Unveiling the Women of ISIS: Part 2

by Amanda Ocasio

This is the second piece in a two-part series discussing how the women who join ISIS are often inaccurately portrayed as victims forced to join the group, with no free-will or agency of their own. Both pieces in this series are adapted from a presentation given by Amanda at Harvard University in May 2015. The first piece in this series discusses, amongst other things, ISIS’ strategies for recruiting women to the group. It can be viewed here


This photo, of a woman receiving weapons training, was sent to Amanda by ‘Abu Jandal’

In my last post, I discussed the Islamic State group’s strategies for getting women to join its ranks.  Of course, it helps to actually speak to these women.  One muhajirah, who keeps her twitter account private, agreed to speak via direct message for this project as long as her screen-name was not used.  She tweets press releases from the Islamic State, excerpts from Quran and Hadith which are meant to validate the agenda of the Islamic State, and commentary from IS scholars. “My life only started when I got to Sham, Alhamdoulilah…” she says in a conversation over Twitter direct message:

“What do you want me to say?  We are living here under Sharia, the law of Allah SWT…No racism.  Everything equal for Muslim [sic].” 

She emphasizes the fact that men handle most issues related to security:

“No, we don’t fight, Alhamdoulilah. We have enough men to do that for us.”

When asked why there are so many pictures of women carrying weapons, she explains that it is:

“Just for security reasons.  If they have a weapon they can use it.  Their husbands, brothers, fathers learn them how to use it [sic].” 

“Abu Jandal,” a pro-IS twitter user from the UK, provided some of the sources considered for this project. In January, 2015, he sent along a picture showing a woman attending weapons training in the Islamic State. She is standing with a man (her instructor), and a small child—proving my anonymous contact’s point about the availability of weapons training to women.

The second part of my anonymous contact’s statement is important for two reasons.  First, it shows that, contrary to what some media accounts have claimed, women can exist outside of the home. Second, this shows that men and women are partners in the state-building project.  Women are not forced to depend on men for everything.  They can take care of themselves, and protect their families.

“Sisters Role in Jihad,” a jihadist manual geared towards women, has been circulating on the internet for 2-3 years now.  When the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium added the manual to their archive of primary source material, they incorrectly labeled it as an “Islamic State Handbook.”   According to “How to raise a jihadi-baby…” a December, 2014 article in The Daily Mail, the manual has also been used by other groups but has most recently come to be used by ISIS. It provides the example of Runa Khan—a mother from the UK who was jailed in December, 2014, after she made several pro-jihad Facebook posts, and was caught advising an undercover law enforcement agent on ways they could enter Syria. This seemingly minor distinction is important because it shows how women of the Islamic State have enough of an awareness of the world around them to take discourses from other groups and make them relevant to the Islamic State.

The manual begins with reference to Quran 9:71, and a hadith about how to correct “a violation of Allah’s command.  Taken together, these passages demonstrate that men and women are equal partners in jihad.  The manual continues, drawing no distinction when it notes that the best way for both men and women to respond when they observe a “violation” is jihad fi sabeelilah, or “fighting in the path of Allah.” It normalises jihad by likening it to a woman’s daily prayers and the act of fasting during Ramadan, and notes that in the same way a woman does not need a man’s permission to pray or fast, she does not need a man’s permission to go off on jihad.

The manual goes on to list three ways that women can take part in battlefield operations.  First, it encourages women to take part in the actual fighting.  This section begins with an appeal to history—asking women to remember the great female fighters in Islamic history who came before them. The manual does draw a distinction, noting that the battlefield is primarily a male domain, but there are exceptions.  “It should be noted that physical fighting has been a role assigned primarily to men…” it says, “However, when the need arose, our brave sisters never held back from fighting, and neither should they now!”

The section concludes with the following “note for sisters wanting to participate in fighting these days”:

By the Grace of Allah, The Most High, the situation in the Ummah is not that desperate yet, that sisters are called to fight. Those sisters who voluntarily want to join the fighting for reward from Allah, are advised to not go unless the leader of Jihad in that place calls sisters to fight. As for other help, they can go if the Mujahideen are able to accommodate and protect them. However, sisters should definitely be prepared!

This section is important for three reasons.  First, it shows that women are capable of evaluating the rapidly evolving political landscape, and making the decision to take to the battlefield on their own.  Second, by stressing the importance of making sure that the mujahideen can protect women, it shows just how important women are to the Islamic State.  Third, by saying that “sisters should definitely be prepared,” the manual acknowledges a woman’s agency and her ability to prepare for battle on her own.

