Aha Moment

Women, Peace, Security, and a Research Question

In March 2015, I came across a CNN report detailing how young Western women were joining ISIS due to the terrorist group’s social media recruitment strategies. Apparently, the reporters suggested, ISIS was attracting women with images of kittens, Nutella, and emojis online. I thought this report was at the very least, bizarre and ungrounded, and at most, trivializing and infantilizing. From my perspective, convincing women to join the ranks of a group known for its gender-based brutality must require a far more nuanced and compelling strategy.2

I kept this report in mind as I progressed through my Introduction to International Politics class during the Spring 2015 semester. When Professor Marcus Holmes, my instructor, had the class write a policy memo on any subject that we wanted, I jumped on the chance to explore the issues raised in the CNN report: the interaction between gender, women, terrorism, and social media. While researching, I found that the CNN report contained a grain of truth, as scholars agreed that ISIS was using social media to recruit women.3 However, I also discovered that women’s motivations to join ISIS ran deeper, as women seemed to be joining for religious reasons and as a way of coping with their perceived social and economic marginalization.4

After I turned this policy memo in at the end of the semester and received my grade for the class, Professor Holmes invited me to join the Political Psychology and International Relations lab. As my first assignment, I had to write up three research ideas I could explore during the upcoming semester. Although I produced two other research ideas—refugee camps in France and examining gun control policy in the United States—I found myself returning to the ideas I came across in my research for the policy memo and decided to pursue research on gender, women, and conflict.

However, I decided to change my research’s focus. I remembered reading about United Nation Resolution 1325 (2000)—Women, Peace, and Security—as I drew up my policy memo. UNSCR 1325 acknowledges that conflict has unique impacts on women and girls. It also calls for greater gender equality in peacekeeping and enhanced protection for women and girls in areas affected by conflict.5 It seemed like Iraq and Syria were areas where women were particularly vulnerable to conflict—Human Rights Watch reported that ISIS thrives off suppressing women’s freedom of movement, dress, education, and employment—and thus, places where UNSCR 1325 could be implemented. Consequently, I hoped to study how the international community could use UNSCR 1325 to support women in Iraq and Syria.

Upon returning to campus and beginning my work in the lab, I gradually began to realize that this project would likely be unfeasible. For one, ISIS is nebulous and difficult to study, especially for an undergraduate student lacking the means to conduct field work. In fact, ISIS is so hard to pin down that I could not find the exact number of women who had joined its ranks while writing my policy memo, as no organization was able to count them. After talking to Professor Holmes, I decided to modify the direction of my research, broadening my area of interest to understanding the impact of of UNSCR 1325 on gender-inclusive peacebuilding.

One of the most useful articles I had read on the topic was “Peace Agreements or Pieces of Paper: UN Security Council 1325 and Peace Negotiations and Agreements” by Christine Bell and Catherine O’Rourke (2010), which included a qualitative and quantitative assessment of the language pertaining to gender-based and women’s issues present in peace agreements from both before and after the passage of UNSCR 1325.6 They found that references to women had not been “systematically” (p. 968) included in peace agreements before or after UNSCR 1325’s passage, and when they were included, they were often “ambiguous in terms of feminist gains” (p. 968). That’s to say, while UNSCR 1325 promoted the inclusion of both women’s issues in peace agreements and women in peace processes, it has not substantially influenced the content of language surrounding women’s issues in peacebuilding. Peace agreements continue to frame women as mothers and victims rather than agents of peacebuilding and political engagement. This kind of language is “essentializing,” meaning that it reduces women to stereotypes based on their gender.

Altogether, I found these findings surprising. UNSCR 1325 had been hailed as a landmark resolution that was supposed to pave the way for women in more active peacebuilding roles. Its sporadic—and often, superficial—implementation led me to wonder where the gap between its ultimate goals and its enforcement lay. Although my topic’s expansion gave me more flexibility in determining the direction to take my project, I also felt overwhelmed. Fortunately, the next lab assignment was a conceptual map, which allowed me to give order to arguments and ideas raised in the articles I had been reading. As I mapped out these ideas, I reflected on the Bell & O’Rourke (2010) article. If language can shape behavior,7 I thought, perhaps peace agreements’ essentializing gendered language could affect if and how women are involved in peace processes and the post-conflict reconstruction process. Eventually, I arrived at a potential research question: Given the criticism that it has promoted the use of essentializing language in peace agreements, how has UNSCR 1325 impacted women’s political participation in post-conflict states?

concept map
My conceptual map. Apologies for my messy handwriting.

1Katie Sanders, “The truth about ISIS using Nutella, kittens and Emoji to ‘lure’ western women,” PolitiFact, February 19, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2016.

2Samuel Oakford, “Yazidi Women Captured by the Islamic State Suffer Terrible Fate,” Vice News, October 12, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2016.

3Ghaffar Hussain & Erin Marie Saltman, Jihad trending: A Comprehensive Analysis of Online Extremism and How to Counter It. London: Quilliam Foundation, 2014, Retrieved from

4Rivka Yadlin, “Female martyrdom: The ultimate embodiment of Islamic existence?” in Female suicide bombers: Dying for equality? Ed. Y. Schweitzer (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 2006); Karen Jacques and Paul Taylor, “Male and female suicide bombers: Different sexes, different reasons?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31, (2008): 304-326. doi: 10.1080/10576100801925695

5United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325 (2000), October, 31, 2000. Retrieved from

6Christine Bell and Catherine O’Rourke, “Peace agreements or pieces of paper? The impact of UNSC Resolution 1325 on peace processes and their agreements,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 59(4), 941-980. doi:10.1017/S002058931000062X

7Guy Deutscher, “Does Language Shape the Way We Think?” The New York Times Magazine, August 26, 2010.