The role of gender in violent extremism and countering violent extremism (CVE) has long been overlooked, despite being symptomatic of many of the human rights dilemmas CVE efforts face and pose. As a result, CVE practice as well its critics, largely discount three inter-related phenomena: gender dynamics in violent extremism, women’s roles in CVE initiatives, and how both violent extremism and CVE differently impact women and girls versus men and boys.

Most recently, the spectre of young Western women flocking to join ISIS has caused an upswing in attention to the first of these areas. Precise figures are increasingly difficult to come by, but estimates put females at up to 18 per cent of Westerners joining the group, with high numbers from countries like France and the United Kingdom. This trend caught policymakers and the media largely unaware and continues to confound, for reasons I have explored elsewhere. Initial responses have trafficked in stereotypes about women and Islam, assuming young women must be tricked or brainwashed, or only join ISIS to become “jihadi brides,” and that they wouldn’t join if they knew the full extent of ISIS’ horrors toward women.

As a more complicated account of women and ISIS develops, several shortcomings in addressing the problem persist. A tendency toward ahistoricism to women’s participation in violent extremism, despite the availability of historic and contemporary examples, is an initial hurdle to shaping an effective response. Indeed, women’s involvement in ISIS is both a new and old story; at the recent White House CVE Summit, I moderated a panel on “Women and Violent Extremism: Participation and Prevention” that canvased a history of violent extremism and terrorism replete with examples of women and girls joining (and playing critical roles in) neo-Nazi and other violent extremist groups. Lessons learned from those contexts highlight three major factors that are being neglected in the current approach to dealing with women and ISIS: 

1: Women who support or join violent extremist groups have an array of motivations, including gendered grievances. While in some cases women may be motivated by romance or be unduly influenced, other women are drawn to groups like ISIS by many of the same forces as men: adventure, inequality, alienation, and the pull of the cause. Indeed, a recent study outlined three self-identified reasons that women travelled to ISIS as “oppression of Muslims throughout the world;” desire to contribute to state-building; and “individual duty and identity.” Policy and public discourses rarely acknowledge that women may have such grievances and motivations. That’s slowly changing, but the gender dimensions of these grievances and motivations are still often missed. For example, European women in ISIS have spoken of how alienation and restrictions on their religious practices back home, like France’s ban on wearing burqas in public, helped push them into the group. In Western countries, it is Muslim women and girls, particularly in religious attire, who bear the brunt of the Islamophobic attacks and harassment that can increase alienation, as well as, for some, the appeal of ISIS narratives that position the West against Islam.

2: Prevention of female recruitment requires a multi-faceted approach that goes beyond stereotypes. When faced with the complexities of female membership in violent extremist groups, policymakers and the media quickly fall back on tropes about female passivity and domesticity, as well as Islam’s — and ISIS’, the two are often conflated — anti-women stance. Superficial responses can result; an over-dependence on counter-narratives stressing ISIS’ brutality against women to dissuade female recruits is one example. In addition to being ineffective, such responses risk sparking a vicious cycle whereby sensationalized accounts of ISIS violence fuel fear mongering and bigotry against Muslim women and girls in Western countries, potentially increasing the susceptibility of some to recruitment. Efforts to prevent women from leaving for Iraq and Syria need to properly address the push and pull factors for women on their full and gender-specific terms and through a human rights lens. Governments’ failure to prevent, investigate, and punish Islamophobic attacks against women and girls is a human rights issue and also increasingly a security one.

3: Disengagement, rehabilitation, and reintegration options should be available and gender-sensitive. One of the biggest policy challenges at present is that strict government policies — including cancelling residency visas or passports of those who have travelled to Syria or blanket punitive policies for returnees — make return extremely difficult, if not impossible, for women who manage to leave ISIS. Such policies can squeeze women and girls between terror and counter-terror. In at least two well-known cases in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, young women who became quickly disillusioned with the reality of life under ISIS, escaped only to face automatic arrest in their home countries. Undifferentiated treatment of “foreign terrorist fighters” disincentivizes such return, just as it often prevents families and peers from reporting concerns to law enforcement in the first place. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for returnees. Instead, responses to women and girls who seek return — including in some cases with children — must be tailored to their specific activities, whether that be as recruiters, propagandists, homemakers, or otherwise, and must also carefully examine their reasons for leaving and their full range of experiences in the group, including whether they themselves faced violence from group members or security forces.