Women and Islamic Militancy: A Response
First published in Dissent, Winter 2015.
To read Rafia Zakaria’s original article, click here.
Why do Muslim girls in the West run away to join ISIS? Rafia Zakaria argues that they are responding to online propaganda that “underscores the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed in U.S. military campaigns but also professes to have created a post-national, post-racial, and perfectly just society ordered by Islamic norms.” She hypothesizes that ISIS may offer “an escape from a nation where to be an equal citizen requires abandoning the dictates of one’s religion.” While she emphasizes that the main duty of these girls will be to marry and propagate, she also describes them as “women warriors,” making an extended comparison between them and Aafia Siddiqi, who refused to “submit to traditional female roles” and whom she believes represents “an alternative, if highly controversial, portrait of empowerment that groups like ISIS use to appeal to other women.”
Let’s stop for a moment to note that ISIS has enslaved thousands of Iraqi and Syrian women, mostly from minority groups; it has even reportedly published a pamphlet detailing the proper way to treat female captives, which includes immediate rape, with no exceptions made for young children. One of its recent propaganda coups, according to an Iraqi news source, was to release a price list showing the costs of Christian and Yazidi female slaves of different age groups, probably as an inducement to foreign fighters; the youngest children are the most expensive and foreign fighters are not allowed more than three per person.
So, yes, it is important to try to understand why Western Muslim girls—or anybody else—would want to join such a violent group. The question is, how much do we really know about the runaways? Is Zakaria working from a sample large and well-documented enough to support her hypotheses, or are other conclusions equally plausible?
Two researchers at Kings College, London, have been tracking female recruits to ISIS from the UK. Melanie Smith of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has a database of twenty-five such girls; she emphasizes the romantic lure of a man with a gun and says a number of girls have run away to marry jihadists they have met online. Indeed, some of the online methods used to engage these teenage girls resonate with grooming techniques used by pimps; a recent investigation by the London Times points to an organized ring of “facilitators” in East London, offering girls as young as fourteen passports, travel help, and money for travel to marry jihadists in Syria. The BBC interviewed a number of girls in Luton who said they wanted to go and some knew so little about either Islam or politics that they were not even aware ISIS was fighting other Muslims.
Another researcher at Kings, Katharine Brown of the Defense Studies Department, says girls who join ISIS do not all want the same thing: some want to be jihadi brides; some are drawn by the utopian vision of a caliphate; and many just want to be independent, get away from their parents, and have adventures.
Zakaria speculates on the attraction of ISIS for “French Muslim schoolgirls who are excluded from school for wearing headscarves [and who] live and learn in relative isolation from the mainstream of French society.” Certainly some French runaways fit this description, like fifteen-year-old Soukaïna, whose parents had no idea she frequented jihadist websites until they were warned by the cops; three months later she stole her sister’s passport and headed for Syria. Another fifteen-year-old French girl, Nora el-Bathy, came from a family that was Muslim but not Islamist and only donned her veil after she left home in the morning. She went to Syria thinking she could work in a hospital; when ISIS made her stay inside and do babysitting instead she wanted to come home but her brother couldn’t get her out.
According to Dounia Bouzar, the anthropologist founder of the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam (CPDSI), most young French women who seek jihad do not come from particularly religious families; they are good students who want to go to Syria either to marry a devout Muslim or provide humanitarian aid. She says, “There is a mix of indoctrination and seduction. . . .They upload photos of bearded Prince Charmings on Facebook.”
Zakaria says most Muslim girls from the West who join ISIS are between eighteen and twenty-five and are attracted “because its political vision appears to offer a solution to some of the problems that plague them.” But are they adults capable of making mature decisions? They are certainly capable and well-enough organized to deceive their parents and find a network to help them travel. Zahra and Salma Halane, sixteen-year-old twin sisters from Manchester, the children of Somali refugees, had twenty-eight GCSEs between them (most students take eight or nine) and were enrolled in college until they ran away to marry ISIS warriors. Aqsa Mahmood, whom Zakaria quotes, was a twenty-year-old pre-med from Glasgow, educated in private schools; she is now married and produces a recruiting blog under the name Umm Layth.
But no matter how well-organized and educated they may be, most of the girls whose stories we actually know tend to be fifteen or sixteen. Can we really compare these teenagers to Aafia Siddiqi, a thirty-five-year-old PhD with degrees in biology and neuroscience, married twice, with three children, and a dedicated Islamist for many years, who, when captured in 2008, was reportedly carrying cyanide crystals and documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs.
Zakaria also hypothesizes that some women join ISIS because they can more easily remarry there if they divorce or are widowed: “A divorced or widowed woman with children can rarely remarry in Afghanistan or Pakistan.” But no evidence of Afghan or Pakistani women joining ISIS has yet emerged, so how does this apply? And, while divorce may be disgraceful in Afghanistan, it is so common in Pakistan that more than 100 divorces take place every day in Lahore alone. So whom is she actually talking about here?
