Women and Islamic Militancy

Women and Islamic Militancy

Is it possible that ISIS appeals to some Muslim women not because they are fooled by it, but because its political vision seems to offer solutions to some of their problems?

Followed by a debate.

Protesters demand the release of Aafia Siddiqui, Karachi, 2010 (Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock)

This article is followed by a response by Meredith Tax, along with Rafia Zakaria’s reply.

In the last email it sent to journalist James Foley’s parents, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) mentioned one person by name: Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. “We have also offered prisoner exchanges to free the Muslims currently in your detention like our sister Dr. Aafia Siddiqui,” it said, “however you proved very quickly to us that this is NOT what you are interested in.” Days later, Foley was beheaded. More beheadings—gruesome, grotesque, and professionally filmed—have followed, drawing the United States further into the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

Siddiqui, a Pakistani neurophysicist, was in prison in Carswell, Texas, when ISIS proposed a deal to free her. The militants had not forgotten her, although it had been years since her 2008 capture in Ghazni, Afghanistan, and her January 2010 conviction in New York for the attempted murder of federal agents. For ISIS, as for many other jihadist groups, Aafia Siddiqui is a heroine.

A small but growing number of young Muslim women have joined an estimated 20,000–31,500 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. About 10 percent of foreign recruits from Europe, North America and Australia are women. Of these approximately two hundred women and girls, the majority are believed to be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Seventy women are thought to have come from France, sixty from the United Kingdom, and scattered numbers from other European nations and from Canada. Two American women from Denver and Minneapolis have probably joined the group as well.

Why is ISIS drawing women, particularly from Western countries with supposed access to secular freedoms, to heed the call of an extremist group well known for its misogynist ideology and its violent treatment of women?

While Aafia Siddiqui herself was never a member of ISIS—she was convicted and imprisoned before the group was formed—she is an example of a “Muslim woman warrior,” an ideal celebrated by jihadists around the Islamic world. As a highly educated Muslim woman who rejected what she viewed as Western freedoms, she represents an alternative, if highly controversial, portrait of empowerment that groups like ISIS use to appeal to other women. Consider how a female ISIS blogger, Umm-Layth, seeks to attract recruits: “Our role is even more important as women in Islam, since if we don’t have sisters with the correct Aqeedah [conviction] and understanding who are willing to sacrifice all their desires and give up their families and lives in the west in order to make Hijrah [migration] and please Allah, then who will raise the next generation of Lions?”

That some women have joined the bloodthirsty ISIS has also drawn attention to Muslim women who fight against it. When some Arab states carried out the first airstrikes against ISIS, we learned that the United Arab Emirates’ first female fighter pilot, Major Mariam al-Mansouri, had led the charge. Reports of female Kurdish Peshmerga fighters often include descriptions of their beauty or physical prowess. One journalist, for example, described nineteen-year-old Akina Akin as “a five-foot tall dynamo who is already battle hardened after two years of fighting.” The New York Daily News reported the story of another Kurdish woman named Rehana, hailed as a “tigress” on twitter, who allegedly killed one hundred ISIS fighters. The Swedish clothing manufacturer H&M allegedly tried to cash in on the Peshmerga’s brand of “military chic” by retailing what appeared to be a version of their female uniform.

Such coverage assumes that the female Peshmerga are uncovered, committed to equality, and unafraid. The Western media is happy to glamorize them—they are, after all, also on the “right” side of the rhetorical war against fundamentalism and the oppression of women. Accounts of ISIS women, by contrast, emphasize how its male leaders prey on young girls via social media or the “naïve romanticism” that female recruits may be attaching to the idea of holy war. But this glib dichotomy—the beautiful heroine lauded by the West and the repressed woman who must be liberated—reveals much about how the United States and its allies present their motives and actions in the Islamic world. They fail to recognize that both the appeal and the inner conflicts of ISIS exist not just in opposition to the West but in dialogue with it.

In its many publications, ISIS not only underscores the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed in U.S. military campaigns but also professes to have created a post-national, post-racial, and perfectly just society ordered by Islamic norms. Amid graphic pictures of women and children allegedly killed by U.S. bombings, ISIS’s English-language publication Dabiq also takes pains to show photographs of racially diverse fighters hailing from eighty different countries, underscoring that national and racial divisions do not matter in their community.

