Law | Worldwide | Sarah Zingel

Women joining IS - Female Radicalization through Propaganda and Social Media

In part 2 of her series, Sarah Zingel sheds light on the frequency of Islamist-radicalized women and focuses on Islamic State's radicalization methods, the role of social medias and women's intrinsic motifs for radicalization.

Part 2: Women joining IS – female radicalization through propaganda and social media

How many women are Islamist-radicalized?

In Germany, according to the Verfassungsschutzbericht 2017 (an annual report on the national security published by the German Institution for the Protection of the Constitution) around 25,810 persons can be assigned to Islamist associations.[1] However, the census makes no distinction between male and female followers and doesn’t list data on specific associations such as the IS, so that it’s informative value is limited. Indeed, it is known that 960 people left Germany during the period from 2013 to 2017 travelling to Iraq or Syria; even though their motives and destiny is predominantly unknown. The percentage share of women is 21%. Before the caliphate, their share was only 15% but increased to 38% in 2014-2015 which shows the strong attraction on women deriving from the proclaimed theocracy. Of the women who have emigrated 24% do not have a migration background and every third of them only converted to Islam. The majority is under 30 years of age.[2]

Another global survey records 41,490 IS supporters from 80 nations who have emigrated to Iraq or Syria. Of these 5,904 are from Western Europe, while most come from the Middle East and North Africa (18,852) and by far the least from Australia, America and New Zealand (753). Women make about 13% worldwide; that are 4,761 followers.[3] These figures, too, are of restricted informative value, as they originate from several different partly unofficial and incomplete national records whose counting method is not always transparent. In particular, as many nations do not make a separate or reliable count of women, the number of female emigrated IS followers is likely to be a lot higher.[4] Nevertheless, the survey at least shows clearly that the country of origin and its religious and cultural landscape can be an important factor in radicalization. The clear majority of departed IS supporters from the Middle East and North Africa can be explained with this region’s geographical proximity to the former Caliphate, the similarity of religious lifestyle and the dissemination of the Arabic language – factors that all create a link between that region and the former Caliphate. The hurdle of emigration is much higher if one doesn’t speak the language and if it has to be done literally from the other side of the world, as in case of the United Nations, Australia and New Zealand, which are geographically far away. Certainly, significant discrepancies were found within Europe: While in Italy only 9% of those who left the country were female, in the Netherlands it were 29%.[5] This discrepancy as well as all data compiled in that survey must be understood as a result of the interwoven interactions and incidents on the individual, micro, meso and macro level (see the first article of this series). A deeper comparative understanding of the radicalization of women in Italy and the Netherlands is only possible on the basis of a socio-cultural analysis of each state (macro level).

As already mentioned before, the method of counting is a critical and difficult factor when assessing the present survey. In order to increase the validity of such surveys, all nations should act in a unified manner and at best divide their census into women, men, children and adolescents - the latter by gender, too. It is also necessary to determine uniformly how to deal with persons who have two nationalities in order to avoid double counting. At the moment the age structure of emigrated women can only be described through laborious case studies. Efficient counting should therefore contain the person’s age as well.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the number of female individuals who have left the country statistically only corresponds to a subgroup of the total of radicalized women. After all, radicalization is not tantamount to emigrating to the former Caliphate which means that women who have never emigrated but stayed in their home country can be just as radicalized. Emigration is only a circumstantial evidence for radicalization, as well as a person’s return can only be interpreted as a sign for deradicalization – both moving patterns are no certain proof. Conclusive figures on radicalized women can hardly be ascertained, as the processes of radicalization are rarely publicly discernible and as from the outside no concrete moment can be identified, from which on a person is as a matter of fact radicalized. In any case, the number of radicalized women is surely much higher than the number of women that participated in the emigration (hira).

Ultimately, the statistical coverage of emigrated women is a challenge that requires global agreements and whose validity can only reach its full potential when more data is differentiated and collected in a consistent way. The previously collected data is completely insufficient to get a conclusive picture.

Female radicalization by the IS

As far as the radicalization of women by the IS is concerned, it is interesting that women are addressed in the first place – unlike the organization al-Qaida, whose addressees are mainly men – and that the strategic recruitment of women by the IS has reached an unprecedented dimension. Historically, women in the context of radicalization were either blanked out or at best perceived as victims by Islamist organisations as well as by the general public. Recently they have been attributed passive, supportive participation. For sociological and criminal policy reasons, however, such "gender blindness" and stereotyped consideration should be avoided. In this sense, how women are recruited is a question that has to be addressed distinctively. The same applies regarding IS`s motif to include women in its ranks and their role in the organisation’s apparatus (see the third article of this series).

