Throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), recent media reports have highlighted an apparent rise in women’s active participation in violent extremist organizations. This includes their deployment in combat operations, and roles as suicide bombers, propagandists, recruiters, and mobilizers. Despite the novelty and sensationalism with which the media has treated the topic in recent years, women have participated in violent extremist organizations (VEOs) in the MENA region and beyond for decades. To date, however, women’s roles have been largely overlooked in both research and policy responses. Although attention to date has focused on Western women traveling to Syria and Iraq to join or fight with Daesh, women from the MENA region have also taken up the cause in large numbers, albeit more quietly.
While it is impossible to estimate the exact level of women’s involvement in many VEOs, two things are clear: most, if not all, VEOs have female members who were recruited to engage in a wide range of roles; second, the frequency and visibility of female members within these groups are on the rise. For example, among the VEOs currently active in the MENA region, Daesh appears to have attracted the largest number of female members. Although figures are disputed, it appears that as many as 3,000 of its 20,000 foreign fighters are women.
To date, the extensive research on radicalization and recruitment has devoted scant attention to understanding women’s participation. As a result, strategies and programs that intend to counter violent extremism have naturally been oriented toward male recruits. This has led to a dearth of responses that adequately address the drivers and recruitment tactics related to female participation. To fill these gaps and strengthen the development responses to violent extremism, this report seeks to provide insights on three major questions:
1. Drivers: What are main push and pull factors for women’s participation in VEOs?
2. Recruitment: How are VEOs tapping into women’s motivations to gain their support?
3. Responses: How can development assistance be most effective in addressing the primary drivers that motivate women to support or join VEOs?