In the next section, the manual mentions ways that women can support fighters in the battlefield.  They can provide medical support, food, water, weapons, and encouragement to the mujahideen.  The section again appeals to history. It mentions the Quranic example of Safiyyah bint Abdul Muttalib who carried a spear into battle and remained at the back of the army as they marched on. She was prepared to strike the enemy, but actually kept that position so she could “strike those Muslims who dared to escape from the battle.” It then provides a present day example of a woman from the UK who carried weapons and ammunition over mountains for the Bosnian Muslims “…as she knew the enemy would not suspect her.” The third and final part of the section on battlefield operations mentions that women can take part in guard duty, and take on other responsibilities related to protecting the community.

 The second part of the manual details the many ways women can participate in jihad away from the battlefield. Her roles here are much more nuanced than people admit.  Women don’t just procreate. They are also expected to provide children with a balanced education–providing both physical training and academic lessons. Women are expected to become familiar with the training routine first, both so they can participate themselves, and so they better can train their children.  Once again, women are not just acting to better the state.


This photo was sent to Amanda by an anonymous source

This section of the manual also shows how influential women are when it instructs women to encourage their loved ones to wage jihad. The section mentions four additional ways for women to contribute, but due to space limitations, I will only mention the second way—that is jihad “on an academic level.” As part of this charge, women are told to study the works of famous scholars so they can provide counters to people’s objections to jihad. This also makes it possible for them to train other women and, in some cases, men. Lastly, this makes it so women themselves can become passionate about the cause and then motivate others.

 In February, 2015, the Al Khansa Brigades published “Women in the Islamic State”—a manual by women, for women.  It mentions in the introduction that it is not an official state document, but it is still a useful source to consider given the role that the Al Khansa Brigades play in the day to day affairs of the Islamic State.  According to an interview carried out by Syria Deeply with Abu Ahmad, an ISIS official in Raqqa, the Al Khansa Brigades are an all-female police force that works “…to raise awareness of our religion among women, and to punish women who do not abide by the law.”

In the introduction, the authors say that the Islamic State is simply picking up where the Ottoman Caliphate left off. “The era of Western dominance and its influence on our lifestyle and way of living has passed, whether it is regarding its social, educational, economic…or medical and industrial aspects,” the manual says.  The Islamic State sees itself as bringing people back to the faith, and liberating people from the forces of western imperialism.

They also argue that what they suggest for women is nothing new:

“Foremost among the first people that we refer to are Muslim women, members of their Islamic community.”

The manual says:

In that day, they had a role. Today, too, they have a role, one which is derived from the principles of Islamic law and its teachings.” 

The piece continues, noting that a woman’s role has been “tampered with.”

Moving on, the women of Al Khansa criticize both men and women for their shallow vanity.  “Man adorned and decorated this world, trying to make it look like Paradise because he does not believe in the true Paradise…”, it says.  The women then go on to explain their true purpose—namely, implementing Sharia and spreading Islam.  They do clarify, however, noting that secular sciences do still have a place in the Islamic State, as long as they’re put to use to serve God’s cause.

The piece then provides a manifesto.  Women are instructed to follow the examples of Assiya, Mariam, Khadija, Fatima and Aisha—some of the great women of Islam.  After that part, the authors make an interesting argument:

“The problem today is that women are not fulfilling their fundamental roles, the role that is consistent with their deepest nature, for an important reason: that women are not presented with a true picture of man.”

In other words, it is the shortcomings of men which lead women to take action to meet the needs of the community.

The marriage dynamic at work in the Islamic State is also much more balanced than the media makes it seem. “Hence, while Islam gives man dominance, it bestows upon women the honour of implementation (executive),” the piece says. Men and women work together to build a home and a family, and the contributions of both are necessary in order for the family unit to thrive. Women of the Islamic State are not expected to assume this leadership role without any training. The manual goes on to note that education for women is favoured by the Islamic State, as “She cannot fulfil this role if she is illiterate and ignorant.”

The manual has sections on aesthetics, offers critiques of western models of femininity, and provides a few case studies. I will only discuss two more sections here—“secondary functions for women” and “suggestions of a curriculum for Muslim women.”

The section, “secondary functions for women” makes the argument that a woman’s most important function is that of wife and mother, but notes that she does so much more. Women are able to go off on jihad if the enemy is attacking and the imams issue a call for it. Women are encouraged to study religion. Women are permitted to become doctors and teachers, as long as they adhere to Shariah guidelines.

A discussion of the section, “suggestions of a curriculum for Muslim women” also feels like an appropriate way to wrap this up.  It shows that women receive instruction in a wide array of subjects from an early age—ensuring that she is well read and able to fend for herself in the material, spiritual, and academic realms. Starting from the age of seven, she receives instruction in fiqh, religion, Arabic, the natural sciences, textiles and knitting, and basic cooking. Particularly important to note is the fact that she receives instruction on her legal rights in the context of marriage.  In other words, she is always able to assert herself.








