Why the Strategy to Defeat ISIL Must Include Women

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Though the Obama administration’s strategy for dealing with the ISIL crisis continues to attract widespread criticism and concern—some of it partisan cable news nonsense, some of it intellectually serious—there is usually a glaring analytical omission: the international gender dimension of Muslim radicalization and counter-radicalization. And though religion is now recognized as a primary framework for understanding the security issues at the nexus of these conflicts, the gendered dimensions of ISIL’s continued terror, and government responses to it, are conspicuously absent.

ISIL’s war of ideas has now overtaken national and gender boundaries, with their ideological propaganda finding its way into the homes of women and girls worldwide. While their attempts to target girls and women usually eschews the barbaric and tragic images often witnessed in those targeting male “jihadists”—focusing instead on the joys of family life and the “honor” of raising new fighters for Islam—their messages still call for women to forego their current lives in favor of much riskier ones.

There are now at least 100 known European women in Iraq and Syria fighting with ISIL, with likely a much larger number who are not yet known. The Shia Post reports that British women fighting with ISIL are now helping to run a “shari’a police force.” As growing numbers of women travel from their home countries to join ISIL, US policy makers must think critically about how to preempt both a new brand of terrorism and the recruitment of women into it, supporting women’s roles in countering the spread and impact of terrorism—now and for generations to come.

To do this effectively, Muslim women leaders within Iraq, as well as in the regions of the world from which foreign fighters are traveling to the Middle East, must be engaged and provided with platforms from which to address and influence their people. Women leaders should be encouraged and empowered to spread an alternate narrative that highlights a positive vision of Muslim womanhood in a religiously diverse world, and at the same time exposes the terror awaiting women who seek to join ISIL and similar movements. It is vital that they not be overshadowed or silenced by male religious leaders, but rather encouraged to play a role in Iraq’s future stability and resiliency.

The ability for women to remain resilient in the face of extremist messaging and recruitment is not just critical for reducing the duration of the current conflict, but also long-term as Iraq rebuilds and puts in place political and legal systems that are inclusive and just. And for this, a US-led coalition will need to institutionalize a response. Decision makers can only be equipped when there is intentional action nested in strategic documents like the US national security strategy, national action plans on women, peace and security, as well as those that direct our religious engagement strategy.

US policy and decision makers in military and non-military positions must be equipped to think critically and holistically about the “genderization” of conflict—the ways in which war disproportionately impacts women while simultaneously excluding them from having a voice. Moreover policy makers will find it helpful to consider the important roles that women play in post-conflict reconstruction and post-conflict societal flourishing.

With current conditions in the Middle East, it will not be easy for governments to identify and engage those women leaders who are best positioned to serve as allies in the coalition’s efforts. However, NGOs at home and in the region can. The intelligence and relationships that organizations working on the ground and in the refugee camps can deliver is substantial.

How history judges this next chapter of US engagement in Iraq will depend on our effectiveness in defeating ISIL, but even more importantly, whether Iraq, and the broader region, is equipped and able to embrace pluralism as a path towards sustainable peace—one where women play a significant role as contributors—in development, delivery, and implementation.  Thus, any approach to ISIL that truly merits the label “strategy” must be attuned throughout to the critical gender dimension of the current conflict.

- Christy Vines is Executive Director of the Center for Women, Faith & Leadership and the Global Center of Excellence on Religion & Gender at the Institute for Global Engagement in Washington, DC.