Since the war started in Syria in 2011, neighboring Jordan has shouldered the burden that comes with being one of the countries closest to the crisis. Over 635,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Jordan since the conflict started, putting enormous strain on its resources and infrastructure.
Jordan is also the third-largest contributor of fighters to ISIS, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, after Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, and the country has seen a significant rise in support for the group back home. In early 2015, researchers estimated ISIS and other jihadi groups had about 9,000 to 10,000 Jordanian supporters.
As in many other countries facing the threat of radicalization, Jordan’s government has announced plans to tackle violent ideology, putting in place increased security measures and launching a nationwide counter-extremism project that targets radical preachers and young men thought to be at risk of indoctrination.
But research published by U.N. Women in July suggests women could be equally or even more affected by radicalization than men in Jordan, both as victims and perpetrators. The report, based on 47 interviews and focus-group discussions with a cross-section of Jordanian society, calls for more research into the role of women in radicalization. It says much more needs to be done to include them in counter-extremism work.
“People of all different beliefs overwhelmingly said that while men get radicalized, women are more at risk of the effects of radicalization,” says Rachel Dore-Weeks, a peacebuilding expert for U.N. Women in Jordan who coordinated the research. The effects include a rise in violence at home, increased restrictions on women’s movements and a greater risk of being coerced into sharing or spreading radicalized views.
Dore-Weeks says 87 percent of those surveyed said women are at risk of suffering the effects of radicalization, with 71 percent saying women face a bigger risk than men. Until now radicalization has been framed much more in terms of the security implications and the risk it poses to young men, rather than the wider effect it can have on communities in general.
“People said when they had experienced living in communities where there was a rise in radicalization, either via people in Jordan or people going to fight in Syria and Iraq and coming home, they saw those communities getting much more conservative and much more insular,” says Dore-Weeks. “As a result, where women had been eking out freedoms and breaking gender norms little by little, they were really pushed back.”
In cases where fighters have returned from the front line, respondents reported a rise in incidents of domestic abuse at home and said women could be banned from leaving the house, taking public transport or voicing opinions in public.
It was also reported that when young men or women become radicalized, their mothers are often blamed by society and feel more responsible for their children’s behavior, putting them under more pressure from their communities.
Several women interviewed for the report admitted they feared they could be unwittingly pushing their children to become radicalized. “I always encourage my son to pray, because I believe … religion makes you able to differentiate right from wrong,” one unnamed woman said. “However, even though I respect being religiously committed, lately my son has been taking things a bit too far.” The woman told researchers she saw changes in her son’s behavior, including a new, more extremist attitude toward his sisters, that made her think he might be joining ISIS.
While researchers for the report were unable to speak to women who had been radicalized themselves, several respondents reported knowing women who had been radicalized or targeted by extremists. Often, they said, women were recruited because of their role as “influencers” in the home. While some reported women being targeted online, others said women could be targeted at female-only religious study groups.
The reasons respondents gave for women potentially becoming radicalized were similar to those for men, including financial pressures, lack of prospects, and religious conviction. It was also said women could be persuaded to join ISIS or other radical groups as a way to escape domestic abuse or because of a divorce or other difficult situation at home.
Nikita Malik, head of research at the U.K.-based counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, (which was not involved in the report) says counter-radicalization experts have in the past overlooked how important women are to groups like ISIS, reducing their role to that of wife or mother when, in fact, they are highly valuable to recruiters.
“Islamic extremist groups like ISIS are effective because they are made up of a web of networks and women play a key role in that network,” she says, adding that women are needed to bring up children already indoctrinated into the group, to communicate messages within the community, and to uphold a sense of sisterhood, adding legitimacy to the idea of an Islamic caliphate.
Malik says understanding this is key to involving women in de-radicalization work. “In Jordan, we need to see women deployed more as agents of change,” she says. “When a young person is at risk of being radicalized, they won’t turn to an M.P. or an academic – they will turn to a neighbor or a mother or a friend.
“We have to train this level of potentially powerful women to enact de-radicalization.”
Some of that work is already underway, triggered by the U.N. Women report, including a pilot project in universities to create safe spaces for young men and women to talk about radicalization and voice concerns about people they know.
U.N. Women is also in talks with the Jordanian government about approaching female imams to work with the community on countering violent extremism.
And Dore-Weeks says the organization hopes to carry out more detailed research on what drives both men and women into the arms of extremists.
“It’s much more complex than saying it is angry young men who don’t have jobs,” she says. “For the most part it appears to be middle-class people who are being targeted or traveling to [Syria and Iraq] to fight. For them, it is about ideology, it is about fighting a sense of injustice.”