Foreign Policy Essay

Revisiting Marawi: Women and the Struggle Against the Islamic State in the Philippines

By Kiriloi M. Ingram
Sunday, August 4, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The Islamic State’s crimes against women are well known, but it has also managed to appeal to women to join the fight directly or otherwise support the group. Too often, however, governments fail to recognize this risk. Kiriloi Ingram of the University of Queensland draws on her fieldwork in the Philippines to argue that governments and civil society groups need to do a far better job of recognizing the dangers women can pose while also empowering them to help counter violent extremism.

Daniel Byman

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It has been more than two years since the Islamic State’s (IS’s) Philippines franchise and the IS-aligned Maute group laid siege to Marawi city on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines for five months. Though government forces eventually drove the militants from Marawi, the threat from IS militants remains, especially after reports of a recent attack on the nearby island of Sulu. There are currently deep concerns that an equal or even greater threat may emerge in Mindanao. Women played a key role in advancing IS-Maute’s agenda and enabling the group’s infiltration into Marawi, and they will play an essential role as enablers—either for IS-Maute or their opponents—in the city’s fortunes.

Female participation in violent extremism in the Philippines, as well as female support for IS in the Philippines and elsewhere, is a contemporary manifestation of the historical phenomenon of women serving in roles critical to the success of insurgencies. For example, women participated as combatants in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), and they transported weapons and established safe houses in the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Despite this long history, there is a tendency to diminish the role of women in insurgencies. This has led to women typically being considered a lesser security threat than men, and their utility in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) is rarely used to its full potential.

As Jacqui True and Sri Eddyono of Monash University have highlighted, there is a lack of research into women as active agents of violent extremism and women’s potential contributions to the prevention of violent extremism in Southeast Asia. To fill this void, my ongoing study examines how official IS propaganda (i.e., produced by its central media units) seeks to target and appeal to female audiences. My fieldwork in Southern Philippines has allowed for a bottom-up consideration of the types of appeals directed toward women at the local level in communities that were formerly controlled by IS. It also offers an opportunity to consider the potential role of women as grassroots buffers to violent extremism and why they must play a key role in P/CVE programming and policies.

IS Propaganda and Targeted Appeals to Women

While the extreme patriarchy and subjugation of women is replicated by IS everywhere the movement is found, the way that its propaganda seeks to appeal to women presents a different (and largely false) portrayal of the group. IS propaganda uses the same overarching strategic logic to appeal to both genders. As outlined in great detail in J.M. Berger’s “Extremism,” this messaging is intended to shape audience perceptions of reality and transform tacit supporters into active participants by presenting life under IS as the safer and smarter option through promises of stability, security and better livelihoods, and by playing on in-group, out-group, solution and crisis constructs.

When targeting female audiences, IS’s English-language propaganda portrays women via five female archetypes. Of the five, three archetypes are associated with the in-group as standards to be emulated: “supporter,” “mother/sister/wife,” and “fighter.” The “corruptor” archetype portrays women as members of the out-group, and the fifth archetype, the “victim,” represents women as being both in need and worthy of saving. These archetypes are deployed as examples of how women should and should not behave and how to understand other women. For example, IS’s most common positive archetype presented in female-targeted messaging during the group’s period of greatest success in 2014 and 2015 was the “supporter,” who was portrayed as a “true” and strong Muslim woman performing hijra (migration) to IS territories. In contrast, the “corruptor” was described as a deceiving, promiscuous and selfish woman, attributes that IS assigns any woman who does not fulfill its expectations of what it means to be a “true” Muslim woman. These gender narratives establish IS’s ideal social, political and religious order, which is intrinsically tied to gender performances, including leveraging “fighter” women to shame inactive men into jihad.

Recruitment of Women in Mindanao

I recently conducted interviews, surveys and focus group discussions with women from Marawi. While Maranao is the dominant language among the women with whom I talked, English is broadly spoken across Mindanao. As a local told me, “English is most people’s second language so it ends up being the first for a lot of us.” While the reach and influence of IS’s English-language propaganda is difficult to gauge, interviews and focus groups with local women reveal that IS’s local efforts to recruit women often played on the five female archetypes. Certainly, poverty and financial stability were consistently described as primary factors that motivated women, often along with family members, to join the local IS group. Women told me of families being promised between 30,000 and 40,000 pesos (roughly 30 to 40 percent of the average annual income) if their children joined, and women were promised financial benefits and important roles in the insurgency.

As part of these pragmatic appeals, recruiters highlighted two particular roles for women. Some women were recruited as snipers (in language evocative of the “fighter” archetype) because of a belief by recruiters that they can “focus longer and have steadier hands.” This use of female operatives as snipers has a precedent in the Philippines in the 2013 Zamboanga siege, an armed conflict between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Philippine military.

Women were also used to recruit men and other women by exploiting their roles as mothers, sisters, and wives of prospective recruits and, ultimately, as supporters of IS’s project. A recent documentary demonstrates this trend in an interview with 18-year-old “Faidah.” Leading up to the Marawi siege, Faidah was recruited by IS militants at the age of 16, and although she was initially hesitant to join, her family’s poor financial conditions drove her support. She was paid 8,000 pesos for joining, and after being tasked with recruiting young men and boys as combatants, her wage increased to 20,000 pesos. This is not uncommon in insurgencies. Recent reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Council on Foreign Relations detail women’s active roles as recruiters and fundraisers for IS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and Jemaah Islamiyah. Some women I interviewed also noted the important role of mothers and wives in supporting their husbands and children who were engaging in combat.

