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Caliphettes: Women and the Appeal of Islamic State


Quilliam  is an independent Islam focused research organization based in U.K. Among the reports prepared by their experts, we found this study on the motivations of women joining Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. The following Executive Summary serves as an introduction to the full report.


   Quilliam have set about researching the interplay between these two factors, namely Islamic State’s propaganda targeted at women, and the appeal of this propaganda to women.

   The following report discusses the appeal of the Islamic State “caliphate” to women. To do this, the authors have embarked upon a close analysis of Islamic State’s official propaganda and unofficial proselytisers. In the process, four promises – empowerment, deliverance, participation and piety – are identified as the organisation’s key pull factors. 

   The promise of empowerment conveyed by Islamic State’s official and unofficial propaganda encourages women to understand joining the organisation as a means to reverse the ills that they face in life outside the “caliphate”. By joining Islamic State, the line goes, women can defiantly take charge of their lives in the same way that men can: through living in Islamic State’s “caliphate” and supporting its jihad by marrying a fighter, women are led to believe that they can emancipate themselves from kufr (disbelief). 

   The deliverance promise focuses on the idea that, by joining Islamic State, grievances that women suffer in the West are immediately resolved. Women can be freed from daily degradations and disbelief, and are instead assimilated into a tightknit collective sisterhood that will provide them with a network of support and friendship. Reflective of this, the ideas of redemption and deliverance tend to be directed to females by females. 

   The participation promise incentivizes women to join Islamic State even though their role is strictly non-military. It conveys a sense that there is more to the “caliphate’s” jihad than fighting and that, for women, there is a specific state-building role. A constant theme in Islamic State propaganda is that supporting the “caliphate”, making it grow and flourish, is the job of everyone. For women, this takes the role of providing, maintaining and educating its ”cubs”, the next generation of fighters, as well as supporting their soldier spouses. 

   The last promise of Islamic State’s women-orientated propaganda is piety, something built up the theological imperative to join the group. The alleged pristine nature of an “Islamic existence” in the “caliphate” is a means of justifying each stress and sacrifice and also acts as a means for recruiters to exert peer pressure to push others to make hijra (migrating). 

   These four themes alone do not cause female supporters of Islamic State in the West to make hijra. However, when combined with the group’s copious amounts of audio-visual propaganda, they play a crucial role in the rhetorical armoury of the “caliphate’s” recruiters. 

   The discussion on the radicalisation of women is overly gendered and, all too often, predicated on misconceptions. In reality, when  it comes to joining violent extremist causes, women are susceptible to the very same processes as men: narratives, ideology, grievances, and various push and pull factors. Reflecting this, the last part of this report delivers policy recommendations on how we must reappraise our attempts to counter the twin processes of female radicalisation and recruitment, in line with general counter-radicalisation, but using women as specific entry points. The four promises used in Islamic State propaganda, and cited in this report, are not exhaustive. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to an individual’s radicalisation, of which propaganda can play an important part. As such, research into the key narratives employed by the “caliphate” can shine an important light on the motivations behind an individual’s journey to jihad.

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