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Women and ISIS: debunking the myth of gender and violence

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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On military intervention, ISIS and human rights

By Chris Beall ISIS

On Feb. 11, President Obama submitted a draft proposal to Congress, seeking to “authorize the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” (ISIL, otherwise known as ISIS and the Islamic State. Following John Kerry’s recognition of the immense power of symbols in this conflict, I will also choose to employ, Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIL.). On one hand, President Obama’s latest Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) request is little more than symbolic. As every reader will know, we’ve been flying sorties over Iraq and Syria for a good six months now, raining war from the sky, casually aiming to “degrade and destroy” Daesh from above. By the White House’s own logic, the President has two perfectly good and non-expiring AUMFs leftover from the previous administration with which to legally combat the latest Sunni insurgency in Mesopotamia.

But on the other hand, Obama’s new AUMF request is surely a sign of further escalation regarding the US role in the regional fight against Daesh. The fact that the President seeks to endow a bipartisan aura on future intervention in the region amounts to, perhaps cynically, a political hedge and risk-sharing exercise with his Republican counterparts. With his hands freed of potential partisan fallout, Obama may finally confront Daesh in a way that properly addresses the situation in Iraq and Syria.

However, partisan politics is just one shallow layer of the constraints involved in adequately confronting Daesh. At a more foundational level, one might reasonably ask whether or not anybody in the administration (or elsewhere) has the slightest idea what properly addressing the Daesh catastrophe should actually look like. Beyond the relatively easy military component, what does our strategy look like diplomatically? Does it conform to the social and political realities of the region? What does it mean to the Middle East’s wider, ongoing power struggles? Who, exactly, are we trying to help? What, exactly, are our ultimate goals? And presuming we do have such a plan, presuming we do possess a comprehensive and well thought-out strategy which addresses these and other concerns, perhaps the most damning question of all: does the United States posses the political maturity to carry out such a strategy?

I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s talk about Daesh.

DAESH: VIOLENCE, BRUTALITY AND NOTORIETY

Clearly, the horrors unfolding daily in Iraq and Syria prove that these are troubling times for human rights in the region, both substantively and discursively. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the violence itself. Beyond the usual tragedies inherent to armed-conflict, displaced populations, sectarian strife and failed states, Daesh represents a particularly brutal malignment to the state of human rights in 2015. Summary executions, ethnic cleansing, mass kidnappings, mass rape, enslavement, beheadings, immolation: these sorts of things make the headlines, so I’ll say little about such barbarity here.

But, as alluded to above, Daesh has also raised a conflicting state of unease in the human rights discourse more generally. Given the movement’s ruthlessness and special mastery of atrocity—captured on film, nonetheless, and waved in our faces through a savvy social media campaign—it is now incredibly easy for even the most ardent pacifist to find him or herself tempted by the prospect of asymmetrical military intervention or any military solution to this grotesque and intense violence. If there’s ever been such a thing as an “evil adversary,” Daesh has put forth a compelling audition for that notorious role. If there’s ever actually been a “good fight,” this feels pretty close.

And yet, we should ask ourselves what is accomplished in these sorts of conclusions. What are their consequences, and what might they obscure?

HUMAN RIGHTS AND SECURITY CONSIDERATIONS

In what might be called a positive byproduct or very small victory in nearly fifteen years now of a U.S.-led War on Terror, our past conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have birthed a compelling and insightful body of academic literature, related to the role of human rights in the public mobilization for war, including the work of Lila Abu-Lughod, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. To take just one quote, their basic premise goes something like this: “In the crusade to liberate Afghan women from the tyranny of Taliban rule, there seemed to be no limit of the violence to which Americans were willing to subject the Afghans, women and men alike.”

Now, clearly, Daesh is not the Taliban of Afghanistan, and I don’t mean to reinforce the problematic and all too common practice of thinking of these sorts of movements as some essentialized and monolithic radical Islamist monster identity. But the lessons learned retroactively in 2001 and 2003 are lessons that human rights advocates would be wise to keep in mind proactively, as we think about intervening on behalf of those currently suffering under the brutality of Daesh.

