Gender bias: ‘A woman is a jihadist like any other’
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A number of French women captured in Syria and Iraq after the fall of the Islamic State (IS) group want to return home as authorities scramble to handle a new challenge. FRANCE 24 interviews a specialist on female jihadism.
Emilie König is a well-known name in counterterror circles and has come to symbolise the relatively new phenomenon of female jihadism in France. The 33-year-old Muslim convert from Brittany, in western France, is one of only two females on a US State Department list of terrorists and is subject to US and UN sanctions.
A notorious recruiter of women for the Islamic State (IS) group during the terror organisaton's heyday, König was arrested in December 2017 by Kurdish forces in Syria, where she is currently being held in a Kurdish-controlled prison camp.
Today, the mother of two is amongst a number of women who want to be "repatriated" to France from territories formerly controlled by the IS group.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said his government would deal with the captured French nationals on a "case by case" basis. But the issue has opened a Pandora’s box in France as officials attempt to figure out how to deal with an estimated 295 French women and their children in Iraq and Syria.
On January 17, lawyers for some of the captured female jihadists filed a legal complaint against the French authorities for refusing to repatriate them.
In the aftermath of the IS group’s military defeat in Syria and Iraq, officials are scrambling to address the issue of how to deal with female jihadists. There are many questions surrounding these women. Who are they? Are they merely wives who fell victim to the dangerous ideologies of their husbands? Should they be judged at home or in the countries where they were captured? FRANCE 24 spoke to Géraldine Casutt, a doctoral student at the Switzerland-based University of Friborg and the Paris-based EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales), and a specialist in female jihadism.
FRANCE 24: Is there a fundamental difference between female and male jihadism? In the media, female jihadists are often presented as wives and mothers while the men are fighters...
Géraldine Casutt: There has always been this gender bias in jihadism. Well, a woman can be "a jihadist like any other" in the sense that she adheres to the basic tenets of this ideology. Nothing differentiates them in their primary convictions, but this doctrine is based on the complementarity of the sexes. They do not do jihad in the same way. In everyday language, we tend to diminish the woman's role. She is always seen as a victim, as an essentially passive entity, except sometimes in the realm of parenting. A woman’s engagement [in jihad] is explained by manipulation and not by conviction. We don't view the women as having the same dangerous potential as their men -- especially the ones who are waiting to return -- because they have not been involved in a combat role. Yet they have the same convictions. They don't need to hold a Kalashnikov to be dangerous.
Women are capable of violence if ideology permits, but it's not their main role. This gender balance can however evolve according to the strategic needs of the IS group. When they were in a difficult situation, especially towards the end of the battle of Mosul, the IS group mobilised female suicide bombers because there were not enough men.
Has the West been misled about the threat of jihadist women?
I think we must remain cautious of both women and men. We are talking about a category of people – female jihadists – about whom we know very little because there are very few empirical studies. Nevertheless there is now some awareness, especially after the failed [September 2016] Notre Dame cathedral bombing attempt. It's as if there’s a danger only if it is translated into violent action and as long as there’s no threat of violent action, the danger does not exist.
However, we know that many women have been the driving force behind the radicalisation of their spouses, brothers and children. Just because they are behind the scenes does not mean they have no influence -- quite the contrary. But today, there’s a growing awareness of this phenomenon. We see this with the almost systematic incarceration of women returning from Syria, of those accused of apologising for terrorism or of criminal conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a terrorist organisation.
Should we treat these women like any jihadist and incarcerate them?
When you look at those who want to return home, men are put in one basket and women and children in another. This gives the impression that there are two categories of people: those who can be reintegrated and those who cannot be reintegrated. There will always be a gender bias, even if measures are taken at the judicial level to treat men equally. With regard to imprisonment, the prison administration is concerned about potential female radicalisation in French prisons. We have not anticipated this issue at all. Again, this is a fundamental difference with jihadist men: no woman has yet been radicalised in prison. With systematic incarceration and a universe of female prisons about which we know very little, it's safe to say that this will keep us occupied for the next few years.
Did the IS group’s military defeats undermine the confidence and convictions of female jihadists? Is that why they want to return to France?
For female jihadists, the myth of the IS group, and their glorification of another type of society, is intact. Even after the loss of Mosul and Raqqa, the idea persists that the Islamic State will rise, like a phoenix from the ashes, elsewhere. Right now, we could just be seeing the calm before the storm. However, the fall of some IS group strongholds was a relief for those who had doubts, who wanted to return home to see their families. Others are just resigned to returning to France. They probably have more than one reason to return home.
How should these women be treated?
First, there are fundamental questions to ask before answering this question: do we want to reintegrate these jihadist men and women? Can we give them a second chance? This is a philosophical question for France. The government doesn't seem to have a clear position on them. I'm not sure we want to do everything to get them back. We can think about providing support, but to figure out what form that might take, and to what purpose, we first have to ask questions and then accept the answers.
Can they reintegrate into society?
I am convinced that it is possible to disengage someone from violence. It must be shown that it is no longer legitimate, that there is no justification for these views. On the other hand, you cannot disengage someone from his or her beliefs. There are jihadists who will remain jihadists all their lives. Others will tell you that it was an error of youth and that they want to start new lives. We will have to look at the profiles. I think we have to give those who provide guarantees a second chance. The only realistic goal today is to disengage them from violence. Deradicalisation is not just a myth. This begs another question: how do you punish a jihadist? I am not sure that prison is an effective response.
Should we then, as some claim, let them be tried in Iraq and Syria, countries that have the death penalty?
Violence begets violence. We must not fall into the trap of retaliation. If we were to do a poll on the street today, the French would say that we cannot do anything with these people, that they betrayed their country and that they deserve the death penalty or at least we should just leave them there. To leave them in the hands of the justice system of a country that has the death penalty is a way of not having blood on our own hands.
Have we won the war against the IS group?
The IS group was defeated. But, despite the loss of terrain, the group still holds a few areas. Jihadist movements work like hydrae: you cut off one head, another emerges. Their great strength is their ability to adapt to their environment. They relocate and rebuild easily. If they are no longer in Syria or Iraq, the IS group will establish themselves elsewhere. Moreover, in the jihadist doctrine, there is not only an Islamisation of the state, there is also a rhetoric of the war against the West. There are many ways to do that, to destabilise Western society and weaken it. They did it very well, by systematically using the same sociological profile of attackers. We never saw a blue-eyed “Jean-Michel” make a spectacular attack in France. On the other hand, they were seen driving vehicles to commit suicide attacks in propaganda videos in Iraq. This is because the group wants to feed the debate in France about the danger of Islam and immigration. It’s a long-term strategy, like that of motherhood. This is true for most totalitarian ideologies: to make children to perpetuate the ideology. According to a 2016 study, there were about 31,000 pregnant women in the so-called Islamic State. The goal was to have even more radical children than parents. What are we going to do with these children? You can have the impression that the war is over. But it continues in other ways.
This article has been translated from the original, which appeared in French.