Tajikistan: Female Faces of Violent Extremism

Participation of women in jihadism is an intriguing subject. Here, ideology and emotions, rejection and expectation are intertwined, and personal circumstances and spiritual motives are often mingled together. Yet, a recent upward trend has been noticeable. In Tajikistan, women constitute some 20 percent of those who travelled to the Middle East to join Salafi jihadi groups there, a slightly higher proportion than the EU average.

Three types of women’s involvement with jihadi movements can be observed: passive, active and confused. The passive type prevails. This is a wife taken to the Middle East through pressure or a lack of awareness, or a woman married to a domestic jihadi who has been unable to resist indoctrination in family. Their problem is often the marriage they are in, over which they have little control, especially if they have children. Many young women are taught since childhood that loyalty to one’s husband is a woman’s greatest virtue and that the ability to bear come what may is a secret of a good married life. Thus, they fall victims of ignorance, are motivated by a desire to keep the family together, or by excitement of going abroad. Some women are materially driven and are susceptible to the promises of flats, cars, money, allowances, an opportunity to have domestic help and avoid living with one’s mother-in-law under the same roof. Some believed that they were going with their husbands to Turkey for work, and realised that they were in Syria when it was too late.

The active type is a local recruiter and a propagandist, a transnational activist facilitating the movement of recruits into foreign fighting zones. She could have moved to Iraq or Syria to become a nurse, a doctor or a teacher, to be in a profession where interaction is confined to females only. She is an activist by nature, holds ideological convictions, wants to be a part of ‘something big’ and is internet-savvy. Such women embrace Salafi jihadism on their own free will and in different circumstances might have joined another type of social movement. Exodus to Syria is a conscious choice and sign of empowerment, with men often uninvolved in their decisions. They tend to be educated and conscious about the world around them. Such women are active on internet sites and mobile applications, as they have sufficient education to master prolific social networking and enough time to engage in it. Those with active minds and ambitions do not find it easy to fulfil behavioural expectations that the community places on them, and the socially conscious types despair of the problems their country is experiencing. These are the women that are likely to be attracted by the false notions of moral certainty, purity, overcoming ethnic boundaries, social equality and justice that IS claims. They started to come out. The first six trials of women accused of recruitment into Salafi jihadism took place in Tajikistan in 2016 showing that women began to play greater and more pro-active roles, because there were no such convictions reported before. Around that time, they started to feature on the wanted list of photos of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, – one posing with a machine gun, which previously only included men.
The ‘confused’ face is often driven by reaction to circumstances and strong emotions. Some women find themselves in problematic life situations and become targets for recruiters who offer a way out of family tensions or financial difficulties. Redemption can be a motivational drive. Repentant sex workers and women in entertainment industry can regard involvement into Salafi-jihadism as redemption for their past ‘sins’ and a ‘born again’ experience. For example, in Sughd, which has a holiday resort with various facilities, a 28-year old former night club dancer R.M. was sentenced to a 12-year in prison for intending to participate in the armed conflict in Syria with her common-law husband. Reportedly, the couple were recruited by her brother who was fighting in Syria.

Pursuit of love and marriage is also a powerful driver. The notion of ‘jihadi love’ gained traction as some women fall to the appeal of warrior masculinity of jihadi fighters. For them, they are ‘real men’ – heroes in contrast to banality and what they perceive as a deficit of masculinity around them. They also think that the sex power equation is in their favour, as there are many more men than women available for marriage in the conflict zones. There is a distinct group of jihadi brides – single women who are considered to be past marriageable age in their home communities. They leave for Syria for romantic reasons, with engagements made on WhatsApp prior to departure, and marry as soon as they get to their destinations. It has been alleged that women who are educated, but have been unable to find any husbands, are particularly vulnerable to recruiters.

Often all ends rather badly. Many became widows in Iraq and Syria, sometimes more than once, and they and their children face great difficulties in leaving the conflict zones. So-called ‘ISIS families’ got displaced after the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, and have been dispersed throughout the region, including Turkey and Jordan. In Tajik law, women who were taken as family members into fighting zones and were stay-at-home wives and daughters, are not prosecuted on return, but such cases hardly happen. They have no documents and are too scared to declare where they come from when they arrive into refugee camps, and repatriation help is hardly available.

To be fair, the state authorities, including the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, make efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism. However, the phenomenon of radicalisation is elusive, and far more developed countries than Tajikistan struggle with the same problem. Different cultural influences pull Tajikistan in different directions, and radicalised teachings and jihadi propaganda increasingly are one of them. As long as these ideas are not defeated, there will be women drawn into them.

Research in Tajikistan was supported by the UN Women. Anna Matveeva is the author of Through Times of Trouble (Lexington Books, 2018)