The story here is both old and new. It is one of women’s undoubted emancipation in the West contrasted with their necessary oppression in the Muslim world; a story that has been conveniently told and retold so many times that any nuances have faded away; a story so imprinted that its foundational premises have become almost unthinkable to question. Yet when gender meets Jihadism, new dynamics come into play, painting new brushstrokes and modifying a canvas we thought we knew so well. The growing perception of a notable shift in gender dynamics might be simultaneously over-pessimistic and overoptimistic, for neither its novelty nor its prominence should be exaggerated. Still, when attempting to reflect on the changing role of women in the war on ISIS, one thing we can say for sure is that we are missing a piece of the puzzle.
Deconstructing an Orientalist narrative
Far from being ahead of the game, when it comes to understanding women’s and girls’ motivation to join the Islamic State, Western media and terrorism experts are merely playing catch-up, and losing. While our Western security apparatus has been relatively overlooking the role of women, extremist groups have been busy understanding its real added value. The Jihadi bride tale might very well be a comfortable story to tell, when confronted to incoming reports, very often it proves to be little more than a simplistic sexist Orientalist narrative with which we fearfully and defensively reassure ourselves and frighten our girls, and a strategy proving at best unproductive when drafting counterterrorism measures.
A priori, when looking at it through the contrasting lens of equality we are so sure women enjoy in the West, it is easy to imagine why the phenomenon of women radicalisation can be confusing. However, we now know that many of the incentives drawing men to join the ranks of ISIS are the same pulling women to Syria and Iraq. Rather than being driven by an ambition to become Jihadi brides, a number of Western women have repeatedly formulated their willingness to become Jihadi Janes. Instead of letting our western cultural lens get the best of our judgment, perhaps it is time to understand that rather than being harmless victims trapped and in need of rescuing, the innocent Jihadi bride is anything but.
Once there, domesticity, passivity and victimisation are only an unfortunate part of the story. Female Jihadis, more than being wives and mothers, are recruiters, trainers, promoters and propagandists. No longer solely in the shadows, women can be seen on the frontlines as active fighters, or working in hospitals, logistics and intelligence collection. ISIS’ Al-Khanssaa brigade is one of those all-female units. Focused on monitoring the enforcement of strict morality codes, the women of ISIS operate checkpoints and go as far as to execute punishments and commit violence against other women.
Focusing on the suffering of Jihadi brides might be the easiest path, but with all that in mind, isn’t blindly assuming women are always tricked into joining and reacting differently to women’s and men’s radicalisation playing into the same fundamentalist outlook our society seeks to rescue Muslim women from? For a culture promoting equal rights for women, isn’t being surprised that women are capable of the same independent reasoning as men subscribing to the same gender stereotypes we are devoted to denounce? As long as female radicalisation drowns us in empathy rather than condemnation, our reactions will remain no less far from gender equality than the stories we tell.
If not gender equality, what?
Although it is no longer unthinkable to see women in the ranks of ISIS, the reality is still far from subscribing to western-defined women rights standards. To say there has been a radical change of heart regarding the Jihadist outlook on women would be nothing more than wishful thinking. Despite the continuous flow of western women joining ISIS, the internationalisation of Jihad has in reality done very little to truly promote gender equality. The recently translated manifesto by ISIS Al-Khanssaa women Brigade has made that very clear: in the Jihadist version of feminism, the importance of women, albeit not discounted, is limited to fulfilling sedentary responsibilities in the household and restrained by boundaries drawn by Jihadist ideology. The manifesto also notes that it is only acceptable for women to neglect their domestic roles by order of the imams, in case there are not enough men to protect the country from an enemy attack. Clearly, it remains more appropriate to think of the increasingly notable presence of women on the frontlines as a last resort twist rather than a reflection of women empowerment. Yet again, on the other hand, and insofar as it can be seen as a symptom of weakness and of a existential need for troops, female fighters gaining momentum can be considered as good news.
