Why Do Western Women Join ISIS?


Why Do Western Women Join ISIS?

02 Feb 2015

On 28 January 2015, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue published Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS

While the ISIS 'foreign fighter' phenomenon has been the subject of a relatively wide range of research and commentary, much of this focuses on the men travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the so-called 'Islamic State'. In fact, the term 'foreign fighter' is problematic in relation to women because, as the new report Becoming Mulan? documents, women do not fight with ISIS (the report uses 'female western migrants to ISIS' instead). Nevertheless, out of an estimated 3,000 people from western countries who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, around 550 are believed to be muhajirat (female migrants). This is proportionally a much greater number of women than have travelled to previous conflicts involving foreign fighters.

Becoming Mulan?, by Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford and Ross Frenett, aims to shed light on the reasons women join ISIS and reality of their lives in ISIS-controlled territory, and to provide recommendations for policy makers on how to deal with the specific threat posed by female migrants. The report is based on information obtained from the social media accounts of the western muhajirat themselves, including a core sample of 12 women, in addition to secondary media reports.

Women in ISIS pose a threat different to that of men.

As the report recognises, there are limitations to this focus on social media. The women in the study are to some degree self-selecting by their decision to freely share information about their lives on social media, which is used as an instrument of ISIS' propaganda and thus can't necessarily be taken at face value. It is also important to bear in mind that women who are not active on social media potentially pose a greater danger than those that are, since information about them is not readily available. However, the report shows the unprecedented insight that social media offers into the muhajirat's day-to-day lives, and into their feelings and motivations.

Key findings and recommendations for policy makers

Motivations of muhajirat

The report finds that there is a large degree of overlap in the motivations of male and female migrants to ISIS-held territory. The belief in a binary worldview in which Islam is at war with unbelievers, and the consequent obligation to leave the 'land of unbelievers' is common to both men and women.

However, the ISIS state-building project, unprecedented in its scope, is also crucial to explaining the high number of women involved. It presents an opportunity to take part in non-combat roles such as teacher, medical staff or most commonly simply as a housewife and mother. Indeed, marriage to ISIS fighters is a key motivation for the migration of women.

Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest obstacle for female emigration to ISIS territories documented by the report is the emotional pain of going against family wishes and leaving them behind. In some cases, families are also able to effectively stop younger women from travelling by taking away their passports or withholding money from them.

Thus, supporting families in preventing their daughters from travelling, whether by providing emotional support, counter narratives, or taking practical measures where appropriate, should be a key part of a strategy to prevent women from travelling to join ISIS. 

Realities of life under ISIS

While most descriptions by women of life in ISIS territory is positive and aims to attract other would-be muhajirat to join them, there are also hints of tensions and difficulties, which the report suggests should be emphasised in order to dissuade other would-be migrants.

For example, there are numerous reported tensions between the area's original inhabitants and the migrants, and even stories of discrimination such as that of a migrant being refused treatment in a hospital by a local doctor. As the report states "Clearly there are natives who do not support ISIS and do not welcome the influx of Westerners to the region".

The report also documents the way in which the bombing campaign against ISIS affects the attitudes of migrants, describing how "the women's experience of the bombing raids can further intensify their hatred towards their opponents", and suggesting that policy makers should be aware that this may make them a greater threat.

Several of the women being monitored refer to the loss of their own husband or the husband of an acquaintance in fighting. The distress and difficulties experienced by widows are demonstrated by one widow's use of the Twitter hashtag #Nobodycaresaboutthewidow. Many muhajirat return to their home countries after the death of a husband, or the birth of a child, and the report argues that these moments of potential reintegration should be exploited wherever possible.


The muhajirat display an unequivocally celebratory attitude towards the brutality of ISIS, and appear desensitised to the horrific nature of the violence, just as much as the male fighters. Their social media statements display violent intentions towards a wide variety of targets, including Bashar al-Assad, Shia Muslims, Israel and the West.

Women pose a different threat to men, since they are not involved in fighting in any way. Numerous muhajirat make reference to this restriction, sometimes complaining about it and expressing a desire for it to change in the future.

But female migrants do have the potential to be an indirect threat, by encouraging others to migrate and potentially carry out violent attacks in Western countries.

However, the study references the developments in the role of women that took place in the Chechen conflict, in which women initially took no part in fighting. However, after a large number of men were killed in fighting, women became active fighters, in particular suicide bombers, a phenomenon which became known as the 'black widows'.

The report suggests that this is a scenario that could be repeated as ISIS loses territory. One female fighter, after experiencing a false alarm of an attack on Raqqa wrote "Me and the akhawats [sisters] thought maybe murtads [apostates] were in the city ... I put the belt [containing explosives] on and everything". This demonstrates that women may become combat fighters in the event of a direct threat to the areas they live in.

The full report can be found here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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