Unveiling the Women of ISIS: Part 1

by Amanda Ocasio

This is the first piece in a two-part series discussing how the women who join ISIS are often inaccurately portrayed as victims forced to join the group, with no free-will or agency of their own. Both pieces in this series are adapted from a presentation given by Amanda at Harvard University in May 2015. The second piece in this two-part series, featuring excerpts from Amanda’s correspondence with a female member of ISIS, and a discussion of a jihadi manual aimed at women, can be read here

 Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.39.23Screen grab of a woman carrying a kalashnikov in Raqqa, Syria, from a video secretly taken by a Syrian woman living in the ISIS-controlled city, aired on France 24 in September 2014. 

Many journalists and academics have made the argument that women join the Islamic State group looking for adventure, power and a sense of purpose, but are disappointed with what they find after joining. These writers and thinkers miss opportunities to discuss displays of female agency. Yes, one finds abuses of power, but one can find those anywhere. Women of the Islamic State do not all blindly follow the Islamic State agenda. They help to shape it in their own way.

Women are the ultimate ‘keyboard warriors’ in the Islamic State. They regularly post guidance, and words of wisdom to a wide variety of social media platforms. For example, a woman who writes under the name ‘Umm Layth’ uses tumblr. I will focus on three parts of a four part series she wrote called ‘Diary of a Muhajirah‘. The second part of the series focuses on how a woman should deal with her family when she makes the decision to move to the Islamic State. She writes:

‘Wallahi preparing yourself to leave is difficult because you are leaving the women who kept you in her womb for 9 months, who breastfed you, who stayed up till night taking care of each and every one of your needs and the person who you truly feel at home with’.

She draws a noteworthy distinction here. It is a woman’s ties to her mother, not her father, which make it hard for her to leave. A woman is not as wed to patriarchy as the dominant media discourses make us believe.

Umm Layth notes that parents will most likely not understand a woman’s decision to join the Islamic State. Instead of judging them, or responding with hostility, she suggests that women keep their parents in their prayers. ‘You have to answer to Allah (swt),’ she reminds women, ‘so always fear Him and give your family and parents their right.’  She concludes the entry with a note where she attempts to dispel the myth of Jihad-al-nikaah or ‘sexual jihad.’ ‘Sisters a little note: many people in present day do not understand and cannot comprehend at all why a female would choose to make this decision,’ she says. ‘They will point fingers and say behind your back and to your families faces that you are taking part in “Jihadul nikaah” or “sexual jihad” and many many more vile terms.’  This point is important for several reasons. First, by classifying ‘sexual jihad’ as a ‘vile’ term, she is actively attempting to dispel myths about her gender. Second, it shows a woman taking control of jihadist discourses and attempting to define her personal jihad on her own terms.

The third part of Umm Layth’s series is a little less focused. She says:

‘First of all wallahi wallahi I know my position. I am not a scholar… or even a student of knowledge…So please do not assume that of me’.

First, she tries to define ‘normal.’ She establishes herself as a common, everyday woman but all of her entries demonstrate a knowledge of theology and law—showing that it is possible for all women to learn their rights, exercise their rights, and actively engage with the dominant discourses of the Islamic State.  She goes on to mention that she hopes her words will encourage both men AND women—proving that the gender divide in the Islamic State isn’t as sharp as the media would often lead us to believe. She continues, noting that, contrary to what the media has said many a time, these women aren’t uneducated. Many of the women who move to the Islamic State were studying at university before making the move.  She also reminds the reader that these women come from good families.  They’re not the troubled girls who were seeking personal meaning or adventure as the media likes to make them seem.

Her next argument is interesting in that it challenges the orientalist discourses on possession and worth.  Yes, these women have ‘left their luxuries behind,’ as she says, but they do receive ghanimah (an Arabic term, typically used to refer to spoils of war).  This can include anything from animals to household appliances. Yes, these women don’t define wealth and worth by a more materialistic, western standard, but that doesn’t mean that they are poor.

Another entry in the series reads like a brief instructional manual. In it, she helps to prepare women for their husbands’ martyrdom. She provides a checklist for women to help them make sure that all of their needs will be met, and suggests a website for ‘further reading’. She concludes with a message to men where she stresses the importance of making sure that their wives are prepared for their inevitable death, writing:

‘You are responsible for your wife. You make sure to give all her rights to her and under this comes one of the most important duties of yours brother, and this is to educate your wife!’

This entry is important for three reasons. First, it proves that women don’t just rely on men to tell them everything they need to know to thrive in the world around them.  Women are much more active in shaping their own destinies. Secondly, women do not lose their ability to function after their husbands have passed on. Third, it shows another example of a woman holding a man accountable, by reminding him of his responsibilities to his wife.


The dark-grey area shows the territory controlled by ISIS as of 01 May 2016. By BlueHypercane761.

