On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted that Hoda Muthana would not be allowed back in the United States. In 2014, Muthana left her Alabama home to marry an Islamic State fighter. She’s now living in a Syrian refugee camp and has asked to return. Her family’s lawyer says she is willing to face whatever legal proceedings might be required.
Muthana shares the dilemma of Shamima Begum, a young British woman who did the same at age 15 and is now being denied reentry to Britain. They face uncertain fates, held in the kinds of camps that in the past have been fertile grounds for further radicalization. Many of these individuals are media savvy, Internet-literate, Western-educated and have received weapons training from the Islamic State.
They are also women. Should that affect how the West deals with them?
Thousands of women joined ISIS
We lack precise figures on how many women are being held in detention camps — Kurdish officials estimated 550 late last year — and how many are Westerners. But reports suggest that thousands of women from North America, Europe and Australia joined the Islamic State during the conflict. They supported the organization in many ways, including through disseminating propaganda, helping to recruit, raising funds, acting as religious police, marrying fighters and bearing their children, and — for a very small number — as serving combatants in the group’s final battles.
Some female foreign fighters have already been tried and convicted in their home countries. But Muthana and Begum’s stories are different. The United States and Britain have, respectively, denied and threatened to revoke the citizenship of these women. If those countries leave the women and their children stateless, they risk violating international laws against doing so. Now, the United States and Britain claim these women are citizens of other countries, while their lawyers dispute those claims.
What’s more, since Shamima Begum was only 15 when she joined the Islamic State, she may claim legal status as a former child soldier, a factor that could be a mitigating circumstance, according to some advocates.
Why should we care about these women’s fates?
On one hand, there are arguments for the importance of due process and human rights. Such arguments stress that the United States and other Western countries are obligated to exercise rule of law even when it is unpopular, and that repatriating these women offers a positive example to the rest of the world.
But there’s another concern. Women are more widely involved in armed groups than most people realize; research finds that women have contributed to most post-Cold War insurgencies. But as those conflicts wrap up, international groups working on reestablishing functional societies often ignore or minimize these women’s dilemmas. Female combatants, including girl soldiers, are often excluded from organized efforts at disarmament, demobilization and reintegration worldwide.
That exclusion can cause problems. Research from post-conflict efforts in Colombia suggests that women demobilized from armed groups have lower recidivism rates than men — in other words, that they’re less likely to pick up arms and return to active fighting. But research from Nepal, Colombia, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland suggests that many female ex-combatants face distinct challenges based on their gender. Women who fought with armed groups frequently miss out on the range of services made available to demobilizing combatants, which are aimed at easing their transition out of armed groups and reintegrating them into communities. As a result, women face challenges their male counterparts sometimes don’t, including social stigmatization, mental and physical health issues, poverty, substance abuse and vulnerability to gender discrimination and gender-based violence.
In his interviews with women who served as combatants in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Niall Gilmartin finds that most female ex-combatants expressed the sense that — for them — the conflict was not yet over, decades after the Good Friday Agreement. For them, the ongoing experience of poverty, alcoholism, domestic abuse and life under British rule is evidence of an incomplete peace process, and justification for continued activism.
Will the women who supported the Islamic State feel the same way?
The media narratives about women like Begum and Muthana often present them as curiosities, victims and love-struck youth. Now, too, media outlets are emphasizing their vulnerability and status as mothers. This framing ignores their experience and their potential importance to governments or other insurgencies. Research by Dyan Mazurana on female members of African armed groups points out that they acquired a variety of skills during war, including weapons handling, risk assessment, infrastructure knowledge, intelligence-gathering, medical knowledge and survival strategies. Female Islamic State members also gained recruitment and technological skills.
These skills could either be used in post-conflict job training programs and in efforts to counter violent extremism — or they could make these women valuable recruitment targets for other insurgencies. The Islamic State has used accounts of the alleged mistreatment of Muslim women by Westerners in its recruitment materials. Even if these women never again set foot outside a detention camp, future Islamist militant groups could use images of mothers and children in camps in future propaganda.
So what are the options for dealing with female foreign fighters, aside from leaving them in legal limbo?
While the war in Syria has gone on, nations have been repatriating foreign fighters — both women and men — to face formal legal procedures at home. Some countries combine a punitive approach with deradicalization efforts, which offer counseling, education and job placement alongside or in place of criminal prosecution. In Denmark, the city of Aarhus reports a zero recidivism rate with this strategy, while the German government has gotten valuable intelligence from Islamic State returnees, including information about the group’s command structure.
But criminal convictions of returned foreign fighters can be difficult to obtain. Some evidence suggests that the U.S. criminal justice system treats women accused of material support for the Islamic State more leniently than their male counterparts.
However, given the research, policymakers may wish to consider the fact that denying these women and their children’s citizenship will not make them go away. It will only make them someone else’s problem — or ours — sometime in the future.
Alexis Henshaw (@Prof_Henshaw) is assistant professor of political science at Troy University and author of “Why Women Rebel: Understanding Women’s Participation in Armed Rebel Groups” (Routledge, 2017) and the co-author of “Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).