Bring home female jihadists? Beware the trope of women as victims

Collecting evidence in a war zone to successfully prosecute someone for committing a terrorist offence, or even to have aided or abetted terrorism, is very difficult. Whatever untainted information and evidence obtained on foreign fighters is likely to come through domestic or foreign intelligence agencies. There are restrictions on the disclosure of that information in an open court.

This undated photo issued by the Metropolitan Police shows Shamima Begum, who ran away from Britain as a teenager to join Islamic State extremists in Syria four years ago.

This undated photo issued by the Metropolitan Police shows Shamima Begum, who ran away from Britain as a teenager to join Islamic State extremists in Syria four years ago.Credit:AP

Begum is a British citizen and, unlike Australia, Britain does not yet have a foreign incursions offence. Therefore, she cannot be tried for that crime. She also cannot be stripped of her British citizenship under UK law because she is not a dual citizen. Prosecuting her under the Treason Act is impractical as the law is woefully outdated.

Many foreign fighters from Western countries are well aware of these limitations. It seems everyone caught in the last square half-kilometre of the caliphate was a cook, driver or jihadi bride.

Begum makes the same claim. As she told a Sky News interviewer, “I was just a housewife for the entire four years – stayed at home, took care of my husband, took care of my kids.” Yet, in arguing her case, it is also notable how she frames her situation. She says (emphasis added):

«They don’t have any evidence against me doing anything dangerous … they don’t have any proof that I did anything dangerous.»


She does not directly state that she did not do these things, only that they have no prosecutable evidence.

«I think a lot of people should have sympathy towards me for everything I have been through,» Begum says.  For the sake of her child, she says, she hopes she’ll be allowed to return to the UK.

If Begum was successfully prosecuted, the case of Tareena Shakil, the first British female IS supporter to be convicted, serves as an illustration of the limited sentence she would likely receive. Shakil was sentenced to six years, two for posting messages encouraging terrorism online and four for being an IS member.

Additionally, the ability of foreign fighters to radicalise other prisoners is a major concern. And yet, if Begum was not successfully convicted in court on terrorism charges, the authorities would have to asses that she remains some sort of security risk.

The resources required to keep surveillance on her and others like her would be substantial and costly. Even if she was mandated to undergo a deradicalisation program upon her return, the efficacy of such programs is nascent at best. When asked in an interview whether she could be rehabilitated, Begum herself admitted: “It would be really hard because of everything I’ve been through now.”

Female foreign fighters from ISIS pose a particular challenge because of the positive security bias afforded women. Women, particularly mothers, are viewed as inherently less threatening. There is a tendency to label foreign women and girls who travelled to Syria and Iraq as mere “jihadi brides” and therefore not responsible for their actions.

Begum’s family lawyer has argued she should be treated as a “victim of grooming in the ISIS context”. But according to Begum herself, she says: «I don’t regret it because it’s changed me as a person. It’s made me stronger, tougher … I did have a good time there, it’s just that at the end things got harder and I couldn’t take it anymore.»

While it’s difficult to know Begum’s exact situation, committed jihadist or grooming victim, we do know that many of the foreign women who joined ISIS were not duped or coerced. They sought to join the caliphate and supported violent jihad through their own agency.


The role of female jihadists such as Begum has traditionally been underestimated. As in many other ways, IS has changed the rule book when it comes to women and jihad. Even though it is a strictly patriarchal and violently puritanical group that committed many well-documented atrocities against women, IS nevertheless expanded the role of women in jihad in myriad ways.

While other jihadist organisations such as al-Qaeda still place restrictions on women’s participation in jihad, IS became the first terrorist organisation to officially declare that it was, in fact, obligatory for women to take up arms for the sake of jihad. Since the founding of ISIS, more women have been involved in planning, supporting, and perpetrating jihadist terrorist plots than in any other time.

Yet our gendered perspective and assumptions of women, particularly Muslim women, and violence still overwhelmingly lead us to portray women such as Begum solely as victims rather than agents. Female-perpetrated violence or their support of violence is still viewed as personal, not political. As a result, foreign-fighter women have received shorter sentences than men and have received more pardons.

Not only do our Western laws need to adapt to adequately address the foreign fighters coming out of IS territory but our societal perspectives of gender need to be re-examined if we are to correctly assess the threat such women pose.

Lydia Khalil is a research fellow, West Asia Program, at the Lowy Institute. This is an edited version of an article written for the Lowy Institute journal The Interpreter.

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