Umm Ubaydah is another Islamic State ‘keyboard warrior’ who uses tumblr to reach her audience.  Her blog is more academic.  She posts a lot of quotes and essays from famous Islamic thinkers.  In one post, she provides advice to a woman on how to assemble a library on Islamic subjects:

‘…download all of Anwar’s series, try to get sheikh Ahmed Musa Jibrils lectures, and books I would say from Abdullah Azzam, Abu Muhammed al Maqdisī (despite his opinion on dawla I highly recommend his books on aqeeda, they’re really good), download books from Ibn qayyim, sheikh Yusuf al Uyari…’

This brief post is important for two reasons. First, it shows women providing guidance to other women. Their knowledge of their faith is not put through a patriarchal filter.  Second, it shows a woman processing the Islamic State agenda and assembling her own list of supplemental readings which answer any questions she might have in a way that makes sense to her.

In another post, Umm Ubaydah re-posts Sheikh Abdullah Azzam’s essay, ‘Regarding Whether the Parents’ Permission is Sought Once Jihad Becomes Fard Ayn.’  One key point that the essay emphasizes is the fact that:

‘The situation of the permission from parents and husband not being required is sustained until the enemy is expelled from the Muslim land, or when there is the accumulation of sufficient numbers to expel the enemy even if all the Muslims in the earth are assembled.’

By re-posting this treatise on the permissibility of jihad, she shows that women understand what are said to be more masculine discourses on war.  She also shows that she is very much aware of her rights outside the home.  Women do not just live in the shadows of their husbands and parents.  Furthermore, by re-posting this essay, Umm Ubaydah reminds women that jihad becomes a gender blind obligation in times of war.

Dabiq Magazine, an Islamic State publication, also addresses what I like to call ‘The Woman Question.’ The seventh issue features ‘An Interview with Umm Basir Al-Muhajirah.’ In the west, she is known as Hayat Boumeddiene—the wife of Ahmedy Coulibaly, the man who swore allegiance to ISIS and took 12 hostages in a Paris supermarket in January, 2015. The fact that she is speaking on her own here shows that her worth to the Islamic State did not decrease after her husband’s martyrdom. She begins by harshly judging both men and women, and asking both to become more active participants in their religion. ‘Why do you degrade yourselves by thinking you cannot understand the Qur’ān and Sunnah and believing you are in need of the understanding of this imam or that scholar?’ she asks, ‘It is true, we need the people of knowledge in general, but, Alhamdulillāh, Allah facilitated the understanding of the Qur’ān and Sunnah’. This all goes to show, once again, that both men and women are equally capable of thinking for themselves. Nowhere does one find men or women being force-fed a stern, legalistic interpretation of Islam.


The covers of issues 1 and 2 of Dabiq magazine

Boumeddiene continues, saying, ‘I saw from amongst you generous people with enthusiasm. Do not lose these traits by following certain individuals. Sincerely ask Allah to guide you. Strive against your inner selves so that you might succeed.’ This shows that women have enough of a knowledge of their faith and the Islamic State agenda to advise others—both male and female. Women are not simply acted upon. Second, her admonition to ‘Strive against your inner selves’ is important because it shows that there is no mob-think mentality at work. Jihad in the Islamic State is a very personal decision. Moving on, she tells the reader that, ‘It is essential for you to love Allah and His Messenger more than your own selves, your husbands, your children, and your parents.’ This last part dispels the myth that women are only able to find personal meaning in the home. They do not just define themselves in terms of their relationship to patriarchy.  The piece concludes with an appeal to women to remember the great women of Islamic history, and to follow their example.

A pro-IS Twitter user who goes by the name of ‘A.Ibrahim’ suggested much of the material considered for this project. On March 26th, 2015, he sent along a video on Diwan al-Madhalim (The Board of Grievance).  Ibrahim emphasizes the fact that men and women are both given a chance to have their concerns heard by the court. When I asked if there are any differences in the ways men and women are treated, he responded by saying ‘Not much difference. I know a muhajirah (a female scholar from Saudi Arabia) who’s working in a court in Raqqa.  There’s a ladies’ section in every IS institute.’  He went on to note that the structure and function of the court is really nothing new. ‘The first Diwan al-Madhalim…was established by the caliph Umar bin Al-Khattab, 1400 years ago,’ he says, showing that the Islamic State isn’t trying to advance a new understanding of Islam.  Everything about it is steeped in tradition—including its treatment of women.

In an exchange back in April, 2015, ‘A. Ibrahim’ spoke of the work done by the IS Health Ministry. He stressed the fact that the ministry has actively worked to employ female doctors to tend to the needs of female patients in order to prevent any mixing between men and women. Around that same time, the Islamic State opened a medical school in Raqqa where both men and women are free to study. The only caveat is that men and women must remain separated at all times. Other than that, both genders are given the same chance to pursue their studies.  Separate does not necessarily mean unequal.

