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Women and jihad: from bride to the front line

Suspected Al Qaeda-aligned Shabaab militants, a woman and her three children, sit next to weapons after their arrest on May 5, 2016 in Mogadishu
Suspected Al Qaeda-aligned Shabaab militants, a woman and her children, sit next to weapons after their arrest on May 5, 2016 in Mogadishu. Photo: Mohamed Abdiwahab / AFP / Getty Images

A women's magazine, unveiled in December, gives tips on how to be a "good bride" and make life easier for the man in your life. The twist: the magazine, "Beituki," is published by al-Qaeda as part of a propaganda campaign which "appears, in part, to be a reaction to Islamic State (IS), which has called women to the front lines," per the Economist.

The big picture: Extremist organizations are struggling to define what women's roles in their groups should be. While some force women to "remain indoors," as Beituki suggests, others have placed women on the front lines, or utilized them as recruiters.

Quote"The face of terrorism is changing — and it is now often a woman’s face."
— Mia Bloom, a Georgia State University professor who specializes in transcultural violence

Here's a look at the roles women are now playing in a number of terrorist groups.

The "good bride"

Elisabeth Kendall of Oxford University told the Economist that the magazine signals al-Qaeda's concerns that "the conflict has made women too vocal, active and empowered...It would rather they focused on etiquette indoors.”

    • An example of the tips the magazine offers to women: "all the bloodshed and bones he sees ... Your fussing only increases the pressure."

The participant

Boko Haram is notorious for the use of women suicide bombers, but other groups encourage women to take part in violence as well.

For example: The Pakistani Taliban released an English magazine last August, Sunnat-e-Khola, focused solely on women. Anat Agron, research fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute, told Axios they "totally condone women participating in jihad."

  • Compare these tips from the magazine to those offered in Beituki:
    • "Write essays supporting cause of jihad."
    • "Help the cause of jihad with money."
    • "Organize secret gatherings at home and invite like-minded jihadi sisters ... Learn how to operate simple weapons. Learn how to use grenades."

The recruiter

Veryan Khan, editorial director of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), told Marie Claire magazine: "There's a priority for the Islamic State to attract females because it offers stability. If you want people to see you as a nation, a legitimate state, it's important to attract females and have them start families...It's not like women are an afterthought. This is a strategic move."

  • The recruiters are frequently women from the same area as those being recruited, Bloom, the Georgia State University professor, tells Axios: "You need to be relatable, and if all your references, and all the TV shows, and the music you listen to isn't the same as your target, you're not going to be able to relate as easily."

The motivator

As the New York Times has reported, some women with ties to extremist groups have been known to guilt men into fighting:

  • This was a very effective messaging tactic, Bloom said: “In the U.K., in English, they were publishing posters and circulating on the internet this idea that…your sisters are being raped, the occupiers — the Americans — are impregnating them and they’re humiliating them. You need to do something, you need to step up and you need to kill them.”

On the other side: Fighting extremism

It is worth noting that women are also taking an increasingly active role in fighting extremism, with the YPJ, an all-female Kurdish force that has battled ISIS, being a particular notable example.

  • Bloom told Axios these women are "so intimidating to the ISIS fighters, that the ISIS fighters have this belief that if they get killed by a woman, they don't get their virgins in Paradise. They won't get all the benefits of martyrdom."