Initially there are different ways to get in touch with Islamist thinking for the first time. In addition to family and friends, mosques and Koran schools sometimes serve as recruiting places. Even information stands where the Koran is distributed free of charge ("Lies!") and where there is room for discussion might offer access to radicalised groups.[6] However, the time span between the first contact and the departure for Syria/Iraq or the commitment of a terrorist act cannot be foreseen. Depending on the personality, weeks, months or years can pass or else it never happens. Anyway, women's radicalization process is generally faster than that of men – usually taking place within only one year.[7] Likewise, the process of radicalization could stagnate at some point or come to a sudden end.

From online comments it can be learned that the family, in particular the mothers, play a decisive role, especially in underage women. The fear of turning away from their family and losing their mother has an inhibiting effect on radicalization. Moreover, some families also show active commitment when it comes to preventing their daughters from leaving the country by, for example, taking their passports away and withholding funds.[8] On one hand such factual obstacles can hinder radicalization still in a family environment; on the other hand, women's radicalization happens often especially in the inner circle of the family. Evidence of this gives the fact that 53% of all women leaving Germany travelled with a family member. In the case of men only 21% left accompanied by some family.[9]

Moreover, radicalization is mainly initiated by women for women due to the strict separation of men and women and the ban on contact with men outside the family. In addition, women are less likely to convert into so-called lone actors – who accomplish their radicalization on their very own and carry out acts without the interaction with others (lone wolf terrorism). Instead, the radicalization process of women usually corresponds to that of a peer group. They mainly interact with the family or with other women.[10] Cases like that of Roshonara Chodhry are therefore – at least so far – absolute isolated cases.[11]

On average, women are around three years younger than men when their radicalization takes place. Young women are particularly vulnerable between the ages of twelve and 21 years.[12] Probably the reason for that age pattern is that adolescence is a rebellious phase of self-discovery, during which the existing value system is questioned and one's personality is yet to crystallize.[13] Women usually go through these stages of development earlier than their male counterparts, which explains why they are usually younger than men when rebellious behaviour manifests. Such behaviour can mean radicalization but also juvenile delinquency. Interestingly enough, certain similarities between radicalization and juvenile delinquency can be noticed from a criminological perspective. Hence it would be instructive to analyse whether it also comes to the typical aging-out effect and growth out of radicalization without state intervention just as it normally happens with youth delinquency.[14] For answering that question radicalized young people should be monitored over a longer period of time and their development recorded. Until further research one can only speculate over an age-related automatic deradicalization similar to the aging-out effect in juvenile delinquency.[15]

In any case, it is connected with a considerable research effort to determine an age structure, chronological processes and other characteristics of female radicalization. Due to the lack of statistical data, information on age and chronological processes in female radicalization can only be obtained from the tough analysis of individual case reports or from a few national surveys. Systematic longitudinal studies and CV research would be of much higher informative value but do not yet exist on women.

The importance of the internet in radicalization processes

The importance of the internet in radicalization by the IS is unmistakable, as the IS gained global reach above all through the use of modern communication platforms such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Their recruitment happens especially through marketing in social medias. For this purpose, the IS maintains its own professional media production company, which regularly publishes contributions in various languages. Each production focuses on a certain audience segment. The internet thereby offers the possibility of a particularly fast, inexpensive and widespread distribution. It is used specifically to illustrate the IS’s ideology from a heroic and romanticizing perspective, to allow a direct first contact and integration into the organizational network and to promote the acceptance of its ideology.[16] However, the importance of the internet should not be overestimated either, as radicalization still largely takes place offline via the family or the circle of friends, while the internet might play a subordinate role.[17]

However, as far as women are concerned, the internet has a much more central meaning than in the case of men’s radicalization. Women are excluded in real life from certain events or institutions, especially mosques, because of the strict gender segregation, so that sometimes only the internet as a neutral, anonymous space provides an opportunity to make personal contacts.[18] For example, on websites such as, so-called sisters give tips on leaving the country, living in the Caliphate and choosing a husband.[19] Thus, the internet is actively used by interested parties for collecting information, but also actively employed for recruiting purposes.

