Why Women Join ISIS

5 minute read

Huckerby is clinical professor of law and the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Duke University School of Law and a co-editor of Gender, National Security and Counter-Terrorism: Human Rights Perspectives

With last week’s attack in the United States come many questions, including: who was Tashfeen Malik?

After storming a holiday party in San Bernardino with her husband, Malik joins a string of women linked to recent high-profile attacks in the West for which ISIS has claimed credit. Her peers include Hasna Aitboulahcen, who sheltered the alleged mastermind of the recent Paris attacks before both died in the raid to capture him, as well as Hayat Boumeddiene, who fled to ISIS-held territory as her partner Amedy Coulibaly killed a policewoman and lay siege to a supermarket in Paris on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo attack in January. Within weeks, Boumeddiene was featured in a Q&A piece in Dar al-Islam, a French ISIS magazine.

The facts are clear: women can be terrorists, too. Yet, the phenomenon still seems to shock and tropes about female passivity and domesticity hold firm. Take the case of Malik: authorities are probing the time she spent living in Saudi Arabia and at university in her native Pakistan, unsure who in the couple instigated the attack. Witnesses are now describing how she shot first. Meanwhile, the media and some policymakers wrestle with how Malik, described by some as “modern,” “soft-spoken,” “obedient,” “submissive,” and a “shy housewife,” could turn into a killer.

Likewise, much is being made of Malik being a wife and a new mother. But while theories on Malik’s motherhood range from damning (maternal instincts should have stopped her) to exculpatory (postpartum psychosis made her do it), the fact that the father, Syed Rizwan Farook, also left behind their 6-month-old daughter goes unremarked upon. By all accounts the couple met through an online dating site and ISIS neither directed nor communicated with them (though Malik pledged allegiance to the group, who later called the couple its “supporters”). Yet this hasn’t stopped some from speculating that ISIS is now in the business of arranging marriages between radicalized women and unsure men.

In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, certainly there are still more questions than answers. But what is so far alleged about Malik’s support of ISIS fits a general pattern. Many women are drawn to the group, taking on recruitment, propaganda, and support roles despite the fact that it is known for its anti-women horrors. There are estimated to be 600 Western female ISIS recruits, but the number of non-Western women is believed to be much higher. Around 700 women from Tunisia alone have reportedly travelled to Syria to join jihadist groups. Despite this, we seem most fascinated with the specter of London schoolgirls or a former cheerleader from Mississippi trying to join the ranks of ISIS.

Stereotypes about the subservience of Muslim women, particularly those from Muslim-majority countries, are a major barrier to understanding the group’s appeal to women. So too is our tendency to fixate on how terrorists oppress women, a fact that many find difficult to reconcile with female involvement in violent extremism. There is no question that misogyny often puts women in terrorism’s crosshairs, whether it be ISIS’ sexual violence and kidnappings in Syria, Iraq and Libya or the recent attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs after which the shooter rambled about “no more baby parts.” But, so too have women long been involved in terrorism of all stripes and in the case of ISIS, its Western female recruits can be drawn by many of the same factors as men: alienation, inequality, marriage, adventure, and pull of the cause. How these factors play out when ISIS attracts women outside of the West, and in languages other than English and French, also needs tracing.

Efforts to prevent women from supporting ISIS need to better understand and address these push and pull factors, with programs better tailored to include more female caseworkers, community leaders, and family members. Just as women are perpetrators and victims of terrorism, they are also part of its solution. Risks of backlash must also factor in the re-think on terror strategies about women, not least to avoid the public harassment of Muslim women wearing hijab in the West that follows ISIS-related attacks. The answer, however, won’t always just be about women; in the United States, all dangerous people should be prevented from access to guns that are more suited to the far-away battlefields that ISIS now seeks to recreate on U.S. soil.

Instead, responses in the shooting’s aftermath based more on ignorance and fear than evidence have also pointed to a lingering blind spot on women perpetrators, and one that shows just how far we really are from tackling their deadly acts.

Jayne Huckerby, an associate clinical professor of law and the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Duke University School of Law, is a co-editor of “Gender, National Security and Counter-Terrorism: Human Rights Perspectives.”

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