The institutionalisation of sexual Jihad
Even more troubling is the unprecedented legitimisation and institutionalisation of sexual Jihad as an inherent tactic of warfare. Uninterested in following Al-Qaeda’s footsteps or in presenting itself as a vessel of morality, ISIS’ strategy is instead to rely on the indiscriminate brutalisation of women as an attention-drawing mechanism. Accounts abound of instances of Jihad-Al-Nikah. Whereas the sexual exploitation of the women they see as theirs is considered a necessity of the group’s war efforts, a pious woman’s duty to support her fighter husband, the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of those they perceive as their enemies are spoils of war supporting the ISIS campaign. And in that, Yazidi women have probably been the prime scapegoat.
How SHE is fighting her revolution: feminism over counterterrorism
Even with all that in mind, the idea that women can only be instrumental to someone else’s ends is not grounded enough in evidence. A few miles away, the young women of the Women’s Protection Unit, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are fighting their own revolution within the war. More than self-defence in the battle against ISIS, what echoes in their discourse is a call for empowerment and what brings them together is a desire to claim back the role they have been deprived of and to contain ISIS’ threat on women. If ISIS fighters truly believe that being killed at the hands of women sends them straight to hell, these women are well aware of it and are not refraining from exploiting the gender stereotype to their advantage. More than a territorial dispute, they are engaging in a fight over ideas, a fight more feminist than counter-terrorist, more communitarian than nationalist, turning ISIS’ war on women to a war by women.
The gradual desacralisation of women
If these two trends have been worth noting simultaneously, it is for one because of what they mean for the changing perception of women. Until about two decades ago, Islamic mores were still portraying women as intrinsically hallowed, in other words, as off-limits in the realm of warfare. While this aura of holiness certainly stripped women of the possibility of assuming ranks equal to men in war, restraining their function to mothers and wives undeniably granted them certain immunity as traditional codes of conduct specifically forbade their deliberate targeting during warfare.
A brief glimpse into ISIS practices of systematic rape gives away that this clearly no longer holds. Rhetorical concepts of sacred femininity might be as propagandised as ever – if not more – yet practically these notions are far from having retained a front seat. Women are no longer insulated let alone sanctified. Rather, the very ones which were meant to protect them are the ones a number of women would pinpoint as their worst enemy.
Mixed outcome: a double-edged sword
Asking whether the changing outlook of Jihadists is driven by women’s independent initiatives is unavoidable. Perhaps if extremist Islamists no longer consider attacks on women as unacceptable, it is in part because the increasing presence of women fighters burst the bubble of holiness which sheltered them for so long. Women previously thought-of as fragile are now anything but and are turning into their sworn enemies. In parallel with sexual slaves, male Jihadists seem to have assimilated a new role for women, not only as objects but also as equal subjects within their ranks. But to think that this can come without a price would be naive. Seeing the rise of Kurdish all-women units fighting ISIS essentially in parallel with the latter’s use of rape as an intrinsic method of war sheds light on a chilling reality. Across the Muslim world, the desacralisation of women could at best be illustrated as a double-edged sword. Often a few miles apart, the empowerment of some women as combatants seems to be fuelling sexual exploitation of others as spoils.
While liberating women of these gender stereotypes has certainly empowered some women to assume previously male-reserved positions, this desanctification has also removed the chains on previously-illicit targeting of women, and millions of others are paying that price. The paradox is puzzling but deconstructing it is crucial. The contrast could not be sharper and still we are left with no other choice but to acknowledge that these two ends of the spectrum overlap, if only in the perception of women as both their source and their by-product. Yet pinpointing which one feeds the other remains the hardest task. Is the systematisation of sexual exploitation in part a counter-reaction to the seen-as-threatening rise of women fighters or is the quasi-trivialisation of sexual Jihad a prominent motivating incentive feeding feminist movements and driving women to gain ground as fighters?
Far from lacking agency, women are today a factor changing the war on and by ISIS. Yet it is the very same factor that seems to contribute in perpetuating the apparently inevitable victims-fighters-victims cycle.