Although women’s posts of the daily routine and emotions in the Caliphate come first-hand, they must be critically scrutinized, as the IS controls online activities and if necessary, deletes negative publications. As a result, almost every online activity posted by habitants of the former Caliphate must be understood as a marketing measure and each publication must be seen in the light of the purpose pursued: in its time, that was portraying a functioning social state and transmitting the image of Islamist life to the outside world. Insights into life in the Caliphate obtained from propaganda posts, must therefore be carefully checked for their veracity. Nevertheless, from some rather moderate posts, a picture of reality in the Caliphate could be drawn: Life in the Caliphate was full of privation, infrastructure and care did not always function well. Downtimes of electricity and internet occurred regularly. Becoming a widow and being remarried was an emotional burden. Also, the ban on participating in the fight and reduction to a passive role was sometimes perceived as frustrating.[20]

In addition to posts, videos and images specially adapted to women are published in the internet. On the one hand, those videos are characterized by a feminine, romanticized presentation in the way of colour and motif choice - for example, pink and purple tones[21] – on the other hand, war scenes are shown that focus on injured children to stir up women`s compassion and anger with regards to the West.[22] Above all, IS`s propaganda is about emotionalizing hira and jihad by reinforcing positive feelings for the Caliphate and the IS, while denigrating the West at the same time. The internet is thus a deliberately used medium to propagate radicalization and control female radicalization processes.

Reasons for radicalization

The reasons for radicalization are manifold and like the processes themselves, cannot be represented schematically (see the first article of this series). It's wrong to assume that all the women who emigrated to the Caliphate just wanted to become jihadi brides. Such an assumption does not do justice to the complexity of female radicalization. Rather, it is the sum of individual factors that favours or triggers radicalization of women. Protection factors are opposed to so-called push and pull factors. While push factors originate from the sphere of society, pull factors come from the attractiveness of a group. The affected person is increasingly attracted to the group by pull factors and turns away from society due to push factors.

Among the push factors are above all social isolation, social discrimination, the alleged suppression of the Muslim community and a “us versus them” mentality.[23] For women, the desire to escape discrimination and marginalization is even greater, because their discrimination is sometimes even more prominent than that of men because of their appearance through the full veiling (niqab) or by wearing a simple headscarf. Women are severely exposed to prejudices by society due to their optical appearance.

At the same time pull factors affect the individual. Women are attracted to a utopian, Islamist worldview embodied in the Caliphate under Sharia law.[24] The hira is portrayed as adventurous, as an absolute duty and as a personal liberation from the West. Women are taught that in the Caliphate, unlike in the West, they won´t be sexualized but considered as indispensable to the state of God, because only they alone could take on the task of securing the Caliphate as mothers and wives for future generations. [25]  In the process of radicalization, women are encouraged to think that IS is a loyal and noble religious community. Sisterhoods among women, strong feelings of belonging as well as the romantic idea of finding a spouse and starting a family, are driving radicalization forward. Love and friendship have the special task of compensating for the loss of the left-behind family.[26] For young girls, maturing and becoming a woman as well as gaining independence of their family are compelling arguments, too.[27]

In contrast, protection factors can be identified. Protection factors mean the ability to resist the influence of push and pull factors. Those are for example a close family relationship, friendships, positive self-awareness and education.[28] Just because a person is exposed to risk factors that does not mean that the risk actually materializes as long as there is a balance with the individuum’s individual resilience. A headscarf-wearing girl from a German immigrant family whose brother has already emigrated to Syria (A) may be at a potentially more acute risk because of her brother's behaviour and the religious background of her family, than a girl from a non-immigrant background (B). However, through education, a solid circle of friends, a close relationship with her parents, and a healthy self-esteem, A may be less vulnerable than B if B’s family situation is shattered, if she has less self-esteem, and if she and two other girls from her school maintain contact with so-called sisters in Syria over the internet. The example shows how difficult it is to seriously identify women at risk of radicalization and to foresee individual radicalization processes.


Coming up: After having learnt about the frequency of radicalized women and the reasons for radicalization, the following article (Part 3) will deal with the role model of women in the former Caliphate and their value for the IS.


[1] See Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat, 2018: 167, 172.

[2] See Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat, 2018: 183 ff.; BKA/ BfV/ HKE, 2015: 34 ff.