Also in mid-May, 2015, there was some confusion after an Islamic State wedding certificate surfaced on Twitter. The Independent then published an article entitled, ‘ISIS wedding certificate shows jihadi bride demanding right to be a suicide bomber as condition of getting married.’  Ibrahim clarified the bride’s position in a conversation with another twitter user, and sent me a link to the exchange. Ultimately, he says that the bride’s true position got lost in a series of translation errors.  ‘The option is signed by the wife that the husband does not prevent her…’ he said.  In other words, she can make the choice to carry out a martyrdom operation, but doesn’t necessarily have to do so.  This is an important distinction because it shows that women can take part in battlefield operations if they feel so inclined, but they can also prove their worth in other ways.

Part 2 coming on 26th May.

Studying Atlantic salmon eggs in Canada’s freezing winter – the forgotten study season

by Michelle Lavery

[Reworked from a post on The Fisheries Blog and an article in Fisheries Magazine]

 For many hydrologic regimes of the world, streams and rivers are ice covered for the majority of the year, yet minimal research is conducted during this period compared with the more “researcher-friendly” open-water period. Without a doubt, scientific progress is hampered by the logistical difficulties and high cost associated with conducting “winter” research. (Prowse, 2001 (part II))


[Credit: Michelle Lavery] A beautiful, -26°C or -15F° day on the Little Southwest Miramichi River

It seems as though every winter ecology paper contains some variant of this sentiment – we know that winter is important, but we’re not crazy enough to study it. As researchers, we’ve built sampling regimes that ignore an entire season because winter is considered harsh and unforgiving. It’s cold, sharp, and sometimes deadly to us, and so we operate under the assumption that the same goes for the creatures we study.

Alas, it is not so. There’s a lot going on under the snow, and even more going on under the ice. For example, Atlantic salmon eggs incubate in the gravel under river ice in Eastern Canada for six frigid, snowy months at water temperatures barely above freezing. They emerge from the gravel during the spring melt period, when ice jams bulldoze forests and water levels climb metres in minutes. These tiny fish are at the mercy of a dynamic and unpredictable season, yet we barely know anything about it.

As a pampered girl from ‘tropical’ Toronto, I never imagined myself riding a snowmobile and hacking through river ice in the middle of the woods. However, through a serendipitous connection, I found myself doing both – while pursuing a Masters degree supervised by Dr. Richard Cunjak at the Canadian Rivers Institute.


[Credit: Michelle Lavery] Winter is a dynamic season – here a seeping plume of warm, long-residence groundwater melts a thin trail through thick surface ice on the Little Southwest Miramichi River in northern New Brunswick, Canada.

In Eastern Canada’s Miramichi River system, salmon eggs incubate in the gravel riverbed from late October to early May, during which time they experience highly variable winter conditions. In November, air temperatures can drop dramatically overnight (usually to about -20°C or -4°F), causing water to reach its freezing point quickly and inconsistently. As water crystallizes, it can stick to itself and the bottom of the river, forming anchor ice – a squishy carpet of ice crystals on the riverbed. If this ice forms on top of salmon nests (or “redds”), it can block water flow through the gravel and alter the temperature and oxygen levels surrounding the developing eggs.

Once full ice cover forms and precipitation is locked up in the snowpack, long-residence groundwater may be the major contributor to river discharge. “Long-residence” groundwater refers to water that has spent a considerable amount of time in an aquifer deep underground. Consequently, it is often warmer than the surface water in the winter, and can have significantly lower oxygen concentrations (since it has not been recently aerated). As this groundwater seeps through the river bed, the conditions in salmon redds can change dramatically. Depending on the size of the seep, eggs may develop faster due to warmer water temperatures and require more oxygen to sustain this accelerated rate of development. However, the oxygen-poor groundwater is usually unable to meet their biological demands. Without enough oxygen, these eggs may die or experience “sub-lethal” effects – consequences that impact their survival later in life as free-swimming fish. These may include stunted growth or developmental deformities that impair gas exchange, swimming ability, neurological function, etc.


[Credit: Michelle Lavery] Studying an ecosystem during the season without snow only gives us half the story… There’s more going on under the ice than meets the eye!

During the spring melt period, silt and clay can be eroded into rivers by meltwater from the river banks. Depending on the grain size, these sediments may clog the egg membrane and prevent oxygen delivery to the embryo, effectively suffocating the fish. Furthermore, as ice breaks up and moves out of rivers, scour along the riverbed may significantly disturb the gravel and damage the embryos buried in the redds.

It is hard to believe, after considering all of the variation inherent in winter and its potential effects on one life stage of one species in one type of habitat, that winter goes largely unnoticed in the scientific literature. It is, certainly, a challenging season to research. I’ve had my fair share of winter mishaps, including digging a snowmobile out of a slush puddle for three hours, miscalculating ice thickness (not ideal!), hypothermic near-misses, and tethering myself to a tree during the spring melt. However, if we can get past our numb fingers and dripping noses, there’s a whole season waiting to be studied. One could argue that winter research is the last true frontier of freshwater ecology – there are so many unknowns to explore, and so many questions left unanswered. It might not be a “researcher-friendly” season, but it’s definitely exciting! Plus, who doesn’t love a good mid-river snowball fight?


