Promises of Paradise: IS Propaganda towards Women

6 Dec 2016

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, more than 30,000 individuals have travelled to the area of the Levant with the purpose of joining the so-called Islamic State (IS). About 5,000 of these foreign fighters (FF) originate from Europe, where welfare nations such as Belgium, France, Sweden and the UK stand out as source countries that provide comparatively large numbers of fighters to the terrorist organisation.

Another striking and unprecedented phenomenon found when studying data about European FF relates to gender. Although women becoming involved in violent extremist groups is not a new phenomenon – it has been seen in the past, for instance in the IRA and the Tamil Tigers – the numbers now observed are exceptionally high. Around 20 per cent of the FF population stemming from Europe consists of women. This means that approximately 1,000 women, some together with their children, have chosen to migrate to areas controlled by IS in search of a new and very different life.

Despite this fact, few studies have examined why so many women choose to join IS. Existing research is often based on deductions from social media accounts linked to Western women living in the “Caliphate”. As pioneering pieces of research, the studies have contributed valuable insights into the role of women under IS rule and portray the daily life of female migrants. However, they have failed to explain how IS, as an organisation, views women. They have also failed to describe what is promised to women upon affiliation. One exception can be found in Kiriloi M. Ingram’s brief but interesting review of the female archetypes found in IS magazine Dabiq, published by ICCT.

In a new report entitled Promises of Paradise? – A Study on Official ISIS-Propaganda Targeting Women, I have presented seven clear promises delivered to women in official IS propaganda, deepening the analysis further. I argue that these promises can help us understand the incentives that motivate women to migrate, and thereby give us the means to devise better measures to counter radicalisation of women to IS.

Promises of Paradise is based on almost 900 pages of official IS propaganda from thirteen issues of the glossy magazine Dabiq and eleven official statements made by the self-appointed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the now late spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani. What emerges in the research material is a dreamy picture of a country of the future filled with possibilities for young women.

IS’ Seven Promises Made to Women

  1. Official propaganda promises women the possibility to fulfil the religious duty that will take them to paradise, in this life as well as in the afterlife. Hijra, migration to IS, is presented as an opportunity for a better life. In IS, women wearing religious clothing can escape the suspicious glances commonly experienced in the West and live a life in line with God’s wishes. By so doing, women can secure a bright future brimming with possibilities.
  1. Further, official IS propaganda promises women a central role in the state-building process of the Caliphate. Here, women have three vital functions. They become esteemed wives of brave and righteous warriors whom only they can support with their strength and courage, and by carrying out domestic chores and praying. Women are also key in their role as mothers of IS’ next generation, through which they secure the establishment and long-term survival of the State. Women can also, through studies in medicine or pedagogy, become state officials. This education and training is advertised as being free of charge. The same applies to the books, housing, food, kindergarten and healthcare. In addition, those who do especially well in their studies are promised economic rewards for their hard work.
  1. According to official propaganda, by joining IS women also get to experience a deep and meaningful sense of belonging. The material repeatedly states that all people living in IS territory are treated as equals regardless of skin colour, nationality or ethnicity. In the Caliphate, American women and Iraqi women are sisters, and women of colour are just as valued as their white sisters. Their religious affiliation makes them equals in the land of Islam, and IS is portrayed as a utopian society free from discrimination.
  1. Women living in territory controlled by IS also experience a sense of sisterhood framed as a deep and genuine friendship that by far exceeds bloodlines. An example presented in official propaganda is polygyny, where up to four women share the same husband in a sisterly spirit. Through such practices, all women, including widows who have lost their husbands in the war against al-Assad and the anti-IS coalition, are guaranteed security, honour and dignity.
  1. Women who choose to join IS are also promised an exciting adventure. Here, the journey to territory controlled by IS is highlighted as an opportunity to experience something remarkable. Stories are recounted of women who meet each other along the course of their journey. Placing one’s foot on Caliphate soil is portrayed as something extraordinary. Only the most courageous and brave carry out this duty, and the propaganda challenges women, telling cowards to remain in the West.
  1. Promises of deep and passionate romance are also found in official propaganda originating from IS. Dabiq frequently displays young, good-looking strong men as true believers. Women joining the terrorist organisation can look forward to meeting these righteous men. Those living in the West with men who are unfaithful to God are called on to abandon them for IS. Those who do so can expect abundant rewards. Recompenses are promised in this life, as well as in the afterlife. A martyr’s widow living in the Caliphate achieves the highest honour of all. Marriage brings women high status.
  1. Finally, women who join IS are promised increased influence in the internal politics of IS, as well as in international politics. Boosted influence is gained by subjugating women of other faiths. A commonly used example is that of Yazidi women. Power is guaranteed through the enslavement of such groups and the final victory is said to be guaranteed, as God has promised it.

The seven promises above show that women are vowed an active although traditional role in the building and maintenance of IS. Official propaganda stemming from IS speaks directly to women and the number of female adherents confirms that the target group is listening intently. The promises paint a picture of a young nation state resembling a paradise on earth. The nature of the message sent to women is one of hope, opportunity and empowerment. Women joining IS have a chance at a purposeful and fulfilling life in line with God’s wishes. It is therefore up to affected European states to counter IS paradisiac claims while providing better opportunities for young women at home.

Louisa Tarras-Wahlberg has published the report “Promises of Paradise? A Study on Official ISIS-propaganda targeting women”. She previously worked within the Swedish government offices to counter youth radicalisation and is a post-graduate from the Swedish Defence University specialising in security policy.