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Gender Dynamics and Online Spaces: The Case of the Islamic State

Gender Dynamics and Online Spaces: The Case of the Islamic State
29th November 2023 Christina Schmid
In 16 Days, Insights

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).

Scholars have and continue to speak about the gendered nature of terrorism, but what do we mean when we say that terrorism is ‘gendered’, and what role does online extremist activity play in the gendered nature of terrorism? In short, the drivers, experiences and impacts of terrorism are all shaped by gender. In addition to this, terrorist groups themselves militarise and politicise gender for strategic purposes, which is enabled using technology and online spaces. 

By examining the literature on the Islamic State’s (IS) use of technology, I seek to explore how terrorist groups have been effectively utilising online spaces to instrumentalise gender at the level of ideology, policies, participation, and practices, and to what effect. 

Gender Ideologies and Gendered Messaging

Terrorist groups espouse gender ideologies which include normative ideas about masculinity and femininity and the roles and rights of men and women. Gender ideologies exist on a wide-ranging spectrum: from those that advocate gender equality, such as among the PKK in Turkey or the FARC in Colombia, to those based on hyper-traditional, repressive notions of gender, often associated with jihadist groups such as IS, and far-right extremism. 

The development of Web 2.0 has enabled terrorist actors to disseminate their gender ideologies across borders and to a wider audience through the dissemination of online propaganda. In 2020, researchers discovered the existence of a digital library containing over 90,000 pieces of IS-related content disseminated via YouTube and other social media sites. The site garnered over 10,000 visitors per month. 

IS’ gender ideology was expressed through the online propaganda magazines Rumiyah and Dabiq. Speaking to a hyper-traditional conceptualisation of masculinity and femininity, IS argued that women’s natural role in society is that of wife, “mother of lion cubs”, and “teacher of generations and producer of men”, whilst men are pre-ordained to engage in armed struggle. Another propaganda document written by the outreach wing of the Al-Khaansa Brigade, IS’ all-women police and religious enforcement brigade, was circulated on jihadi forums online. It claims a natural gender hierarchy exists, whereby women “were made by Adam and for Adam.” Men are the commanders, and women exist to “obey him and carry out his requests.” 

Whilst the concept of a natural gender hierarchy is a clear undercurrent throughout IS’ propaganda on gender, scholars have demonstrated that the group strategically manipulated its representation of masculinity and femininity in line with its political objectives. In its state-building phase, IS exploited representations of women as supporters, mothers, sisters and wives. However, in periods of weakness, IS exploited representations of women as victims, and men as fighters, as a tactic of male mobilisation. Moreover, IS presented its gender ideology as empowering for women, providing space for IS to criticise Western feminism as a disruptor of the natural order and responsible for denigrating women. Ultimately, the dissemination of propaganda online enabled IS to effectively set its expectations of gender roles and utilise gendered messaging as a recruitment strategy.  

Communication and Implementation of Gendered Policies and Practices

Terrorist groups may also use the online space to implement enforceable policies into practices that aim to control men’s and women’s bodies differently. It is important to distinguish between ideology and policy because normative beliefs about gender do not necessarily need to be institutionalised into formal policies. For instance, IS used material circulated online to communicate and justify gendered policies on polygamy, marriage, sex segregation and sexual slavery. A document titled ‘Questions and Answers on Taking Slaves’ was circulated on pro-IS Twitter accounts, and provides IS members with guidelines on having sex with non-Muslim slaves. Similarly, IS members and supporters used match-making sites to facilitate the marriage of members.  Given the importance of marriage in recruiting and retaining members, their use of the online space enabled IS to advance its strategic goals.

However, the decentralised and expansive nature of the internet means that online participation can sometimes subvert official policies. For example, IS implemented strict rules of sex segregation during its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Nonetheless, some women subverted these rules in the online space by using male pseudonyms to interact in male-only spaces and contribute to ideological debates that are usually only reserved for men. Ultimately, the use of online spaces by extremist groups is a double-edged sword; whilst the internet has enabled more effective communication and implementation of gendered policies, its decentralised and anonymous nature has meant that members can sometimes subtly subvert such policies.

Broadening Women’s Participation

Terrorist groups are characterised by gendered divisions of labour. Again, it’s important to draw distinctions between how the group envisions gendered division of labour through ideology and policy, and what is happening on the ground. For example, in its initial stages, IS primarily envisioned women’s roles as mothers and wives. However, women’s participation in IS expanded beyond these boundaries as they became prolific recruiters, fundraisers, and propagandists online. 

Even though these online roles enabled women to break traditional gendered constraints, their participation was nonetheless strategically beneficial. Whilst men numerically dominate as propagandists, women-run accounts tend to have higher levels of connectivity and can reach a broader network of people. Secondly, women’s participation as propagandists enabled the group to utilise gendered messaging to target certain demographics. Young IS ‘fan-girls created content which mixed aesthetic feminine imagery, brands, trends and ‘teen stuff’ with jihadist propaganda. Equally, pro-IS women-only forums provide female supporters with a space to discuss “mundane” topics, such as birth control, dating and beauty. These discussions provide women with ways to identify with and legitimise the group’s ideology, and recruit, retain and support members. On the extreme end of this spectrum, online spaces have provided an outlet for women to call for outright violence on behalf of IS. 

Additionally, technology also enabled women to fundraise for the Islamic State;  in 2019, women detained in the Al-Hol camp initiated an online crowdfunding campaign via PayPal to solicit donations from European sympathisers. Such donations were used to support women within the camp and fund their escapes. As such, women’s participation as fundraisers has directly contributed to the ongoing survival of IS after the fall of the caliphate. Overall, whilst the internet has enabled women’s participation to expand beyond and sometimes subvert traditional boundaries set by IS itself, this participation has ultimately provided significant strategic benefits to the group.


This Insight has drawn two important conclusions regarding the gendered dynamics of terrorist groups in the online space. Firstly, terrorist groups militarise and politicise gender through gendered ideologies, policies, practices and participation. Secondly, online spaces have enabled terrorist groups to instrumentalise gender dynamics at nearly all these levels more effectively. Inevitably, the rapidly growing nature of technological developments and the proven ability of extremist and terrorist groups to adapt to and harness technology will only intensify these dynamics in the future. However, the decentralised nature of online activities is a double-edged sword for extremist groups. In many ways, the internet’s wide-reaching nature has enabled ideologies and policies to be communicated more widely, and practices to be more effectively carried out. However, it has also meant that women have inadvertently been afforded increased agency, and the opportunity to break gendered constraints (albeit in many ways still to the group’s strategic benefit).

Further research should aim to take a multi-dimensional approach to understanding how groups systematically instrumentalise gender dynamics, within groups and across time, and to what effect. Such research needs to consider the politicisation and militarisation of gender ideology, policies, participation and practices, and how these are often instrumentalised systematically. At a practitioner level, addressing the gender dynamics of terrorist and extremist groups at all levels of instrumentalisation will require a whole-of-society approach, including policy-makers, institutions, tech companies, and civil society organisations. 

For example, social media companies are particularly well-placed to prevent online recruitment by countering extremist narratives on their platforms. However, counter-narratives need to respond to the gendered dynamics of extremist group ideology, and the discourses used to target men and women respectively. Equally, policymakers should be aware of how online spaces have shaped women’s participation in extremism, and how they have provided women with a sense of agency. Therefore, rehabilitation and reintegration strategies should provide alternative forms of agency and online participation.