[Credit: Aaron Fraser] When fighting Jack Frost, it helps to have a great pair of neoprene chest waders and some GoreTex mitts. You can take or leave the camouflage…

The European Parliament called for an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. Now what?

by Kloé Tricot O’ Farrell

On 25 February, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution on the humanitarian situation in Yemen which includes a historic call for an EU arms embargo to be imposed against Saudi Arabia. While the resolution is non-binding, Kloé Tricot O’ Farrell argues it is significant for a number of reasons, not least for reminding EU Member States of their legal responsibilities and calling them to order over their arms transfer practices.

Sana Yemen

Sanaa, Yemen

First of all, the European Parliament resolution and related coverage has raised awareness about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and the serious breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) committed by all parties to the year-long conflict.

Since the Saudi-led intervention began in Yemen in late March 2015, both sides of the conflict have carried out indiscriminate attacks which are reported to have killed over 3,200 civilians and injured thousands. The fighting has also left over 21.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. The Saudi-led coalition airstrikes are reported to being responsible for a majority of the civilian casualties. Notably, in February 2016, at least 168 civilians were killed and 193 injured, around two-thirds of them by Coalition airstrikes according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. On 15 March, 106 civilians were killed by airstrikes on a market in Hajja province in what the UN describes as one of the deadliest incidents since the start of the conflict. In addition, fighting and indiscriminate shelling in residential areas by Houthi and Saleh forces have caused numerous civilian casualties.

Second, the European Parliament – the only directly elected EU institution, which represents over 500 million citizens – has brought much needed attention and scrutiny to the role of EU Member States in the Yemen conflict. Indeed, in spite of the paucity of publicly-available information, a number of reports (for instance, this legal opinion by Matrix Chambers, this Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report and this Control Arms report) have highlighted that EU Member States have sold weapons to Saudi Arabia and coalition members that are at risk of being or have been used in Yemen. The legal opinion by Matrix Chambers concludes that transfers of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia capable of being used in Yemen are in breach of both the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to which 26 EU Member States are a party (and with Greece about to become so). It is important to note that there is no evidence that Houthi forces and their allies are currently being supplied with arms from States Parties to the ATT.

While the European Parliament has a rather limited role in EU foreign policy, by calling EU Member States to order over their arms transfer practices it has demonstrated a welcome commitment to scrutinising the implementation of the EU Common Position on arms exports. And although the Common Position notes that “the decision to transfer or deny the transfer of any military technology or equipment shall remain at the national discretion of each Member State”, it creates a legal obligation on Member States to ensure the conformity of their national policies with its provisions (see Article 29 of the Treaty on European Union).

Therefore, while some EU Member States have supplied and continue to authorise arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and coalition countries that are at risk of being used in the conflict, the EP Resolution recognises that “such transfers are in violation of [EU] Common Position 2008/944/CFSP on arms export control, which explicitly rules out the authorising of arms licences by Member States if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law and to undermine regional peace, security and stability.”

In addition, the Resolution’s call for the establishment of an EU arms embargo was supported by a majority of Members of the European Parliament (359 voted in favour, 212 against and 31 abstained) and received significant cross-party and cross-country backing, in spite of intense Saudi lobbying against the resolution. What’s more, while initiatives at the European level are often removed from the public sphere, EU civil society and citizens mobilised around this process, including through a petition calling for an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia and organised by the campaign group Avaaz which garnered over 750,000 signatures, thereby highlighting growing awareness about the conflict in Yemen and the role of EU arms exports therein.

While the European Parliament demonstrated that it would not turn a blind eye to EU countries lending a hand—or weapon—in support of a war that is killing and injuring civilians as well as harming prospects for peace in Yemen, some national parliaments have also raised questions around their governments’ arms export policies in the current context.

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For instance, in the UK, the Parliamentary International Development Committee, following oral evidence sessions with non-governmental representatives and Government Ministers, sent a letter to the Secretary of State for International Development to ask the Government to suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Committees on Arms Exports Controls has also just launched an inquiry into the use of UK-manufactured arms in the conflict in Yemen. The inquiry will examine if there have been any infringements of the UK Government’s arms export licensing criteria and discuss what action should be taken in such cases. In the Flemish region of Belgium, several discussions pertaining to arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the framework of the war in Yemen have taken place – with the cross-party support for the European Parliament Resolution being used to call for a Flemish arms embargo. In Italy as well, arms exports to Saudi Arabia have been discussed in Parliament. Notably, a senator from the ruling Democratic Party asked whether the government intended, following the adoption of the European Parliament Resolution, to halt all transfers to Saudi Arabia and to push for an arms embargo at the EU level.

