There is much debate as regards the respect of women’s rights in Islam and most scholars concur that the problem is not the religion per se, but its interpretation by extremists and jihadists. There is no doubt that the latter show little or no respect for the aforementioned rights and someone should expect to find literally no woman participating in Islamist terrorist groups. Nonetheless, the reality begs to differ: From the notorious “Black Widows”, the female suicide bombers in Russia, to the “ISIS brides”, many women choose to participate in a seemingly irrational fight.
Starting with the “black widows”, between 2000 and 2013 (peak of the phenomenon), 48 female suicide bombers have staged in Russia a total of 25 attacks killing almost 850 people. Jamali points out that “most studies of Chechen female suicide bombers have found that these women have experienced serious personal trauma”. However, against the conventional wisdom, Abdullaev’s explanation of the “black widows” is that “suicide terrorism in the largest of the post-Soviet states is an organizational rather than trauma-driven phenomenon”.
Both analysts are partly right. Chechen Muslim women have been exposed to war and discrimination, and most likely have experienced the murder, imprisonment or torture of a beloved person or have been sometimes victims themselves. They have also a strict code of honour and believe that their fight is not only religious, but nationalist, fighting cruel occupying forces. Hence, the participation in a jihadist organization or cause, it is simply not perceived as such in most cases.
For the “ISIS brides” things are different. ISIS seriously violates human rights and women are subjected to “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5, UDHR) and they are enslaved in the case of Yezidi women (Article 4). Furthermore, they do not enjoy the freedom of expression, employment or education (Articles 19, 23 and 26, respectively). Last but not least, they are not equal before the law (Article 7). And in their case, there is no “freedom fight” or personal trauma to back their decision to join the terrorist group.
The truth is that these mostly European women do feel disenfranchised. For them the participation in something bigger, the religious fervor, the desire to find a meaning in their life, and their distorted idea of how ISIS implements the “shariah”, leads them to the fanatical group. Usually this happens through a proposed marriage or following another relative.