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Aggressively patriarchal worldviews attracted Swedish women to the Islamic State

the logo of the Islamic State

Contrary to popular belief, women played a prominent role in IS recruitment - especially in bringing in other women. A new study from Lund University shows that Swedish women joined the Islamic State as part of a religiously motivated gendered counterculture against Swedish values of gender equality, modern gender roles and gender norms.

Online, Swedish IS women propagandise sharia law, gender segregation, and patriarchal gender order. They oppose gender equality, bodily self-determination, such as premarital sex and abortion, and women's rights to education, work, and to occupy the public space. The beliefs belong to a strict Salafi-jihadist interpretation of Islam professed by a minority of Muslims.

Sociologist and terror researcher Henriette Frees Esholdt has analysed nearly 400 posts and 100 videos from Swedish IS-affiliated "sisters in the faith" online. She concludes that the women felt attracted to the terrorist organisation not despite its aggressively patriarchal worldview but because of it.

"Although these women seem to submit themselves to gender roles that in a modern society appear as traditionalist and reactionary, they consider themselves strong and free women. They think women's freedom and emancipation should not be understood in terms of Western, liberal feminism, but instead lie in the submission to God and his divine law," Esholdt says.

Social media

The Swedish IS women use social media to inspire each other and the potential new "sisters in the faith" reading their posts. They often discuss and criticise Western liberal feminism and try to uphold traditional gender norms by policing and regulating sexuality, clothing, relationships and behaviour they believe are wrong.

"They look down on Western women," Esholdt says. "In their view, Western women are victims of propagandising media and suppressed sex objects who have been tricked into thinking that women's emancipation lies in independence and the right to express oneself in any way one wants. They despise and laugh at the yearly International Women's Day, because they believe that in Islam, every day is women's day," Esholdt says.

No passive process

According to her, women have a prominent role in recruitment, especially of other females, contradicting the common assumption that women who joined IS were subjected to online grooming by shady men who manipulated them to emigrate to IS territory. "Women's radicalisation is misrepresented as a passive process and obscures the fact that women themselves are actively involved in recruiting other women," she says.

The research shows that IS used gender segregation and traditional gender roles to attract and incorporate women into the organisation. Esholdt underscores that we should be wary of gender segregation - both online and offline - and moral policing of traditional gender norms, as this can be warning signs of radicalisation.


Henriette Frees Esholdt

Henriette Frees Esholdt's study "The attractions of Salafi-jihadism as a gendered counterculture: Propaganda narratives from the Swedish online 'sisters in deen'" is published in the anthology Salafi-Jihadism and Digital Media: The Nordic and International Context. It is the first peer-reviewed study of unofficial, female-specific, Salafi-jihadist propaganda on social media in the Scandinavian context based on posts by IS women. The chapter is openly available at

Read more about Henriette Frees Esholdt's research