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"Women have gathered nothing but thorns from the harvest of equality": Exploring Western Women's Attitudes to Islamic State Gender Roles

Extremism
Gender
Islam
Political Violence
Terrorism
Julia Canas
University College Dublin
Julia Canas
University College Dublin

Abstract

How did Western women who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq respond to the strict gender roles imposed by the organisation? The IS used religion to justify a patriarchal structure in the territory it controlled, with women considered subordinate to men and spending most of their time in their homes (Spencer 2016). As a result, much of the literature on these women describes them as passive victims of the organisation (Ali 2015, Ahram 2015, Chatterjee 2016), even if they joined voluntarily for political and religious reasons (Loken and Zelenz 2017). They are speculated to have found their domestic roles frustrating or disappointing, especially coming from societies that valued female emancipation (Peresin 2015, Peresin and Cervone 2015). But historically, women have also fought to uphold patriarchal structures, especially in the context of violent religio-political movements (Parashar 2009). The act of fulfilling strict gender roles could be seen as one of voluntary submission, rather than an external imposition (Bilge 2010). For Western women, travelling to Syria to join the IS could have even felt emancipatory (Kneip 2016). It is therefore not yet clear how Western women felt about the gender roles they were expected to fulfil within the IS. This paper responds to this gap by exploring Western women's feelings surrounding the organisation’s gendered structures and the feminine ideals it promoted. Using reflexive thematic analysis to analyse a corpus of primary texts by these women, including media interviews and social media posts, this study investigates their attitudes to the expected gendered behaviours and whether they tried to emulate the feminine ideals espoused by the IS. It aims to explore the impact that the relationship between religion, violence, and gender roles had on Western women’s engagement with the group and how this may open possible routes for disengagement.