I was told that the majority of recruitment occurred in rural areas outside of Marawi city, where living and financial conditions are poorer and recruiters have easier access to populations. Women, particularly stay-at-home mothers and wives, felt empowered by recruiters’ promises of social standing and financial gains. This is not unique to Mindanao. CVE strategies in Bangladesh and Morocco identify poverty as a catalyst of recruitment when monetary incentives are offered.

Recognizing Women’s Roles in Extremist Recruitment

As Heather Hurlburt and Tamara Cofman Wittes recently pointed out on Lawfare, it is no longer controversial in the realms of business and finance to suggest that businesses thrive and financial stability increases when women are meaningfully engaged. Similarly, the Women, Peace and Security agenda and countries’ subsequent national action plans recognize the strategic importance in advancing gender equality and ensuring female participation in peace processes in order to achieve long-lasting peace.

Women from communities affected by violent extremist recruitment—whether in Australia, Indonesia or the Philippines—often say that they feel as if they are voiceless and powerless. However, my conversations with these women demonstrate why they should be integral to preventing and intervening to halt radicalization and recruitment to extremist groups. The people I interviewed suggested that it was women who were recruited first prior to the Marawi siege. Locals also indicated that violence was directed toward women to sabotage social cohesion. Because of this, women were the first to notice signs of violent extremism and, because of their roles within families, were often first to detect psychological and behavioral changes in others. Sadly, many women expressed a sense of vulnerability that, although they were aware of what was happening around them, due to their social status, they were afraid to speak up. This echoes Rafia Bhulai and Christina Nemr’s findings, which identified sexual and gender-based violence as an early indicator of violent extremism. In recent years, there has reportedly been a spike in gender-based violence in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which may be an ominous sign for the future.

Within the Philippines and Southeast Asia more broadly, women are often subjected to systemic gender-based discrimination that perpetuates the broader social, political and economic inequalities women experience within their communities. Extremist organizations such as IS, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda exploit these feelings of marginalization in order to mobilize female support. Paradoxically, extremist groups direct violence toward women as a means of driving instability into the community and widening gender disparities. Women within extremist organizations are not innocent of this—IS’s notorious al-Khansa Brigade acted as the women’s religious police, and women members of IS unapologetically condoned the enslavement of Yazidi women.

Though women are often the first point of contact for radical groups and willing participants in their mission, there remains a deficit in genuinely and comprehensively embracing gender dimensions and female perspectives in P/CVE policy and programs. This can potentially perpetuate broader social, political and economic gender-based inequalities, which are the conditions that drive women into violent extremism in the first place.

Four Pillars for Women’s Empowerment

The battle scars marking Marawi city are striking as one travels its streets. I recently visited the most damaged area, and it seems the government’s promise to finish rebuilding by the end of 2021 will be difficult, despite the hard work that is clearly being done by the government, military and civil society. Unexploded munitions need to be cleared, which takes time, and an estimated 73,000 residents remain displaced. Less overt, but perhaps even more profound, are the deep psychosocial wounds among Marawi’s people. Interviews with internally displaced people from the city reveal strong feelings of frustration at not being allowed to return to their homes, scarce alternative housing, and limited employment opportunities.

If governments and policymakers want to prevent nonstate violence from resurging in the Philippines, Southeast Asia or other parts of the world, they must work toward breaking the cycle of female engagement in violent extremism and empower women to be champions of a better future. This has practical implications for P/CVE and capacity-building programming from Marawi to Mosul and beyond.

Four pillars have been central to the capacity-building programs I have helped design. First, local women need access to workshops, presented in the vernacular, that provide them with an understanding of (a) trends in violent extremist propaganda and recruitment strategies targeting women, (b) broad principles for effective civil society P/CVE program design, and (c) the experiences of other women via case studies and opportunities to network and engage with other local women. In workshops in Indonesia and the Philippines, the five archetypes discussed here have resonated with local women and often helped them understand dynamics that they recognize or experienced. This understanding informs the second pillar of our programs: Messaging and narrative-driven actions must promote alternative gender roles to the five female archetypes and use female-led actions synchronized with messaging (i.e., narrative-driven actions) to empower women in affected communities. For example, local women in Mindanao have led narrative-driven action programs to provide food and feminine hygiene kits to communities displaced by fighting, synchronized with comprehensive messaging efforts. Third, messaging must be designed to persuade the local audience, particularly those the programming is designed to target. Additionally, messaging and narrative-driven action programs must be evidence based, with clear and measurable indicators of success. Program evaluations should include key female empowerment indicators across social markers (e.g., access to education, rates of underage marriage), political markers (e.g., female inclusion and agency), economic markers (e.g., female unemployment), and health markers (e.g., rates of sexual violence, access to birth control, health care availability, infant and female mortality).

Women are often the barometers of a community’s susceptibility to violent extremism. Therefore, the final pillar focuses on the establishment of grassroots women’s networks. To accelerate a woman’s empowerment, connect her to other women. These networks provide the means by which women can meaningfully engage with sectors that they may feel uncomfortable meeting with individually, such as security and law enforcement agencies. Women in citizen advisory groups and municipal security councils in Serbia and Albania, for example, have effectively interacted with local police to alert them to gendered safety issues. These pillars not only address the complex mix of gender, psychosocial, political and economic factors that are conducive to violent extremism, but they also focus on enabling women to have the power needed to command the trajectory of their own lives and communities.