other with love and affection. They treat each other as actual sisters and best friends, which could bring in any woman who longs for friendships.”[xi] However, promises are rarely the reality for foreign female recruits, particularly those from Western countries.[xii]

Yet another promise to the women and girls who would willingly join ISIL is a relatively secure and comfortable life once they arrive in ISIL territories. Recruitment materials and testimony on social media from women and girls who have joined describe receiving rent- and bill-free housing, food and monetary allowances.[xiii] They also receive spoils of war; according to celebratory posts on social media, they receive new clothing and appliances looted from the homes of “the Kuffar [non-believers] and handed to you personally by Allah as a gift.[xiv]

Interestingly, ISIL also recruits Muslim girls and women to relocate to an active warzone by promising safety. Describing “vulnerable females” within their home countries, recruiters emphasize gendered threats of rape and unwanted sexual attention. An Arabic-language manifesto, purportedly circulated by the al-Khanssaa Brigade, decries the sexual violence supposedly perpetrated against Sunni girls and women by the Iraqi and Saudi regimes.[xv] It goes on to claim that ISIL fighters liberated hundreds of Sunni female prisoners who had been tortured in Iraq, and that such crimes do not exist in the so-called Islamic State.

Escaping conditions of discrimination and abuse is another strong theme of recruitment tactics. Ironically, ISIL’s radical ideology can empower some girls and women to take charge of their current unsatisfactory marital and familial relationships. One of four Kyrgyz women preparing to take their children to Syria without their husbands told an interviewer that their husbands were “against religion, against Islam. My friends do not want to live with them anymore.”[xvi] They deemed ISIL-controlled Syria a better (that is, holier) place to raise their children. Similarly, the three sisters from Bradford, UK, were motivated by the close ties to their ISIL brother and their express dislike of UK society.[xvii]

For others, the escape is not from specific relationships, but from discrimination and intolerance they face in Western societies, particularly if they dress in ways that visibly identify them as Muslim; by wearing hijab, for instance. Still other Muslim girls and women living in the West may already live restricted and abused lives within their families.[xviii] In these cases, joining ISIL can be perceived as an escape to a better life, one in which they will be well-treated and respected as wives and mothers.

Idealized traditional marriage and motherhood, adventure, friendship, lifestyle stability, safety, and various forms of escape are mobilized to attract girls and women to ISIL’s cause. Whether these utopian promises are realized in the “caliphate” is another matter altogether. Notably, the al-Khanssaa manifesto portrays an idealized version of (married) women’s lives filled with security, study, child-rearing, and general caretaking. These are described as “sedentary” activities by the writers of the manifesto, although that is probably an inaccurate adjective to describe the numerous and arduous daily requirements of child-rearing, cooking, household management, and other domestic responsibilities, particularly in conflict zones and communities that are often lacking consistent access to electricity, water and other basic services.[xix] In contrast to the comfortable and celebratory descriptions of life in ISIL-controlled territory conveyed by some foreign recruits, media reports describe crumbling infrastructure, skyrocketing prices, and a lack of food and basic necessities; smuggled videos show women and children reaching out desperately for distributions of bread in Syrian and Iraqi towns.[xx]

Finally, many of ISIL’s female “members” are anything but willing participants in its activities.

Of course, there is a distinction between active members of the group and the many thousands who live in territory that has come under ISIL control. The line between the two categories is blurred, however, particularly when it comes to girls and women who are swept up in territorial takeovers and forced into slavery, sexual enslavement, forced marriage and domestic service to jihadist fighters. Some of these are foreign girls and women forced into ISIL when they are captured in Iraq and sold and trafficked into Syria for ISIL, or vice versa.

To illustrate, Amnesty International documented the stories of hundreds of Yazidis in August 2014, describing forced marriage, sexual enslavement, rape and sexual torture of girls and women at the hands of ISIL.[xxi] Yazidi girls and women were taken by ISIL in Iraq and moved to Syria.[xxii] Women and girls who escaped described being given as “gifts” or sold to fighters and other ISIL supporters, being repeatedly threatened with marriage and sexual violence, and watching females of all ages being driven to suicide due to fear and abuse.[xxiii] Amnesty and other reports note widespread physical abuse and public gang rape committed by ISIL fighters.[xxiv] These fighters, including foreign male fighters, believe they are entitled to wives, forced or otherwise.

Clearly, ISIL hopes to anchor its fighters and the caliphate by using older girls and women, even if these relationships have to be forged through deception, force and violence. The Islamic State requires girls and women to behave in certain ways, in part to build the caliphate and in part to ensure that men and boys behave the way ISIL needs.

Our next post discusses how ISIS recruitment materials promise idealized “manhood” to their male recruits.


[i] United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2014) Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq: 6 July to 10 September 2014. United Nations Publication, Baghdad, Iraq, p 18.

[ii] Winter C (2015) Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade. Quilliam Foundation, p 24.

[iii] Shubert A, Naik B (2014) “From Glasgow Girl to “Bedroom Radical” and ISIS Bride.” CNN. Accessed 16 March 2015; Euronews (2014) Jihadi dream turns to nightmare for European girls. Accessed 11 May 2015.

[iv] Bahri A al (2014) “In Raqqa, an All-Female ISIS Brigade Cracks Down on Local Women”, Syria Daily. Accessed 25 March 2015.

[v] Bloom M (2015) “How ISIS Is Using Marriage as a Trap,” The Huffington Post. 26 March 2015.

[vi] Ferran L and Kreider R (2015) Selling the “Fantasy”: Why Young Western Women Would Join ISIS. ABC News. Accessed 26 March 2015.

[vii] Hoyle C, Bradford A, and Frenett R (2015) Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS. Institute for Strategic Dialogue, p 13.

[viii]International Crisis Group (2015) Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia. Accessed 16 March 2015, p 6.

[ix] Chastain, M (2014a) “The Women of ISIS.” Breitbart. Accessed 25 February 2015.

[x] White, S (June 22, 2014) “ISIS Fighters Tells Families `Hand Over Your Daughters for Sex’ after Orders from Cleric’s Fatwa.” Mirror Accessed 15 February 2015, p 9.

[xi] Chastain, M (2014a) “The Women of ISIS.” Breitbart. Accessed 25 February 2015.

[xii] Freytas-Tamura K de (2015) “Teenage Girl Leaves for ISIS, and Others Follow”, The New York Times. Accessed 25 March 2015.

[xiii] Hoyle C, Bradford A, and Frenett R (2015) Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS. Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

[xiv] Quoted in Hoyle et al 2015, p 21.

[xv] Winter 2015, p 29, 38.

[xvi] International Crisis Group 2015, p 8.

[xvii] See Middleton R (2015) “Missing Bradford Family: Mother did not want children to grow up in the UK,” International Business Times. Accessed 5 July 2015.

[xviii] Khan D (2015) “For jihadi women it’s not about `Jihadi brides’ it’s about escape.” The Guardian Accessed 25 June 2015.

[xix] Sly L (2014) “Inside and undercover network trying to expose Islamic State’s atrocities.” The Washington Post Accessed July 15, 2015.

[xx] Moslawi et al. 2014.

[xxi] Amnesty International (2014) Escape from hell. Accessed January 4, 2015.

[xxii] Wood P (2014) “Islamic State: Yazidi women tell of sex-slavery trauma.” BBC World News Accessed February 3 2015.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Amnesty International; Wood.

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