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

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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