Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the regression in the situation for women has been devastating in Syria. Human Rights organizations are alarmed and insist that there is a high vulnerability for refugees. Every fourth household of displaced families is a woman which increases their insecurity even more. Too many of them are subject of sexual harassment and abuse; trafficking as well as exploitation are permanent threats. What is more worrying is that rape or kidnapping start to become everyday crimes. This is particularly true for the trend of "temporary marriages" -- so-called religious approvals aimed to facilitate sexual abuse.
But in this country torn by civil war for almost four years, women are not solely the object of sexual crimes. They also suffer from symbolic aggression; their dignity is violated. This happens in areas controlled by the organization Islamic State (ISIS), such as their stronghold Raqqa. This radical group imposes restrictions on women diminishing their freedom without any grounds in Syrian law. The Syrian Constitution itself has always guaranteed gender equality, but there are discriminatory provisions in both penal law and laws concerning marriage or the right of succession. Women actively take part in public affairs and this has always been one of the strengths of Syrian society. However, the vision of a so-called authentic 'Islamic State' does not leave any place for women in the public realm. All that is left for them is to become invisible.
To achieve this, ISIS imposes its strict conception of Sharia Law and enacts rules from another time. These have a strong impact on daily lives of women and girls as they lower their access to education, work and other basic rights. Since the city of Raqqa has fallen into the hands of ISIS, they have been undermining women's freedom by imposing the Niqab. Women are also forbidden to leave their homes without a male chaperone. Those who refuse to obey are arrested and face charges. While thousands of Syrian women suffer from these obscurantist restrictions, some of them deliberately chose to adopt them. Indeed, women also fight for ISIS; an armed brigade entirely composed of women enforces this outdated violence towards women.
Behind the niqab of jihadist women
"Al Khansa," ironically named after one of the greatest female Arab poets, is already a powerful brigade. Roughly fifty women strong, it was initially called into life to facilitate the personal search of women on ISIS checkpoints. Of course, these women have their own facilities to avoid any promiscuity and gender mix. These mainly young women have diverse social and ethnic origins. Trained in the use of weapons, they now form a real militia patrolling the streets of Raqqa, enforcing mores and ready to brutally punish women refusing to comply with the tyranny of ISIS. Their motivations to enlist are often similar to those of male soldiers. Many enroll for economic reasons. Al Khansa offers decent living with an allowance of around $200 a month. In today's Syria, this is a considerable amount of money. Other women enlist to act and protect themselves; most do not wish to suffer and become permanent targets of rape which is being used as a weapon against women.
Lastly, women also join ISIS out of conviction. They share their ideology and believe they serve the "Oumma" by violently sanctioning women behaving in an "anti-Islamic" manner. Based on the situation and the terrorist's group strategy and interest, their prerogatives evolve daily. Needless to say, the presence of armed women in ISIS ranks could seem contradictory given ISIS's rigorous vision of Islam, but ISIS is much more than a transnational terrorist group composed of barbarian and misogynous religious zealots wishing to oppress women. ISIS is a political movement with international aspirations and sees itself as part of a movement advocating for a model of society shared by an important part of the population, both men and women.
Feminization of radical movements
Additionally, the emergence of this brigade also indicates the changing role of women in the jihadist movement's strategy. They are crucial to the organization's own interest. Indeed, these women have access to power as violence is indubitably a form of power and this access to power is critical to ISIS. Within the extremely conservative structures of the movement, women remain marginal; giving a selected number of them some power creates a split and decreases the likelihood of protest. In other words, the anger of oppressed women will not be automatically directed towards the patriarchal system imposed by men, but also towards women like themselves. This leads to the emergence of a "female emancipation" process within the extremist movement triggered by the empowerment of women in the armed fight.
Additionally social networks also reflect the process of "female emancipation" with female soldiers presenting themselves as strong women and therefore making fun of the "oppressed Muslim woman" stereotype. Similarly, they claim with pride their new "Jihadi girl power," paradoxically at the expense of other women. Noteworthy are their growing support in social networks as well as a considerable amount of female supporters that are encouraged to migrate towards ISIS controlled lands. Consequently, their importance in attracting future jihadists, female and male, becomes crucial since nowadays over 80% of recruitment takes place online.
In the past, Al-Qaeda already tried to raise awareness among women via online women's magazines. Articles tried to gain women's interest in the Jihad hidden between beauty tips and articles about fashion and decoration. These included interviews of jihadi widows, articles about female Jihadists with extracts of diaries, or how to find a good jihadi husband. The purpose was to involve women in the "War against the enemies of Islam." The Jihad is not solely for men; women need to take part by supporting their husbands, brothers, or fathers who fight. It is their responsibility to educate future generations by teaching the principles of the "Holy War."
Nowadays the female Jihadist reaches new dimensions as more and more women from different countries are appealed by the call of the 'Holy War.' Caught between fantasy and idealization, many of them try to reach Syria. Nevertheless, few of them join Al Khansa and the majority remains confined to logistical, medical, educational tasks and housework. Their profiles, nationalities, and social backgrounds differ as much as the motivations that brought them to join this transnational terrorist group. While many of these young women wish to escape some sort of cultural or religious pressure, from their families or the society, while others want to provide humanitarian help. Part of them wants to serve ISIS' ideology and some come with their jihadist husbands to support them or wish to find a husband among the fighters.
It is interesting to note however, none of them are allowed o join the "caliphate" unless they are married to a jihadist. If they are not, a marriage promise needs to be made with a jihadist to be allowed to join him. What is also new and growing can be called a jihadist "family migration." Entire families leave their homes to settle in the Levant. This flow of migrants could lead to the creation of a new and extremely conservative movement of communities which would have a strong impact on Syrian society and lead to shifts in the long term. Initially, women's implications were undesired, but they are crucial to any State's existence. Therefore, ISIS saw their integration as necessary as the achievement of an "Islamic State" came closer. The feminization of the jihadist movement thus became an essential element of the organization's propaganda. In the light of their promotion of society's participation in all its segments, it becomes even clearer. All genders are important and complementary, even if not equal.
The association of feminity with extreme violence has always shocked, but women have often taken part in violent movements. War is perceived as men's realm and women are only the victims of atrocities. The simplified vision of female nature leads us to think so. The image of naturally less violent women, unable of cruel acts and in need of protection is still present. History however teaches us that women too have been involved in armed conflicts and also played a central role by resorting to armed violence. However, women's implication in wars and violence certainly does not contradict the observation that they remain one of wars' first and major casualties. The trend of young women participating in Jihad in the Levant probably draws media's attention since it questions gender divisions and their divergent roles in times of war. War and violence in general are definitely not a question of gender but of people and individuals, and men do not hold the exclusive right to the use of violence and the hangman can also be a hang-woman.
This article/blog post originally appeared on Le Huffington Post and was translated from French.