Third, the numerous questions raised around the conduct of the war in Yemen and arms exports to Saudi Arabia are a reminder of EU Member States’ legal responsibilities and the fact that it now falls on them to act. While none of them have so far suspended their transfers to Saudi Arabia, some have defended their permissive export policies, notably on geostrategic and commercial grounds. For instance, in the context of a burgeoning arms-supply relationship between the Belgian region of Wallonia and Saudi Arabia, with a 300 percent increase from 2013 to 2014 in the value of approved arms licences, the Minister-President of Wallonia prioritised the thousands of high-value jobs he claims the arms industry provides – an argument which the Green Party criticised for putting human rights on the back-burner. In the UK, the Government has defended its sovereign right to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, claiming that, on the basis of the information available to them, there is no evidence that the Saudi-led coalition has acted in breach of IHL in Yemen and that they are satisfied that all extant UK licences for export to Saudi Arabia are compliant with EU and national Arms Export Licensing Criteria. France has provided little by way of commentary on its export policies towards Saudi Arabia, however its practice, including the recent decision to supply the Saudis with €3 billion worth of inter alia combat vehicles, helicopters, warships, anti-tank guided missiles and surveillance equipment, is an obvious pointer to how it is approaching the issue.

This level of permissiveness is far from universal among Member States, however. Germany’s decision-making, for example, has been somewhat schizophrenic. Since Sigmar Gabriel became Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister in 2013, Germany appears to have exercised caution regarding arms exports to Saudi Arabia, notably by refusing the delivery of tanks and assault rifles. In January, Gabriel stated that Germany would take a more cautious approach to licensing arms exports for Saudi Arabia. Yet, he recently announced the approval of several arms export deals with Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, the second-most active member of the coalition in Yemen.

Other States are following a much more restrictive path. The Dutch Government is now applying a presumption of denial on arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, meaning that only if it is clearly established that goods cannot be used in the conflict in Yemen or to commit human rights violations can a licence be issued. In Flanders, while no decision has of yet been taken to systematically refuse arms exports to Saudi Arabia, the government announced that there is a consensus that they will not be authorised given the situation in Yemen and the broader region. In Sweden, according to official statistics, no licences were issued for arms exports to Saudi Arabia from the start of the Saudi-led attacks until the end of 2015, and discussions with Swedish officials suggest that any supply of ‘offensive equipment’ is highly unlikely in the current circumstances.

This wide variation in national approaches and the contradictions between some export licensing decisions and the spirit and letter of the Common Position are undermining the very notion of an EU Common Position and risk undermining confidence in and implementation of the ATT. However, ironically, this situation demonstrates that the content of the Common Position and the ATT are perfectly well-suited to deal with the situation in Yemen; when they are implemented with due rigour, they do prevent irresponsible transfers. It therefore falls to all States to meet their own legal arms transfer obligations but also to challenge other States who are not meeting theirs.

With every weapon sold taking us further from a political solution to the conflict, EU Member States must immediately suspend arms shipments which could be used in Yemen, and head the calls of the European Parliament by supporting the establishment of an EU embargo. The Council of the EU, in its April 2015 conclusions on Yemen, recognised that only a political agreement could provide a sustainable solution and restore peace in Yemen. As such, rather than feeding the conflict, Member States should be pursuing every diplomatic avenue to help achieve a sustainable and inclusive political agreement.

This piece was orginially featured on Saferworld’s website

The Political Participation of Women in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

by Tajma Kapic

Mostar during war

Mostar, Tajma’s home town, during the conflict.

I was 26 and had just finished university when the war broke out. I vividly remember my terror, alone in my apartment, when the shelling started. I witnessed first hand the horror of war.

My personal experience as a survivor of the Balkans war and my continuing concern for the welfare of women in post-conflict situations lead me to my PhD research . My project is a comparative analysis of the impact of the Good Friday Peace Agreement (1998) and the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995) on the political participation of women in the post-conflict societies of Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After the initial shock, I started working in the local children’s aid organisation, distributing aid to children across the lines of division in my hometown of Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since the end of the war, I have been either learning about, or working towards improving the lives of women and girls in the countries affected by war and disasters.

While undertaking a Master’s degree in Development Studies, my thesis centred on the integration of Bosnian women refugees into three European countries: Ireland, Norway and Sweden. I focused on a comparative analysis of refugee laws and policies in those countries and their ability to provide services for refugees. The research gave me an insight into refugees’ own experiences of integration and the difficulties they were faced with in this process. My first project looked at women who were forced to leave their homes and their country as a result of the violent conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina but I always felt that it was equally important to answer the question of what happened to the women who remained.

What are power-sharing agreements, and where are the women?