Is it possible that ISIS appeals to some Muslim women, not because they are fooled by it, but because its political vision seems to offer solutions to some of their problems? Female recruits may ultimately discover that the Islamic utopia ISIS presents is illusory and its promise of female empowerment false. But, for many, their decision to join ISIS can still be understood as a political choice, one that was consciously made in response to a variety of factors.

Aafia Siddiqui: A Different Kind of Muslim Woman?

Like other Islamist heroes such as the Egyptian author Sayyid Qutb, who was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Siddiqui too left her native land to study abroad in America. During her studies in the United States, at MIT and later at Brandeis, she socialized mainly with other Muslims and took part in fundraising for combatants in the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Deeply involved in her mosque community, Siddiqui also eagerly distributed copies of the Koran among non-Muslims.

In October 1995 Siddiqui agreed to marry the man whom her parents had chosen for her, a soft-spoken doctor named Amjad, who, while religious, was neither an activist nor committed to the jihad that was the center of Siddiqui’s life. Her biography, as written by Deborah Scroggins (Wanted Women—Faith, Lies and the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui) reveals that the arranged marriage was not a harmonious one. As a married woman pursuing a PhD, Siddiqui rankled against her domestic duties. Soon after her daughter was born, she complained that the obligations of motherhood were preventing her from attending meetings of the different religious groups she belonged to. Equally disappointing was her husband’s lack of interest in pursuing religious relief work in countries where she believed Muslims were in peril. Insistent on her activism for jihad, Siddiqui was constantly accused of being a bad mother by her husband, who believed that her family should be her first priority.

So pronounced was Siddiqui’s refusal to submit to traditional female roles, that in 2002, the couple landed before one of the most prominent Deobandi clerics in Karachi,1 in an attempt to resolve their marital problems. By then, Siddiqui had begun to wear a full face veil, with only her eyes exposed. Grand Mufti Rafi Usmani met the couple at the Darul Uloom madrassa in Karachi. There, he instructed Siddiqui to stop her struggle for jihad and focus instead on her family.

Siddiqui disagreed with the Grand Mufti’s verdict, and from behind the face-veil, did something few devout Muslim women would do. She argued with the Mufti and contradicted him by citing another sheikh, the more militant Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, who had called jihad a “community obligation incumbent on every Muslim.”2 The Mufti was irritated; he had likely never faced such a situation before.

Siddiqui justified her challenge to male religious authority by claiming a greater degree of commitment to jihad than the Mufti himself possessed. ISIS militants have also broken with traditional religious leaders, and Islamic scholars have reproached them for misinterpreting the sacred texts. Last October, over a hundred Islamic theologians signed an open letter to ISIS condemning the ways that it has deviated from Islamic jurisprudence (Shariah), the group’s flawed definition of “jihad,” and the illegality of its policy of murdering members of religious minorities. 

The Question of Islamic Feminism

Aafia Siddiqui, as Deborah Scroggins makes clear, aspired to become a leader of Banaat-e-Ayesha, the women’s wing of the Pakistani militant organization Jaish-e-Mohammed. She and her husband had visited the Mufti because they disagreed about Siddiqui’s wish to move to Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber province, where Jaish-e-Mohammed was headquartered. Of course, the model of female leadership in such militant groups is a segregated one. But it conforms to the Islamic principle that women’s roles should be “complementary” to those of men rather than “equal” to them, the latter being the more popular model for gender equality elsewhere in the world.

This distinction represents an important debate among Muslim women about gender relations within the community of the faithful—what type of relationship is more “authentic” as an Islamic practice. According to theological scholar Aysha Hidayatullah,3 the attempts of some Muslim “feminists” to reinterpret the Koran—by highlighting the historical context in which it was written or focusing on its praise of kindness, empathy, and justice—are efforts to read gender equality into a text where none may exist. Similarly, Juliane Hammer, an American professor of religious studies, recounts how Muslim women in the United States who have struggled to gain space in mosques for prayer are challenged by literalists who argue that “from an Islamic perspective the roles of men and women are complementary and co-operative rather than competitive.”4 Both authors question whether leadership within the Islamic faith should be imagined as a combined leadership of men and women or segregated, where women may only exert power over their own kind. But neither argues that the Muslim feminist project should be abandoned or that gender equality is un-Islamic.

