Follies of Denial: Women and the Islamic State

06/01/2015 03:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Women are the most vulnerable targets of the Islamic State (IS), which has enslaved and brutalized women who don't meet their jihadi standards, and even introduced female police squads to monitor and persecute their own sex.

Why are Muslim women around the world enthusiastically joining a movement that enforces their subjugation, and why do Western feminists give militant jihadists a free pass?

IS (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) published a recruitment document, "Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study," with references to the holy texts. Written in Arabic and released by al-Khansaa, an armed brigade of women morality police, the treatise endorses hudud punishments such as public execution or lashing for "crimes against religion" - adultery, homosexuality, theft and apostasy. Women must remain hidden, veiled and homebound, and nine-year-old girls can get married. The manifesto envisions a future removed from the corruption of "Saudi tyrants" and the Western values of secular education, science, feminism and atheism. Women are entreated to commit themselves to the cause and raise children as true believers.

A United Nations report documented systematic and widespread human rights violations by IS, including rape, abduction, slavery, trafficking of women and girls, torture, execution, stoning, and targeting of public figures. In Mosul, IS set up "courts" that pass death sentences followed by public executions. A female human rights lawyer was accused of apostasy and executed for a Facebook posting that disclosed the "barbaric bombing and destroying of mosques and shrines in Mosul." The female Deputy Attorney General of Mosul's Court of Appeal was also executed, as were two female parliamentary candidates, even though they had expressed "repentance."

In areas under IS control, women are obligated to wear full Islamic dress, and female students from ten years of age must cover their face and hands outside school. Following the recent capture of Palmyra, IS commanders threatened women with flogging for disobeying Islamic dress code. Education must conform to a curriculum of takfiri dogma, which excommunicates and labels Muslims apostates or infidels if they are considered insufficiently pious.

IS has executed women for refusing to marry jihadists, and in Iraq, decreed that female genital mutilation should be performed on women between the ages of 11 and 46.

Women and girls from minority ethnic and religious communities, such as Christians, Yazidis, and Shabak and Turkmen Shias have been used as human shields. Many were abducted and sold as sex slaves in markets after being stripped and examined for virginity. The "prettiest Yazidi virgins" are designated for sale in the Raqqa slave markets in Syria.

Yazidi women, who are considered infidels by IS, have reported public gang rapes, beatings and forced conversion to Islam.

IS has encouraged women to form their own militias, such as Al Khansaa and Umm al-Rayan based in Iraq and Syria. While operating checkpoints for a monthly salary, members are instructed to apprehend men who disguise themselves in women's clothing to avoid being conscripted by IS. Using thousands of enslaved Yazidi women, Al-Khansaa is also running brothels for the benefit of IS fighters.

Ironically, members of the two female brigades can attain some measure of "jihadi girl power" through social standing, income, and the power to wield police authority.

Some of the most dedicated Al-Khansaa women are said to be British extremists, who believe their actions are vindicated by religion. Aqsa Mahmood from Glasgow is thought to be a central figure.

IS fighters claim religious legitimacy for slavery, as practiced in early Islamic conquests and based on texts that specify the distribution of war booty: four-fifths for fighters, and one-fifth, or khums, to Muslim commanders. In their online magazine, "Dabiq 4," IS refers to the revival of sexual enslavement during war as heralding the apocalypse.

IS has coerced women into "sexual jihad," a form of temporary marriage for the pleasure of their troops. Foreign females have not migrated to IS areas to fight in the front line, but to take part as "jihadi brides" or "comfort women."

In 2013, a Wahhabi fatwa summoned women to a sexual jihad for militants opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some Tunisian girls who complied were pregnant when they returned from Syria. Since then, IS has recruited over 700 Tunisian women, and another 1,200 have been barred from leaving the country in order to enlist. Their response to the call of sexual jihad may seem surprising, as Tunisia has known far more female emancipation than other parts of the Arab world.

Why are Muslim women around the world enthusiastically joining a jihadist movement that enforces brutality and oppression?

For many, the promise of a swaggering warrior lover and marriage blessed by a purified religion offers an irresistible choice compared with nuptials arranged by pragmatic parents. And married women might be lured by the possibility of dissolving a current marriage and embarking on a new, exciting proposal.

The reality of living under IS could be grim but newcomers are driven by the propaganda of online verses, hypnotic jingles, and the multiplier effect of recruiting others. Tantalized by the heady adventure of joining a revolutionary movement, they are ready to breed children for a new world order. A future with IS holds the promise of purpose and certainty in a recaptured golden age of Islam, a utopian existence in this world, and eternal life in paradise with loved ones. Also on offer is the surreptitious indulgence of taking part in the enactment of dark fantasies of violence sanctioned by the mob.

Not every generation has the opportunity to bring about a revolution, even if it looks backwards - contemporary political upheavals in Iran, Algeria and Afghanistan were motivated by the desire to regain a sanctified early Islam. This retrograde concept, characteristic of radical political change in the region, is alien to the Western model of revolution as a progressive force aimed to deliver more freedom and modernity.

Any liberal ideals initially proclaimed by the Arab Spring have been buried by IS and discarded by naïve female volunteers from abroad. But their conscription is vital for IS because the caliphate requires settled families as well as fighters. About 600 women, of some 4,000 Western recruits, are thought to have moved to IS areas, and some have brought their children. IS has also enlisted over 400 children, the "Cubs of the Caliphate."

Instead of repudiating jihad, misogyny, temporary marriage, and centuries of patriarchy, human rights violations are being underwritten by the follies of gullible Muslim women around the world, as well as Western feminists, who traditionally pride themselves on opposing any sign of gender discrimination in their own societies. By accepting institutionalized persecution of females the feminist movement inevitably sides with IS. During the Cold War, such fellow travelers were labeled useful idiots.