The Strange, Complex Story of Women and ISIS Militants

With their penchant for gruesome beheadings, it’s easy to believe ISIS militants capable of any monstrosity, including medieval-sounding brutality towards women. But with so much at stake and so many political agendas, how can we separate fact from fiction? Now that President Obama has announced a military campaign, it's more important than ever to make sure we're not taken in by propaganda. And it’s not always easy.


The topic of Islam and women has come up repeatedly in reports concerning ISIS, the jihadist movement that started in Iraq and Syria in the mid-2000s with a goal of establishing a caliphate governed by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law. No one really seems to dispute that ISIS's vision of Muslim life appears to include a pre-modern conception of patriarchy in which the position of women in the social order is severely restricted. In this vision, women are to be seen as men’s possessions and the ideal woman is passive and subordinated. The notion of equality between men and women is viewed as a Western imperialist attack on Islamic authenticity.

That much we know. But from there, it gets rather complicated. First of all, it must be acknowledged that any discussion of women and Islam introduced by a westerner is loaded with cultural baggage. Feminist scholars such as Leila Ahmed have pointed out that Orientalist misinterpretations of Islam have traditionally emphasized harems, licentiousness and degradation that have never reflected the reality of what really goes on in Islamic societies between the sexes. In the context of this psychological burden, cries of Islamic misogyny coming from some outlets in the West can easily be seen as hypocritical and harmful. A recent headline, “Western Sex Slaves for ISIS: The Twisted Psychology of Jihad Brides” demonstrates a pernicious attitude carried over from colonial discourse in which Western women are in constant danger of being despoiled by the foreign other, a trope that has its roots in exaggerated tales of kidnappings and imprisonment that were circulated to titillate prurient imaginations and to bolster a prejudiced view of Muslims during the colonial period.

Reports of western women who marry Islamic militants, such as the young, educated and British Aqsa Mahmood, whose picture recently went viral, must be understood in the context of this backdrop. The idea that some western women might choose, of their own free will, to join ISIS may be at odds with the kidnap-and-imprison narrative, but it appears in many cases that is just what is happening. The lure of adventure and joining a romanticized cause compels young women for some of the same reasons they compel young men.

Stories of rape and abuse, and even the selling of women who end up in ISIS prisons are alarming. Those concerning Yazidis have been especially horrific, such as a recent account of a 14-year-old Yazidi girl who escaped being turned into a concubine for an ISIS commander. They represent a humanitarian crisis that demands attention. Unfortunately, such occurrences are common in wartime throughout the world, and certainly not limited to the brutality of Islamic militants. The chaotic and violent conditions of war provide the perfect opportunity for males to vent their fear of and hostility toward women (and sometimes other men). The perpetrators of sexual violence can be otherwise quite ordinary men — they need not be sword-wielding religious zealots. Rumors about what ISIS militants are doing to women are prone to exaggeration and tend to circulate with little evidence, such as a recent tale that captured women were being subjected to genital mutilation which spread like wildfire on the Internet. Several sources, including NPR’s Cairo bureau chief and Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at King’s College London specializing in the Middle East, have concluded that the story is bogus. Yet such stories, even when we see them debunked, color our interpretation of the news. We may pay less attention than we should to the more mundane forms of misogyny, such as harassment and arrest, when lurid accounts dominate the headlines.

Gender issues connected to ISIS have also been reflected in reports of thousands of young Kurdish women who have taken up arms against ISIS militants and others in the Women’s Protection Unit, which has evolved from the Kurdish resistance movement. There is a frequently repeated story circulating (see a recent Wall Street Journal report) that ISIS militants are especially terrified of female fighters because of a belief that if they are killed by a woman they will not go to heaven. A female Kurdish fighter asserted this notion to the WSJ, but that interpretation has been disputed. Some experts point out that ISIS’ attitude toward women is multi-layered, noting that ISIS has its own female brigades, which are used to enforce its misogynistic worldview.

A deeply engrained fear of women and female sexuality is present in many religions, Christianity being a notable case. As noted Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi has attested, “religions in general [are] devoid of justice and are oppressive to women and the poor.” Radical Islam has no corner on the market of misogyny, and just as some Christians are able to affirm the potential for equality between the sexes, so do many Muslims. As El-Saadawi puts it, “you can believe in Islam (or any other religion) and interpret it to mean equality and social justice.”

Muslims around the world overwhelming reject ISIS' view of their faith. Support for ISIS does not necessarily indicate an acceptance of its extremist positions, including misogyny, but is rather born out of political expediency.

Just as there are fundamentalist movements within Islam, there are also moderate and liberal movements. Most liberal Muslims believe that a woman can serve as head of state, and they do not believe women should be segregated from men in society. There is a growing movement among Muslims, especially among women, away from what they understand as patriarchal Muslim faith toward a more egalitarian Islam, and female scholars have focused on what they see as messages of gender equality embedded in the text of the Quran.

While ISIS’ actions toward women have been quite brutal in some cases, the movement’s relationship with women is more complicated and fluid than what is often depicted in western media accounts. To understand a fuller picture, westerners have to be alert to our own biases and mindful of how the motivation to demonize the other can obscure nuances and ignore messy realities.

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