‘Till martyrdom do us part’: gender and the ISIS phenomenon

28 May 2015

This report explores the phenomenon of Western females travelling to Syria and Iraq in support of ISIS.


Although often assumed to be passive agents, women have played significant roles in a number of contemporary terrorist organizations. Violent extremist groups across the political and ideological spectrum have utilised female forces for a range of activities including logistics, recruitment, political safeguarding, operations, suicide bombing and combat. However, the recent unprecedented surge in female recruits to the terrorist organization Islamic State (ISIS) has brought this phenomenon into sharp focus. For many there remain misperceptions and misunderstandings concerning the role women play within these violent networks, often paired with engendered responses to the radicalisation of women. By analysing how terrorist organisations choose to utilise women, we are able to better understand the decision-making processes of terrorists and the inner-workings of the organization itself.

The number of Western foreign fighters and migrants to ISIS is estimated to be up to 4,000, with over 550 women within this figure. This unprecedented number of Western male foreign terrorist fighters is paralleled by an equally unprecedented number of women traveling to support ISIS. Questions are now being posed as to how and why females are being recruited en masse, what role they play for ISIS, and what tools will best work to counter this new threat. Yet very little work has been done to not only answer these questions but to build sustainable preventative measures. This report attempts to shed light on these questions as the second publication within ISD’s Women and Extremism (WaE) programme. The first WaE report, Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, addressed some of the reasons for Western females traveling to ISIS-territory and exposed key elements of the reality for females upon arrival ISIS-controlled territory.

This report aims to expand upon previous research by giving depth to understanding who is being radicalized, why these women decide to depart for Syria and how we can better stop these processes. There are three primary sections to this report. The first maps the primary push and pull factors which prime women and lead them down a path of violent radicalisation to the point at which they decide they must make hijra (migrate) to join ISIS. These factors disprove the one-dimensional label for these women, who are often referred to simply as ‘jihadi brides’. The second section of this report gives indepth profiles of 7 English-speaking females who have successfully journeyed to join ISIS and are now resident in the so-called Islamic State. These profiles show the diversity among female recruits and expose everything from their driving motivations, worldviews and subsequent roles under ISIS control. The final section of this report looks at counter-extremism work in the space of prevention and de-radicalisation, showing how various Western governments are operating within this space and analysing where better infrastructure is needed to address the topic of gender within processes of radicalisation.

Publication Details
Published year only: 
Subject Areas
Geographic Coverage