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 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.