Zakaria posits that Muslim girls in the West see ISIS as an opportunity because the United States has destroyed the option of feminism in their countries. “Since the rhetoric of women’s liberation has been used to justify the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a group like ISIS which violently opposes those interventions can gain a degree of legitimacy unavailable to secular feminists in those nations, who are constantly and consistently under attack for propagating Western ideas and being handmaidens to foreign occupation.”
Let’s look closely at this thesis. Conservative opposition to women’s movements hardly began with 9/11. Patriarchal conservatives in the Global South have been calling local feminists tools of the West since at least the nineties and very likely since the nineteenth century. As I wrote in 1999, “To nationalist, communalist and religious backlash movements, feminism, no matter how rooted in local conditions, represents the globalizing forces that are undercutting patriarchal traditions. For them, it is intrinsically foreign, a fifth column undermining their efforts at unity. . . . the successes of the women’s movement are also seen only as symptoms of globalization, rather than as the result of an autonomous movement for female emancipation.”
But if conservatives see local groups like Shirkat Gah and the Women’s Action Forum in Pakistan, the Afghan Women’s Network, and the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq as a modernizing fifth column, doesn’t that make it all the more necessary for women in the rest of the world to show some solidarity rather than dismiss women’s desire for equality?
Rather than call for such solidarity, Zakaria cites Laura Bush and concludes that, because the Bush administration said it wanted to help Afghan women, “the very idea of gender equality [has become] tainted as a pretext for foreign occupation. This dynamic—repeated in Iraq and even Pakistan (with U.S-led drone attacks on one end and U.S.-funded women’s empowerment projects on the other)—creates a political opening for an alternative form of female empowerment, even though it is one that men control, and which allows the rape and murder of women who do not conform.”
Surely there is some cognitive dissonance in the idea of “an alternative form of female empowerment . . . that men control” which, moreover, “allows the rape and murder of women who do not conform?”
Let’s call the phenomenon by its right name: This is not female empowerment but a buy-in by some young Sunni women to a fascist ideology that gives them admission to a society run by an elite group of warriors who have life and death power over other women—Yazidis, Shi’a, Ahmadis, Christians. All they have to do to join this elite is consent to their own subordination. They have even been allowed to form their own little militia, the al-Khansaa brigade, to police other women. The bargain is exactly the same as that made by women who join other poisonous right wing groups based on racial or ideological purity, like Nazi women, women of the Hindu right, or the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan.
So if Zakaria is correct and some of the runaway girls from the West have made mature, considered decisions, we have to ask, what kind of decisions have they made? Is it sufficient to talk about empowerment in the case of Mujahidah Bint Usama, a doctor who posted a picture of herself in Raqqa holding a severed head, with the message, “Dream job, a terrorist doc,” followed by smiley faces and hearts? What kind of empowerment is represented by Aqsa Mahmood, who wrote in a September blog post:
Know this Cameron/Obama, you and your countries will be beneath our feet and your Kufr [unbelievers] will be destroyed, this is a promise from Allah swt [abbreviation for ‘glorified and exalted be He’] that we have no doubt over. If not you then your grandchildren or their grandchildren. But worry not, somewhere along the line your blood will be spilled by our cubs in Dawlah [your country]. We have conquered these lands once Beithnillah [God willing] we will do it again. Read up on your History, and know that it will repeat itself, you will pay Jizyah [tax on non-Muslims] to us just like you did in the past. This Islamic Empire shall be known and feared world wide and we will follow none other than the Law of the one and the only ilah [God]!
Another question: if Zakaria is looking for examples of female empowerment in Syria, why pick women in ISIS? Why not choose the determined women in local Syrian civil society groups who insist on holding meetings, educating children, and carrying on humanitarian work under the most unpromising conditions? Why not choose the Women’s Defence Units affiliated with the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party? Necla Acik has described how these women’s militias rescued thousands of Yazidis who, fleeing ISIS massacres and slave markets, got trapped in the Sinjar mountains last August:
Setting off from Rojava, these fighters cleared more than a 100km passage through northern Iraq to Mount Sinjar and broke the siege of IS. They provided the desperate refugees with a secure corridor, which enabled them to embark on a 24 hour march into the relatively safe northern part of Syria/Rojava, where they received immediate medical attention, food and shelter.
Dilar Dirik adds, “the mass-mobilisation of women in Kobane is the legacy of decades-long resistance of Kurdish women as fighters, prisoners, politicians, leaders of popular uprisings and tireless protesters, unwilling to compromise on their rights.”
The Kobane women’s militia members are not only women warriors, they are feminists, socialists, and secularists. Is that why Zakaria avoids making them part of the picture—because they disprove her thesis that egalitarian feminist ideas are no longer viable in war-torn Muslim-majority countries? The women who hold equal leadership positions in the Rojava cantons do not seem to feel that secular feminism is a hopelessly outdated and compromised idea. As their example becomes more widely known, I suspect many other women in South Asia, the Middle East, and the West will find their insistence on women’s equality a more useful model of female empowerment than that of high-school girls who run off to join ISIS.