Since 2015, Pakistan has witnessed increased incidences of women’s participation in transnational jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The formation of AQIS’s Shaheen women’s wing that is reportedly training more than 500 female suicide bombers, the Al Zikra academy network of upper middle class women in Karachi carrying out fundraising and matchmaking activities for ISIS, and the case of three women who left for Syria with their 12 children in 2015 are just some of the visible instances of women’s radicalization and active roles in terrorism.
So are these cases an anomaly or indicative of a broader phenomenon? To understand this issue, one needs to know that the involvement of women in terrorist organizations within Pakistan is not unprecedented. Pakistan’s policymakers and security agencies have adopted a male-centric approach when looking at terrorist groups, negating or underestimating the crucial roles women have played in the past, within the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and now AQIS and ISIS. There is no doubt that these groups limit women’s roles, banning education and relegating them primarily to the domestic sphere. However, regardless of these structural gender inequalities embedded within their conception of an “Islamic” society, these groups envision the participation of women under critical and specialized roles that can be categorized as “women’s jihad.”
First, women have acted as “facilitators and fundraisers,” which was evident when women sold off their jewelry to support the Taliban in Swat, gaining inspiration from Mullah Fazlullah’s notorious radio broadcasts. Second, women are the nucleus of the domestic sphere in the case of Pakistan’s patriarchal society. Thus, terrorist organizations envision women as the “domestic radicalizers,” indoctrinating their children and networks of women with the violent and extremist ideology of the group at hand. In 2014, students from Jamia-e-Hafsa, the women’s wing of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, pledged allegiance to ISIS in a video. Such networks of women that rely on exchanging extremist religious knowledge also act as the recruiters at home, expected to groom their children as generations of like-minded jihadists. Third, women have also provided support as suicide bombers for TTP, with the first such case reported in 2007 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In another mass-casualty attack in 2010, a female suicide bomber from the TTP detonated explosives at a World Food Program distribution center in FATA, killing 45 and injuring 80 others.
The recruitment of women that took place under TTP is now mirrored by AQIS and ISIS. Although there is little information about the recruitment patterns of AQIS for women, several incidences of ISIS recruiting middle and upper-middle class educated women from urban centers, such as Sialkot, Lahore, and Karachi have been reported. More recently, in February 2017, the case of a young medical student came to the fore, where the police claimed that she had been radicalized by ISIS online and had left for Syria.
It seems rather paradoxical that educated and urban women would willingly join an Islamist terrorist group that unabashedly denies them the same rights as the men and largely restricts their mobility. Hence, gendered or personal explanations are often deployed to explain women’s participating in these groups. As such, the woman is believed to be following her husband, father, or brother or perceived as seeking revenge for their killing by the opposition group or the state. However, in September 2016, Bushra Cheema deserted her husband and left for Syria to join ISIS with their four children. In a voice message sent to her husband, she stated, “I love God and his religion… If you can’t join us then at least pray your wife and children die in jihad.” What motivated Bushra Cheema to join ISIS?
Nimi Gowrinathan discusses the women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, who in part fought to ensure security for the marginalized Tamil community. Gowrinathan adds that women are recruited by ISIS based on identity politics, with marginalized and oppressed Muslim women forming the membership base.
Bushra Cheema’s radicalization then can be studied as negating the madrasa-terrorism nexus, instead showcasing an identity crisis stemming from resentment toward the state in the form of political and economic grievances. Women’s radicalization processes reflect the same considerations, with the solution entrenched within AQIS and ISIS’s political ideology of an “Islamic” state making the members (men and women) stakeholders working within the realm of their own specialized roles.
The women-terrorism nexus within Pakistan remains a reality that should no longer be ignored by the state and security officials. Although it is not likely the majority in the ranks of these traditionally patriarchal and misogynist groups will be women, their active recruitment signals a threat to the state. This necessitates a replacement of the age-old male-centric approach to counterterrorism with a more gender neutral perspective.
Female suicide bombers are a dire security concern, due to their ability to easily access security check-posts while concealing suicide jackets underneath their clothing or burqas. This problem is linked to the low induction of females within the Pakistani police and military. A report by the National Police Bureau of Pakistan in 2011 indicated that only 0.89 percent of the police force comprised of women. This number is negligible considering that an estimated 48-50 percent of the total population manage to skip security checkpoints, as men are unable to conduct physical checks. Thus, increased recruitment of women would allow the security establishment to better respond to and counter threats emanating from women.
Pakistani society is based on a strong family structure, which makes it permissible for women to partake in family-based radicalization of their children. In the context of this long-term threat, women’s emancipation and economic empowerment could hold the key to preventing the growing traction of extremist narratives as an alternative to the current status quo.
Sara Mahmood is a Research Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.