On one level, we should ensure that our well-intentioned motives are not used to overlook America’s past failures in Iraq and our very real hand in making the region’s current human rights crisis. The destabilizing force of the U.S. intervention in 2003 unleashed decades worth of pent up Sunni-Shia divisions within Iraq, previously held in check only by Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Ba’ath Party. After thirty-some years of disenfranchisement and routine state violence at the hands of Sunni Ba’athists, Iraq’s majority Shiites (and Iran, for that matter) unsurprisingly viewed 2003 as their turn at the helm.

Seemingly oblivious to the fact that this social dimension even existed in Iraqi society, or perhaps sick and tired of our own unpopular war, the U.S. stood by silently while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki extolled revenge on the nation’s previous power wielders. Watching their rights and livelihoods erode under their feet, Iraq’s Sunnis, naturally, began to look for alternatives. Hence the support base that Daesh currently thrives on.

To think that the U.S. has magically gained the ability to better navigate Iraq’s sectarian landscape, as we talk about returning to the region, is, frankly, an optimism that I cannot share with our president. As such, it feels incredibly naïve to think that our presence can offer anything beyond further destabilization to an already destabilized region.

“UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS”

Cue, also, Rumsfeld’s old “unknown unknowns.” Beyond our hand in stoking sectarian tensions generally, we should also note that we quite literally birthed Daesh within the walls of our occupation-era military prisons. According to The Guardian, just about every senior official in Daesh—including self-appointed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—are all alumni of the U.S.-administered cells of Camp Bucca. After meeting and brainstorming jihad together during their early-occupation periods of confinement, members of the future Islamic State practically left American prisons with Sunni insurgency phone books smuggled out on the waistbands of their underwear. While this raises obvious policy questions concerning how the United States administers occupation, it also emphasizes our disturbing ability to make a bad situation worse, without our even realizing it.

While our role in creating this monster might itself give weight to the notion that we hold some moral obligation to combat Daesh—to quell the brutality that we have unleashed in the region—I return to the idea of political maturity, mentioned above.

In an article by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, Roth poignantly recognizes that there cannot be a feasible U.S. military solution to the Daesh crisis, without simultaneously addressing “the other side” of this bloodshed: both murderous Shia militias in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing civilian massacres in Syria. Simply put, any intervention that fails to consider the legitimate security concerns of all sides of this conflict has little chance of achieving meaningful or lasting results.

MILITARY INTERVENTION IN A GRAY ZONE?

The United States has demonstrated an unsettling track record, when it comes to these sorts of gray areas. We like good guys and bad guys, Manichean struggles that break down along the lines of “with us” or “against us.” Unfortunately, the conflict in Syria and Iraq fails to fit in such neat and clean boxes.

And so if tackling Daesh requires an equal pressure applied to Iraq’s Shia militias and Assad’s own Alawite regime, as Kenneth Roth suggests, it starts to appear that there can be no military solution here, short of drastic U.S. cooperation alongside the Shia/Alawite benefactors in Tehran. To actually pull off a meaningful military intervention against Daesh would require a serious reevaluation of our relationship with Iran, which would itself require a serious reevaluation of our relationship with the State of Israel, at least in its current form under the Likud. For all of our bombs and brute force, we simply lack the seriousness to see through this kind of reevaluation.

If we cannot take seriously the necessary conditions of a successful military intervention in Iraq and Syria—one that seeks to achieve a political balance and sustainable peace in the region—then it seems that anything short of this can only prolong and increase the suffering of all sides wrapped up in the conflict. With the latest official numbers of foreign fighters standing at 20,000 recruits flocking to the banners of Daesh, the U.S. does nobody any favors by bolstering their ranks with a new deployment of force in the region. Such a move would only provide Daesh with a propaganda victory in their ongoing struggle for legitimacy across the Islamic World.

Providing them with this victory, in exchange for an actual military-based rescue of human rights in the region, might hypothetically be very well worth it. Unfortunately, such a solution in today’s Syria and Iraq will not prove so easy. If a military rescue of human rights is beyond feasibility, then what can possibly be gained in any half-hearted attempt?

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Day Donaldson/Creative Commons