It is imperative we start closely examining both the radicalising and restraining power of women in fundamentalist communities. They aren't just sexual accoutrements, they are strategic assets.
When we discuss containing and preventing terrorist groups like IS, we usually speak about restraining men: their passions, their attraction to danger, their ardour for battle and their fantasies of being rewarded by virgins in heaven. But we rarely speak about women. Or at least we rarely speak of them in any other context than as meeting the sexual needs of male jihadis.
This is despite the fact that women have long played a crucial, if secondary, role in fundamentalist groups, as recruiters, interpreters, fundraisers and propagators. A large part of their worth and contribution has of course hinged on fertility: not just how many children they have, but how many male soldiers they have brought into the world.
But now researchers in Indonesia have uncovered a startling new trend: young women want to become jihadis just like the men.
A study of women in fundamentalist and jihadi Islamic movements in Indonesia, published by the Jakarta-based non-governmental organisation Rumah Kita BersamaI, has uncovered a distinct, and disconcerting generational change. Young women are no longer content to just play supportive roles in what is known as "soft" jihadi but want to fight alongside male soldiers, in "hard" jihadi. As Sasha Havlicek, the chief executive of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says, there is clear evidence of "a jihadi, girl-power subculture".
The study, called "Testimony of the Faithful Servants", found that religious radicalisation means different things for women. They are motivated by group cohesion and solidarity as well as ideology. For some there are economic factors such as being allowed to work in small businesses and traditional medicine. There were also "special intangible benefits for women:a feeling of peace, blessings in the afterlife, certain knowledge about life, speaking and writing skills, self confidence and inner satisfaction". Women are recruited with propaganda about sisterhood, female friendships and fulfilling a spiritual role.
There are different kinds of jihad for women in radical groups. Jihad shagir – or small jihad – involves surrender to one's husband, bearing a bunch of sons who will fight for Allah, tolerating polygamy and "patiently accept a life of concern". Young women want jihad kabir - to be recognised as men's equals on this earth, then go to heaven, perhaps by becoming suicide bombers or martyrs in battle.
The women surveyed were not motivated by sexual enticements in the afterlife as men are – the 72 virgins with big eyes and pert breasts – but they expect to be equally happy there. One woman said "she would receive a good husband, handsome, rich, with pleasing breath and with a 'hard-on' whenever the woman wants it".
The director of Rumah Kita BersamaI, Lies Marcoes stresses that despite the media's delight in telling stories of young girls seduced by adventure, the women who join radical movements, like men, believe in the idea of a caliphate. "These are not just silly, thoughtless girls. On the contrary, many young women join these movements because they care deeply about inequality, suffering and injustice, and are disappointed with the government's inability to eradicate poverty. Sadly, they have not found a more sensible outlet for channelling their concerns."
Marcoes, a women's rights activist and writer, found that while there is no clear relationship between poverty and militancy, poor women are "the most resolute and compliant".
You don't have to spend long in Indonesia's humid, crowded capital, before realising women have a particular struggle against the growing conservatism here. There has been a steady creep in the number of provincial regulations governing the movements of women: making the wearing of the hijab mandatory, forbidding them from walking at night or riding motorbikes like men (they are only able to ride side saddle, like Victorian women on horses).
For women who wrestle with a subordinate position in conservative communities, groups like ISIS can offer more status and a recognised, rewarded role, especially for poor women, who have few options to rise.
A recent study from the University of Zagreb and George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany found several signs that women could take a more militant role in IS. But there are few signs male leaders will respond to it. The IS power structure depends on the marginalisation and subjugation of women, and does not allow them to join combat.
In November last year, IS published guidelines for women suggested they could support jihad "by nursing, sewing, or serving through cooking, washing and other things".
In other words, while female suicide bombers might be tolerated in the middle east, female fighters would not be for fear it would lead to their empowerment and the general emboldening of the women in their midst. This leads to a crucial and sobering finding: radicalised women are then more likely to commit violent acts in the west, than the middle east, especially those who are prevented from travelling, or who have returned from Syria or Iraq widowed, angry and vengeful. (Upwards of 550 women from the west have gone to fight with IS in Syria and Iraq.)
We would be foolish to ignore the restlessness of women from the west who want to fight the west. And it is imperative we start closely examining both the radicalising and restraining power of women in fundamentalist communities. They aren't just sexual accoutrements, they are strategic assets. And they want to do more.
Julia Baird is the host of the ABC's The Drum. Illustration: Simon Bosch