[3] See Cook, Joana/ Vale, Gina: From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State. International Center for Study of Radicalisation, London, 2018: 14.

[4] See Cook/ Vale, 2018: 22.

[5] See Cook/ Vale, 2018: 26.

[6] See Bundeskriminalamt (BKA)/ Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV)/ Hessisches Informations- und Kompetenzzentrum gegen Extremismus (HKE) (Hrsg.): Analyse der Radikalisierungshintergründe und -verläufe der Personen, die aus islamistischer Motivation aus Deutschland in Richtung Syrien oder Irak ausgereist sind. Fortschreibung 2015: 19.

[7] See BKA/ BfV/ HKE, 2015: 35.

[8] See Hoyle, Carolyn/ Bradford, Alexandra/ Frenett, Ross: Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS. Institute for Strategic Dialogue, London, 2015: 17 ff.

[9] See BKA/ BfV/ HKE, 2015: 36.

[10] See Cook/ Vale, 2018: 54 ff.; Davis, 2017: 43; Pearson, 2016: 6.

[11] The twenty years old Student and UK citizen Roshonara Chodhry stabbed a local parliaments member on 14.05.2010. Before that she had watched Al-Qaida videos and preaching over a longer period of time. She therefore is a perfect example for lone wolf terrorism but also presents a rarity as women do only uncommonly perform as lone actors.

[12] See Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE): Women and Terrorist Radicalization. Final Report. OSCE, Action against Terrorism Unit, Transnational threats Department, Wien 2013: 7.

[13] See Neubacher, Frank: Kriminologie. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden, 3. Auflage, 2017: 70.

[14] See Neubacher, 2017: 71.

[15] See BKA/ BfV/ HKE, 2015: 38.

[16] See Stevens, Tim/ Neumann, Peter: Countering Online Radicalisation. A Strategy for Action. International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, London, 2009. Unter: 12.

[17] See Stevens/ Neumann, 2009: 13.

So auch im Falle der Halane-Zwillinge, die 2014 im Alter von 16 Jahren nach Syrien ausreisten, um sich dem IS anzuschließen. Ein Jahr zuvor hatte bereits ihr älterer Bruder die Ausreise angetreten.

[18] See Neumann, Peter: Die neuen Dschihadisten. IS, Europa und die nächste Welle des Terrorismus. Econ, Ullstein Buchverlag, Berlin, 2015: 148.

[19] See Saltman, Erin/ Smith, Melanie: “Till Martyrdom Do Us Part”: Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon. Institute for Strategic Dialogue, London, 2015: 7, 23, 49.

[20] See Saltman/ Smith, 2015: 48.

[21] See Pearson, Elizabeth: The Case of Roshonara Choudhry. Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization. ISIS Women and the Gendered Jihad. Policy and Internet. Wiley Periodicals, Oxford, Volume 8, Issue 1, 2016: 18.

[22] See Saltman/ Smith, 2015: 11.

[23] See Cook/ Vale, 2018: 26; Jäger, Herbert/ Böllinger, Lorenz: Studien zur Sozialisation von Terroristen. In: Jäger, Herbert/ Schmidtchen, Gerhard/ Süllwold, Lieselotte: Lebenslaufanalysen. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen, 1981: 159; Saltman/ Smith, 2015: 9 ff.

[24] See Frindte u. a., 2016: 21.

[25] See Saltman/ Smith, 2015: 18.

[26] See Hoyle/ Bradford, 2015: 24; Saltman/ Smith, 2015: 26.

[27] See Khosrokhavar, Farhad: Le nouveau djihadisme européen. Revue du MAUSS, Vol. 49, Nr. 1, 2017. Unter: Rn. 49.

[28] See Schmitt, Günter: Resilienz und verwandte Konzepte. In: Bewährungshilfe 56, 2009: 331 ff.


Sarah Zingel

Sarah Zingel holds a Bachelor's degree in European Legal Linguistics with a focus on International and European Law from the University of Cologne. After subsequently completing her law studies, she is currently about to pass her first Legal State Examination with utmost success, specializing in criminal law and criminology. Besides her studies, she works as a research associate at a renowned Cologne law firm, primarily dealing with data protection, contract and company law. From February 2020 onwards, she will pursue a two LLM degrees in Criminology and Corporate and Commercial Law at Maastricht University.