Women of ISIS: The Al-Khanssaa Brigade

The all-female Al-Khanssaa Brigade of ISIS  targets young women who feel oppressed as Sunni Muslims in the West, relying heavily on identity politics for recruitment. They also make anonymous fatwas calling for single women to join the fight from within the region (mainly in Arabic and thus largely targeted at Saudi Arabia). The key tool of propaganda, Women of the Islamic State, A Manifesto on Women, was published on January 23rd, 2015. This draws on themes that directly challenge Western women’s emancipation movements, and blame ‘fashion shops and beauty salons’ for eroding women’s status.

Al Khanssaa’s ideology is summarized in one short statement:

In the last Surat al-Tahrim related from God the Almighty, in which is given examples of the two believers Aisha and Mariam, two ideal women, the most  celebrated were religion and chastity: “And [the example of] Mariam, the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity, so We blew into [her garments] through Our Angel, and she believed in the words of her Lord and His scriptures and was of the devoutly obedient” (Quran 66:12).

Another section of the manifesto discusses obedience:

Woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband.

This is one of the first places we see the role of the wife discussed, not simply the event of marriage. Becoming a bride connotes a grand event, held in great regard especially in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures; a wife, on the other hand, is a long-term, mundane actualization this status, which is less exciting. Fifteen-year-old Shamima Begum and Amira Abase and sixteen-year-old Kadiza Sultana flew from London to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 2011.  These girls were of Pakistani and Ethiopian descent, and both of these cultures place an enormous emphasis on marriage as a means of achieving family honour. The glamour related to weddings may be more enticing for young girls, than long-term, obedience-centered marriage. The Brigade further states:

The greatness of her position, the purpose of her existence is the Divine duty of motherhood… ‘Paradise is under the mother’s feet’.

As the manifesto continues, it targets the Western lifestyle, explaining the role of a woman in relation to the role of a man. The vision of gender relations is a binary, which relies on compliance to restricted gender roles.

The problem today is that women are not fulfilling their fundamental roles, the role that is consistent with their deepest nature, for an important reason, that women are not presented with a true picture of a man and, because of the rise in the number of emasculated men who do not shoulder the responsibility allocated to them towards their ummah, religion or people, and not even towards their sons, who are being supported by their wives… This has forced women away from their true role and they do not realise it. Because men are serving women like themselves, men cannot distinguish themselves from them according to the two features referred to by God: ‘Men are in charge of women by [right of] what God has given over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth’ (Quran 4:34).

Essentially the Jihadi position affirms a woman’s role as obedient wife and home-maker. If she doesn’t fulfill her role, the whole order of society fails; if one wants a caliphate to be successful, one must follow order. The structure of the caliphate is heavily reliant on a very specific order and gendered positions within it.

The manifesto reiterates the point: ‘The fundamental function of a woman is – it is the house with her husband and children.’ And it continues to outline the only time women may be allowed to leave the house:

Women may go out to serve the community in a number of situations, the most important being:

  1. Jihad (by appointment) – if the enemy is attacking her country and the men are not enough to protect it and the imams give a fatwa for it, as the blessed women of Iraq and Chechnya did with great sadness, if the men are absent even they are present.
  2. The most common reason is for studying the sciences of religion.
  3. Female doctors or teachers may leave, but they must keep strictly to Shariah guidelines.

Finally, they write, “It is always preferable for a women to remain hidden and veiled, to maintain society from behind this veil.” The rules remain strict in order to maintain order, but let us not forget that a woman may only fulfill her role if the man fulfills his. ISIS believes the emancipation of the West has dismantled gendered social roles.

I question, then, with the clear restrictions outlined for women, how young girls would actively choose for this future. It seems unusually ironic that a piece of propaganda could be so unattractive. Propaganda aims to persuade its audience that the image it provides is best; it usually posits itself as an irrefutably ideal situation. The reality of this manifesto, however, shows extreme restrictions upon women’s movements. These do not seem ideal reasons to travel across the world for a lifestyle that starkly opposes the one offered in the West. The pressing question remains: how is this alluring to young women?

Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy asks, ‘What makes these women become the foot soldiers of patriarchy?’ It is a difficult question. Al-Khanssaa is a perplexing entity. It alludes to the empowerment of women through its very existence as a women’s brigade, yet, it operates to lure women into a very constricted existence. It’s clearly and decidedly not feminist as it defines women’s role as subservient to men. Although feminism may promote women’s agency, not all female agency can be considered feminist.

The answer to this puzzle may simply be the sense of romanticism. Being a jihadi bride normalizes the brutality of war by framing it against everyday activities such a ride on a bus, a walk with a child, or playing with pets. There is also a trend that glamorizes their role as consumers, where women posing next to expensive cars or weaponry. In the case of Western female recruits, the search for love, martyrdom and utopian politics is characterized by a naïve romanticism.