Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Women and ISIS: debunking the myth of gender and violence

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By Zahava Moerdler

Men are squarely at the center of the popular image of wartime violence. They are cast as the instigators and inciters, while the women are relegated to the relatively two-dimensional role of passive bystander or victim. This is a gross misconception. In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower tells the stories of women who perpetrated violence under the Nazi regime. She writes, “these women displayed a capacity to kill while also acting out a combination of roles: plantation mistress; prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over her slave laborers, infant-carrying gun-wielding hausfrau.” These women were not sparse outliers working in concentration camps. More often than not mothers, they were involved in violent attacks against women and children. While Lower’s work is focused on the atrocities committed during the Nazi regime, the portrait of female violence she paints is not limited to that time or place. She notes, “Terror regimes feed on the idealism and energy of young people.” While disturbing, it is not surprising that Western women are flocking to ISIS controlled territory.

There are a variety of narratives on what becomes of the women who join ISIS. According to Malaysian sources, women are joining ISIS to serve “sexual jihad” or “jihad al-nikah.” These women become comfort women when they enter ISIS territory. This may seem obviously anathema to Muslim teachings, but it is in fact a model that has been in use since the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Such women had to be careful to maintain their services despite the specter of Taliban raids and execution. The militiaman would come to the brothel, “marry” the woman, bed her and in the morning he would say “I divorce you” three times, pay a small alimony and then leave, according to news outlets. In this way, operations in the brothel maintained a semblance of religious normalcy. Although it is unclear how many women have traveled to ISIS territory, some have estimated approximately 600 Malaysian women and 100 British and Australian women. There are concurrent reports of forced sexual jihad, rape and sexual slavery.

Yet, there is another narrative that portrays the women who travel to ISIS territory as women excited and prepared for a domestic role in a state they wholeheartedly believe in. These women, known as the muhajirat (“migrants”), are drawn to the role of women in the caliphate, as outlined in a recent manifesto released by ISIS on the role of women in the caliphate. In the article “Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS,” Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford and Ross Frenett present the findings of a study that examined the social media postings from a cohort of women who had migrated to join ISIS from Western countries. The study found that many of the women who are traveling alone to ISIS (rather than with a husband and children) do so because of “grievances, solutions or personal motivations.” They are motivated by three primary beliefs: (1) the world is overwhelmingly against Islam, leading to the rigid binary characterization of the world as consisting of those who are either with or against them and their Muslim faith; (2) a desire to construct an “ideologically pure state,” and, accordingly, the imperative to build a community based on strict Shariah law; and (3) that it is incumbent on all individuals to help realize such a new world order. Once they reach ISIS territory, they partake in domestic roles, uphold Sharia law through all-women patrol brigades and engage actively in online recruitment. While they may not participate directly in violence, the muhajirat certainly glorify and justify it through religious texts and teachings.

Despite these feelings of duty, one of the most difficult challenges the muhajirat face when preparing to migrate is the decision to leave their families, according to the study. Many posts talk about homesickness, love for the women’s mothers and the difficulty of the final goodbye and phone call home before entering ISIS territory. While there is clearly emotional difficulty in leaving family, families can also act as obstacles to women leaving in practical ways, such as holding onto their passports and withholding money. The authors suggest that policymakers should help families prevent migration through intervention, and support.

Though familial intervention may be helpful, deeper solutions to combat alienation, marginalization and inequality are necessary. After all, women flocking to ISIS territories are an indication of dissatisfaction and lack of integration at home. The muhajirat frequently write about a sense of camaraderie and friendship that permeates the community, in contrast to the fake western relationships they had before. The authors of “Becoming Mulan” write, “This search for meaning, sisterhood and identity is a key driving factor for women to travel.”

While the muhajirat idealize ISIS as a community of sisterhood and righteousness based on Shariah law, there are many disturbing reports that ISIS has “released a guide to the capture, punishment and rape of female non-believers.” The guide also outlines using the captured women as sex slaves and justifies child rape. About 2,500 women have been kidnapped and around 4,600 are still missing, according to reports. These are staggering numbers. Although there is no indication that the muhajirat interact with these women, it seems implausible that they do not know about the rape and kidnapping. Additionally, although the muhajirat claim that life is normal and peaceful in ISIS territory, ISIS pamphlets describe a very different treatment of women. Some reports indicate that the muhajirat know about the horrors ISIS commits and live in this horror but instead choose to pretend that life is peaceful and idyllic.

Whether migrants to ISIS do so for purposes of jihad al-nikah or to become a muhajirat and join the community, one clear fact remains: there is a disconnect between perception and reality. Migrants to ISIS see the creation of a fundamentalist state as returning to the principles and precepts of tradition. In truth, however, it is the creation of an extremist state comfortable with the use of murder and rape to realize its goals, neither of which are endorsed by the fundamental teachings of Islam. Will these women become “Furies” involved in the violence, and even perpetrating it themselves? During World War II many women were sent to the Eastern front to support their husbands, run plantations or work in secretarial work. Some of these women perpetrated acts of violence and murder. Embedded within a culture of extreme violence and destruction, will it be possible for the migrants to ISIS to maintain a distance from this influence? Do they even want to?

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann/Creative Commons

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Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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