Readers are no doubt generally aware of the activities of the Islamist extremist group ISIS (or ISIL, or IS). Since the advent of armed conflict in Syria and Iraq, it has grown in ambition and reach, and has been able to attract some disaffected volunteers from around the world. Studies indicate that of the estimated 3,000 fighters migrating to the region to volunteer, as many as 550 of these are women. These numbers are not large by military standards, but they do raise unsettling questions.
While much attention has been lavished on male ISIS fighters, very little attention has been paid to the female fighters. Why this is so, readers may themselves speculate. The mainstream media devotes almost no time or space to discussing the origins, ideology, and recruitment strategies of ISIS; we are instead treated to an endless litany of disconnected attacks, counterattacks, and atrocities.
The mainstream media does nothing to explain the historical and social underpinnings of these events. Understanding the enemy and his thinking is the first step in self-defense. I have to confess, though, that writing this article tested my powers of objectivity. I despise this group and everything its stands for. Yet I believe it is important to convey information to our readers that assists in understanding current international events.
The most comprehensive study to date of female ISIS terrorists (Hoyle, C. et. al., Becoming Mulan?: Female Western Migrants to ISIS, published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue), indicates that “there is a large online ecosystem of female ISIS supporters” that works strenuously for the group. While most of these women emphasize their domestic role, they fulfill a needed function as recruiters and “cheerleaders” for ISIS in various online capacities. The authors of the study cited above further elaborate:
Perhaps the most important risk is that the female migrants can inspire others, both men and women, to carry out attacks in Western countries or to travel to Syria and Iraq. The women within our sample actively encourage others to leave their homes and families and travel to ISIS-held territory, often chastising those who use family or other obligations as an excuse not to travel. In addition to encouragement they provide practical advice to those wishing to travel and, as such, are key to ensuring that ever more women travel to join ISIS. This can include advice on how to overcome the objections and roadblocks raised by family, what clothes to bring, where to attempt a crossing and what to expect on arrival. Although the more general pieces of advice are often contained in blog posts or on public responses on sites such as ask.fm, many of the muhajirat [female fighters] encourage those thinking of travelling to get in touch with them directly through closed messaging apps and direct message.
The threat posed by female radicals, according to the authors, is thus three-fold: (1) giving support and encouragement to their fighting husbands, and (2) acting as potential “sleeper agents” in the West, and (3) recruiting other women to their radical ideology.
Perhaps the most fascinating document to emerge recently on this topic was the “manifesto” published in Arabic by the female ISIS group “Al-Khanssaa Brigade.” This document, which has recently been translated into English by Charlie Winter for the Quilliam Foundation, paints a very vivid picture of the ideology and goals of ISIS’s female members. (Unfortunately, the publisher does not provide the original Arabic text, so I have to rely on the fidelity of Mr. Winter’s translation).
We should emphasize here that this manifesto was written by women, for women. It provides visible proof that extremism, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry can be found in abundance in both genders. Let us examine some of the main points of this strange document. Despite its obligatory clichéd phrases and distracting religious cant, there is a coherent philosophy here that deserves our close scrutiny.
1. The manifesto is directed primarily at Arab women. It is not an “official” ISIS state document, but was put out by female members of ISIS for the benefit of other females in the region. The name “Al-Khanssaa Brigades” takes its name from a woman fighter in early Islamic history. The manual was circulated only in Arabic, a fact which indicates its intended audience. One of its stated purposes is to expose the alleged hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in protecting the rights of women.
2. Each gender has a role to fill. Men have their role, and women their role. “Pursuing these desired goals, above all else, is enlightened, cultured and developed. We say regarding each gender’s role, that to have a job is a task reserved only for men–he has been given the body and brain and he must tend to his women, wives, daughters and sisters according to his circumstances.”
3. There is a difference between studying and earning a living. The primary function of women should be the domestic function. However, this does not equate to ignorance and illiteracy:
Yes, we say “stay in your houses”, but this does not mean, in any way, that we support illiteracy, backwardness or ignorance. Rather, we just support the distinction between working – that which involves a woman leaving the house – and studying, as it was ordained she should do.
4. Equality with men is a sham:
Women gain nothing from the idea of their equality with men apart from thorns. Under “equality” they have to work and rest on the same days as men even though they have “monthly complications” and pregnancies and so on, in spite of the nature of her life and responsibilities to their husband, sons and religion. If a woman is forced to work outside the house, we must reward her for this service and look after her household and children in her long absence.
5. The manifesto is quite explicit on what conditions a woman should seek work outside the household, and what limits should be put on it:
1) The work must be appropriate for her and her abilities and not involve more than what she is able to endure, or what is difficult for her to achieve.
2) It should not exceed more than three days a week or should not last long in the day so she does not have to leave her house for a long time.
3) It must take into account necessities – for the illness of a child, travel of her husband. She must have holidays.
4) She must be given two years maternity leave, at least, to rear and feed the child, and only resume if the child has started to be able to rely on himself for the most important things.
5) There must be a place to put the children at work until they reach school age, where they can be checked upon from time to time to stop the problems that arise from small children being by themselves in the house or someone to care for them.
All in all, the document provides a rarely-seen glimpse into the mind of the female religious extremist. In tone and content, it seeks to motivate women of the region by its invocation of the possibility of a better life under fundamentalist principles. Its denunciation of current Saudi gender integrationist practices, and against the Shia politicians of Iraq, make it likely that the female authors are of Iraqi and Saudi descent.
Western feminist media outlets have mostly failed to address or respond to the challenge posed by female ISIS members. What, precisely, does ISIS believe in? How is it that this sort of a group can attract women? Its militant agenda, its subversive ideology, and its extreme violence should have prompted closer examination. Media coverage has been superficial at best, negligent at worst.
Read More: 2 Steps To Understanding Women