When the Islamic State is mentioned in passing, an oversimplified narrative of good versus evil, predators versus prey, tends to result. Indeed, ISIL—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—has been quite open about its practices, streaming videos of crucifixions and decapitations online to transmit fear and garner respect. Brutality against women has been at the forefront of their marketing: A 2014 article in Dabiq, the Islamic State’s English language recruitment magazine, stated that women from kafir—that is, “unfaithful” or “non-believing”—sects or nations may be “enslaved,” “raped,” and “tak[en] as concubines” by faithful male soldiers, since this is prescribed by ISIL-adopted Shari’ah law.

There are realities that receive little attention, though, when it comes to women’s involvement in or around the extremist group. Here are three surprising things I learned through reading up on the matter earlier this week.

  1. Enslaved women serve purposes in addition to providing sexual pleasure to the men who purchase them. International human rights researchers believe that ISIL has enslaved between 3,000 and 5,000 women since 2014. Though the percentage that trafficking contributes to ISIL’s total revenue is debated, trafficked women are considered a chief revenue source within the Islamic State’s growing, internally driven economy. To this end, female slaves are both goods and marketing tactics, used to draw in male soldiers who are promised virgins for their commitment. Women are also a means of ethnic cleansing within ISIL: though some are forced to ingest contraceptives to stay marketable, others are raped for the sake of produceing new members of ISIL.
  2.  Many women, most notably, Muslim women from Western European nations, join ISIL voluntarily. Middle East scholar Debangana Chatterjee writes that the Islamic State promises a kind of utopic vision to Muslim women who have been discriminated against because of their unique religious practices. Promised “real men” and the stability of a traditional Muslim domestic life, women join and are put to use as wives, propagandists, and occasionally as jihadists. Since much of ISIL’s work relies heavily on social media, women are able to work from the privacy of their homes. Ahlam Al-Nasr, known as “the poetess of the Islamic State,” for example, writes and posts poetry online promoting ISIL and proclaiming its future domination.
  3. Women are fighting back. There are several groups of women, typically Yazidis, Syrian Christians, Kurds, and other minority groups targeted by the Islamic State, that have taken up arms against the terrorist organization. Such groups are more formal, like the Kurdish military’s Women’s Protection Units, while others are smaller and less formal, like the women-only brigades formed by former ISIL slaves. Though self-reported accounts of such groups’ successes are not always verifiable because they might be embellished to raise morale among resistance groups, independent sources confirm that women fighters contributed substantially in the November 2015 recapture of the Iraqi city of Sinjar from ISIL.

So, while the evidence does confirm that women are certainly victimized–even in contexts of leadership within ISIL they are nonetheless subjugated–it is clear that the role of women cannot be generalized. This is crucial for not only for combatting ISIL in all of its systematic practices, but also for knowing how to support women most impacted.