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In the latest episode of the Tech Against Terrorism Podcast, hosts Anne Craanen and Maygane Janin discuss the importance of taking a gender approach in countering terrorist use of the internet and in addressing the role of women within terrorist and violent extremist groups. They are joined by Dr Joana Cook, Assistant Professor on Terrorism and Political Violence at Leiden University, and Senior Project Manager and an Editor in Chief at the International Centre for Counterterrorism who recently published a book on gender and counterterrorism titled  “A Woman’s Place: U.S. counterterrorism since 9/11”; and by Dr. Elizabeth Pearson, a lecturer at the Cyber Threats Research Centre at Swansea University who specialises in gender, extremism, and counter extremism. Together, they consider the broader socio-cultural context of how gender is viewed in extremist ideology participation – especially with regards to how understanding of gender identity, individuals’ experiences, age, and social class also impact the reasons someone might join an extremist group.


There are many misconceptions and oversimplifications about the role of women in terrorist organisations, and this all across the ideological spectrum. These perceptions include the idea that women are groomed into joining violent extremist groups and can therefore be presumed innocent, or the notion that a woman’s role in a terrorist organisation is secondary because she is less likely to be the one picking up a weapon to carry out an attack.

In reality, the role of women within terrorist and violent extremist organisations is far more complex than is currently being conveyed by the media. The popular stereotype of the so-called ‘Jihadi; bride, who is seen as joining the Islamic State (IS) in order to pursue a romantic relationship and get married, for instance, completely over-simplifies the reasons why women might choose to become part of such an organisation.

As Dr Joana Cook points out, there are actually many different push and pull factors which influence why women choose to join violent extremist groups, and a complexity of roles that they may play with an organisation once they have joined.

It is therefore vital to take gender into account when trying to understand the reasons why women join these organisations, and, crucially, the threat levels they represent once they are there. A key element that is unreported is recruitment propaganda targeted at women, and even the role of women in recruitment itself. Every strand of every extremist ideology has varying attitudes towards women, however some establish a clear role as they realise that a functioning society, regardless of ideology, requires both men and women in order to be functional. Gendered roles are even outlined in some manifestos.

While it may typically be men who are most visible in carrying guns and taking part in demonstrations, for example, this does not mean that women are any less ideologically committed to the cause. They may be just as actively engaged in less visible support roles instead.

In particular, as Dr Elisabeth Pearson underlined, women may find more opportunities to play an active role in terrorist organisations through online activities, because there are fewer restrictions on their ability to access this space than in the rest of society.

These opportunities might include spreading propaganda through online forums and producing videos, and recruiting new followers, especially as many of these young women can rely on large and active social media networks. Some IS women even hold crowdfunding campaigns online to try and raise money to enable them to leave detention camps in Syria.

It is therefore critical that tech platforms take a gender approach when considering how to combat extremism and terrorism online. Deploying a gender lens can be an extremely valuable analytical tool in assessing the role of women in the online extremist sphere and lead to a far greater understanding of the best measures to take.

Dr Joana Cook (@Joana_Cook):

Dr Elizabeth Pearson (@lizzypearson):