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How Gender Bias Hampers Counter-Terrorism

Global Insight by Katelyn Jones
The Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube logos sit in front of the ISIS flag

Hoda Muthana's and Shamima Begum's requests to return to their home countries after joining ISIS have put women’s roles in terrorism at the center of popular news and conversations about violent extremism.


Hoda Muthana’s and Shamima Begum’s requests to return to their home countries after joining ISIS have put women’s roles in terrorism at the center of popular news and conversations about violent extremism. Stereotypical images of ISIS fighters being men, and the women involved in ISIS being passive victims of the organization, have shattered.

In this third installment of the "What’s Up with WPS?" series, I consider these women’s cases in light of the UN Security Council’s February 2019 report, Gender Dimensions of the Response to Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters. The report brings together evidence from academic scholarship and policy research to highlight the complex reasons women and men join terrorist groups and challenges biased assumptions about women and men terrorists. Considering Muthana’s and Begum’s experiences alongside the report’s findings amplifies the need to remove gender stereotypes from counter-terrorism policies and research. It also emphasizes that each identified terrorist must be treated individually and with special attention to their unique situation and context to ensure peace and security.

Challenging Stereotypes: The Stories of Hoda Muthana and Shamima Begum

Muthana left college in Alabama to join ISIS four years ago. She married an ISIS fighter and ran a recruitment Twitter account to attract other foreign fighters. Now 24 years old and with an 18-month old son, Muthana seeks to return to the United States. Her claim to citizenship remains to be determined in court, and President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have called Muthana a foreign terrorist and declared her ineligible to return to the United States. She remains in al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria with her child as she awaits a decision in her case.

Begum, now 19 years old, left East London at the age of 15 to marry an ISIS fighter. After giving birth to a son in February, she sought to return to the United Kingdom to provide him the care he needed (Begum’s newborn son has since died, and she previously lost two children to illness and malnutrition). Unlike Muthana, Begum claims to have never played any part in ISIS activities beyond taking care of her husband and son. Like Muthana, Begum is in the al-Hawl refugee camp in northeastern Syria. Begum’s family is appealing the home secretary’s decision to strip her of her citizenship, a decision made because Begum’s ISIS affiliation means she is considered a threat to British security.

Muthana’s and Begum’s stories have not only challenged stereotypes about terrorists, but also raised broader questions about how to respond to foreign terrorist fighters as they try to return to their home countries. What is the best way to respond to returning terrorists? And do women require different responses than men?

Gender Bias and Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism

The UN report calls on member states to recognize the different roles women play, analyze the drivers of women’s radicalization, and devise gender-sensitive responses to counter-terrorism and violent extremism. It focuses especially on the ways that gender stereotypes hamper counter-terrorism efforts and inhibit justice.

While it is often assumed that women travelers were passive victims of men terrorists, information about women’s different roles in ISIS has contributed to frequent criminal investigations and prosecutions of women. In 2016, women constituted 26% of those arrested on terrorism charges in Europe—an 8% increase from 2015. Nonetheless, there remains gender bias in sentencing practices, and nations struggle with the investigation and prosecution of women associated with ISIS. Women receive comparatively lenient sentences, based on the assumption that women were “duped” into joining ISIS under false pretenses. And women often receive limited rehabilitation and reintegration support compared to men terrorists, putting them at increased risk of re-radicalization and recidivism.

To remedy these problems and create more effective counter-terrorism strategies, the UN report calls on policymakers and researchers to dismiss gender stereotypes and recognize the plurality of women’s experiences in ISIS. While it was once assumed that women who joined ISIS were young, unwed, and less educated, we now know that there is a wide age spread, different marital statuses, and different levels of education among them. Hoda Muthana, who was in college when she joined ISIS, is just one example of a woman terrorist whose characteristics diverge from the expected norm. Given this information, the report underlines that it is necessary to recognize and study the diversity of women’s backgrounds to effect policies that combat women’s radicalization and ensure that security is not compromised.

Moreover, the report stresses women’s reasons for radicalization are usually the same as those that drive men. If policymakers allow gender biases to prevail and assume that women only join ISIS because they are tricked into doing so, the factors that most often drive them to join will go unaddressed, and efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism will fall short.

What’s next for Muthana, Begum, and Counter-Terrorism?

In the cases of Muthana and Begum, it is difficult to determine what will happen next. History would suggest that both women would be treated leniently, but media coverage and hardline responses from the US and UK governments indicate that is not the case, at least for the time being. Evidence from the UN report suggests that everyone involved in determining these women’s fates needs to carefully consider the women’s contexts and involvement in ISIS, not base decisions on gender stereotypes or perceived victimhood.

Whether they return home or not, both women will require substantial rehabilitation and reintegration support to ensure their individual security and protect international security interests. And those responsible for this reintegration would do well to invest more in these efforts than normally allotted to prevent recidivism.

More broadly, we need more research to determine the best policy responses to returning women terrorists. It is important for policymakers and observers alike to keep in mind that women are not all tricked or duped into joining ISIS. Many women knowingly participate in the group’s activities. It is also important to note men do not all join ISIS knowingly. Men, too, can be duped.

Evidence shows that stereotypical understandings of terrorists fall short, and it would be dangerous to allow these stereotypes to continue to dominate decision-making. The more researchers and policymakers can do to challenge these conventional narratives and recognize the unique situation of each identified terrorist, man or woman, the better able they will be to seek justice, ensure national security, and uphold accused persons' human rights.

About the Author
Katelyn Jones
Nonresident Fellow, Global Food and Agriculture
Council expert Katelyn Jones
Katelyn Jones is a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and her research concerns gender politics in international organizations, and is especially focused on gender mainstreaming in policy formation and implementation.
Council expert Katelyn Jones