They can't be that dangerous, they're only women

Female foreign fighters are framed as delusional, emotionally unstable, and naïve jihadi brides in search of a husband. This narrative can be dangerous, explains Ester Strømmen at PluriCourts.

Three fighters, seen as shadows, holding weapons in the sunset.

- Women in IS are discussed in demeaning and sensationalistic terms- they are sexualized and infantilized- not only by the media, but also by the judiciary. Illustration: Colourbox

Our understanding of women interferes with how we view them as terrorists, suggest a new study from PluriCourts.

Throughout 2016 Ester Strommen followed cases of women who have left their homes to join Da’esh. Some have returned, and some are still not accounted for. Tracing movements in the media and the judiciary, as well as the national discussions regarding their action, Strømmen noticed specific trends.

- In a sample of the cases I’ve looked at, women who join IS/Da’esh receive a lower sentence than their male counterparts, says Strømmen and continues

Women in IS are discussed in demeaning and sensationalistic terms- they are sexualized and infantilized- not only by the media, but also by the judiciary.

Gender Bias

Differentiated understandings of female and male extremism are not a new phenomenon. Existing literature on female extremists show that women’s actions are often interpreted as outliers. Their actions are explained by characterizing them within personal feminized terms: either as failed mothers, psychologically ill, or sexual deviants, a theory developed by Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry in their seminal work ‘Mothers, Monsters, Whores’.

However, stories of the women that leave to join Da’esh resemble the stories of the men that leave. Trends in the societies they come from, including discrimination and a search for belonging and adventure, can draw people into extremism. Individuals have various reasons for joining extremist groups, and these need to be further analyzed and discussed, rather than simplified by gendered narratives.

This potential tendency to narrate women as misled victims rather than motivated agents not only effects understandings of gender and extremism, but also affects legal outcomes and security standpoints, Strømmen explains.

Women and their stories

In the study, Strømmen looked closely at four high profile cases. Given their high profile, detailed information was available, including reporting around court cases and publicly available court documents, judgements and commentary.

In three of these cases, women received lesser sentences than average in their home countries. In the reasoning, gendered perceptions of participation, motivation and roles were often central.

Women were presented and discussed as misled, lured, emotionally hysterical and as “jihadi brides” on the search for male partners, or tricked by male IS members. They were also presented as mentally unstable and vilified for bringing their children to IS, if they had done so, rather than for joining the group themselves, anchoring their activity to their specific gender roles.

Important security perspective

Why does it matter that women are discussed and treated differently on their return?

Differences in treatment and how the motivations, circumstances and actions are discussed can create gaps in legal precedent and security. More importantly, it can impede prevention and de-radicalization, Strømmen says.

If one disregards women joining IS simply as victims without investigating their specific cases and circumstances further, this constitutes a major gap in protection and precedent. 

Strømmen emphasizes that the key is not to have long sentences, but to understand the situation. Prevention and rehabilitation should be given more weight.

With regards to prevention, policies should reflect efforts to reduce fragmentation in society. “Othering”, explained as feeling excluded from society, grows in the face of policies directed at specific groups, and can increase drives towards extremism. Further studies are also needed on the tipping point from when an individual or a group turns non-violent to violent.

The gendered lens with which those joining IS are viewed and discussed, has a broader effect on how they are treated upon return. This needs to be illuminated and scrutinized further, says Strømmen.


Strømmen’s findings have been published as a PRIO policy brief, and in Norwegian in the upcoming anthology: Fremmedkrigere : Forebygging, straffeforfølgning og identitet.

Tags: Criminal law By Tori Loven Kirkebø
Published Oct. 27, 2017 2:59 PM