International norms on democracy and women’s rights agree that the presence of women in political institutions, as well as their participation in peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction is undoubtedly important. Two of the most celebrated power-sharing peace settlements in history, are the Dayton Peace Agreement that administratively determined today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Good Friday Peace Agreement, that ended a long running low-level conflict in Northern Ireland. These agreements have had varying impacts on the space available for women’s political participation.

Both countries are still deeply divided post-conflict societies and they both have peace agreements based on principles of power-sharing. So why, then, is the political position of women in post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina weaker than that of women in post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland?

In order to answer this question we should perhaps explain what power-sharing peace agreements are. These types of arrangements are also referred to as consociational peace agreements and they are becoming the international community’s, and the UN’s in particular, preferred solution for ending civil wars through peace negotiations as well as the main tool for building durable peace and democracy in war-torn and divided societies. The main tenets of consociational arrangements are: institutional representation for all significant groups, cross-community executive power-sharing, mutual veto powers in order to protect group’s vital interests and a high degree of autonomy for each community. Although these types of peace agreements are implemented and positively accepted around the globe, women are often ill-served by such settlements. Ethnicity and nationality lead consociational considerations and thus, considerations of gender equality suffer.


Mostar, today.

The Dayton Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement: Differences and Similarities

The Dayton Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement are inarguably similar, but also unique in their own right. Both agreements are power-sharing arrangements between communities that are still divided. Moreover, they are similar in that were brokered under the influence and active participation of the international community, during the same US administration. Despite these similarities, there is a significant difference in the form of power-sharing arrangements contained in the agreements. They also differ in the outcome for women, with the political position of women in Bosnia and Herzegovina being weaker than that of women in Northern Ireland.

The Dayton Peace Agreement, which stopped the three-year long conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is often described in academic literature as the new ‘social contract’ that was to set the standards for post-conflict societies. This peace agreement however, gave insufficient attention to women’s political rights. Further, since there was a complete absence of women in the peace process, it became a ‘dialogue of men’ which in turn created a conservative backlash and became a characteristic of women’s post-conflict experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The women of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the course of the twentieth century, have lived under six very different political systems, including two different kingdoms, two major wars, a socialist political system and a transitional democracy. Each of them developed its own notion of gender relations. Very few political systems include women in their apparatus, especially beyond the minimal numbers. First multi-party elections in many post-socialist societies in Europe manifested itself in a considerable reduction in number of women in parliament. The post-socialist states that emerged from the former Yugoslavia are certainly not an exception. The socialist’s one party rule in Yugoslavia had at least some egalitarian idea in relation to the inclusion of women in the political sphere, on principle, if nothing else. But amongst the nationalist parties in the former Yugoslav republics, there is not even an abstract egalitarian idea with regards to women and their political representation. The nationalist leaders of these former socialist states believe women should be seen but not heard, as the saying goes.

Women, who have during the conflict held a family and very often whole communities together, taking full responsibility for their survival and integrity, are very often left out in the processes of post-conflict economic, political and social reconstruction. While these processes are going on in their absence, and decisions are being made by their male national political leaders and in the presence of the international community representatives, women are told to go back to their ‘normal’ lives and activities. This has been especially evident in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This has real-life implications for women in the political sphere today. So women’s participation in decision making bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina went from having a female Prime Minister of Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia in 1983 to not having one single female minister in 2008. The post peace agreement elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina had a near catastrophic result for women’s representation in the parliament and went from zero women representatives in the 1996 and 1998 elections to 7.14% in the 2000 general elections. The two following elections, in 2002 and 2006 had the same percentage of 14.29% of elected women parliamentarians, while elections in 2010, showed a slight increase to 16.67%. In the last general elections in 2014, women numbered 21.40% of representatives to the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Dayton Peace Agreement has also been criticised for not including gender within its framework and therefore disadvantaging women. It has also been criticised for the fact that its focus on ethnicity has meant that up to the present ethnic divisions have been privileged at the expense of other forms of social identity, including gender.

In the end, although it may seem that there are no implications that these two conflicts and their consequences are directly comparable, there are many theoretical similarities in the manner individuals, especially women, respond to their impacts and how they observe their place in the post-conflict setting. That being said, in relation to peace settlements, the Dayton Peace Agreement was less successful, since it reinforced patriarchal relations of power and traditional gender roles in this society through the subjugation of women. Considering that societies who fail to incorporate gender equality in all segments of its public and private spheres are likely to be submerged into a conflict, the gender blindness of the Dayton Peace Agreement can have extremely negative consequences for this still divided society.

With my research I hope to compare the routes to political office of women and the experience of women politicians, candidates and political activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Northern Ireland. Through this research, I also aim to contribute to a discussion on the reforms necessary to implement gender equality in political representation in these states and to contribute to the wider discussion on integrating gender equality into consociational peace agreements.