In light of this ongoing debate, the strictly segregated forms of leadership practiced by a group like ISIS can seem attractive to women who also believe strongly in its general Islamist vision. The Al Khansaa Brigade, a roving female police force that disciplines women in the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa in Syria, is an example of this type of leadership. According to a recent report in the Atlantic, the brigade has its own facilities so that no mingling of men and women will occur. Abu Ahmed, an ISIS official in Raqqa, declared that “Jihad is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well.” This is “complementarity” at work: it justifies segregation of the sexes while appearing to provide a ladder to leadership for ambitious young jihadi women.

ISIS’s Al Zawra school for female recruits demonstrates how this principle works in practice. The school’s mission statement appeals to girls who are “interested in explosive belt and suicide bombing more than in a white dress or a castle.” Breaking with religious tradition in its disavowal of ordinary life, the statement also engages in the sort of historical reinterpretation attempted by Muslim feminists—but with the opposite intention. It tells the story of Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, a woman who fought in the Battle of Uhud in 625 AD, alongside her husband and sons. Nusaybah, who sustained twelve wounds, carried a shield and a sword and continued to fight; she even chopped off the leg of a man who had injured her son. This trope of “the Muslim woman as warrior” invests the principle of complementarity with a degree of cultural legitimacy that Muslim feminists—who make common cause with feminists in the West—find difficult to match.

Cracks in the Vision and Opportunities for “Real” Liberation

Arguably, this principle—and the segregation of the sexes it requires—is invoked simply as a way to invest the jihadist project with a form of Islamic authenticity. Groups like ISIS are more concerned with presenting themselves as an alternative to Western hegemony than they are with any kind of women’s liberation. And female leaders in ISIS can do nothing to prevent male fighters from carrying out gruesome sexual assaults on either women they capture or on their own wives.

When traditional gender roles are challenged in ISIS and similar groups, it is always in the service of militancy. Aafia Siddiqui had no problem attending mixed gatherings or even speaking before unrelated men; she justified these departures from tradition as necessary in the service of jihad. Similarly, the ISIS story of Nusaybah bint Ka’ab’s presence on the battlefield, fighting with and against unrelated men (even though the presence of her son and husband is often offered as justification), can be used as a historical precedent for desegregating women and men on and off the battlefield— as long as it is in defense of militant Islam. At the Al Zawra school, women are permitted to participate in the mixed virtual realm of social media, their communication with strange, unrelated men justified by the desire to create propaganda for ISIS.

Moreover, the main role of the all-female Al Khansaa Brigade is to monitor and discipline other women. Female brigadeers drag improperly covered or unaccompanied women off the streets of Raqqa and punish them for deviating from ISIS’s conception of acceptable behavior for observant Muslim women by detaining them for long hours. Of course, when the women of Al Khansaa police other women, they are merely enforcing the patriarchal norms and rules decreed by ISIS. They have no right or ability to challenge the misogynistic policies or practices of ISIS. No women were permitted to intervene when ISIS militants stoned a woman to death in a public square for the crime of adultery in October 2014.

Finally, the complementarity doctrine can be used to suppress any challenges from women who aspire to be more than the mere handmaidens of oppression. Would Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of ISIS, have tolerated a woman like Aafia Siddiqui questioning his pronouncement in a direct confrontation, as she did before the Mufti in Karachi? Undoubtedly, the principle of complementarity would justify him shutting her up on the grounds that she was in no position to tell either him or her husband what she felt compelled to do in pursuit of jihad. 

Statelessness and the Escape from Identity

Another one of ISIS’s stated premises is its policy of open borders for any Muslim wishing to migrate to territory under their control. According to various videos, one of the rites of passage for joining ISIS is burning one’s passport, a ritual that has received less attention in the West than in the Muslim countries from which ISIS draws most of its support. Most holders of Western passports are seldom barred from entering another country; citizens of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European states already enjoy a largely borderless world, with easy access to over 170 nations. By contrast, most ISIS recruits come from countries like Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia, which are veritable passport prisons. Their citizens can travel to only about forty countries without special processing. For the U.S. military, the “global war on terror” also renders these same borders rather meaningless; suspected enemies can be targeted at any time. All this breeds resentment among Muslim youths in Europe who feel unwelcome in what are often the only countries in which they have ever lived.

France, the Western nation that supplies the largest number of ISIS female recruits, is a case in point. Those French Muslim schoolgirls who are excluded from school for wearing headscarves live and learn in relative isolation from the mainstream of French society. In October, the Paris Opera refused to perform because the audience included a veiled woman who, despite possessing a valid ticket, was asked to leave and then refused to do so. The choices of Muslim women—especially as they relate to veiling—are perceived and confronted as a defiance of French culture.

For such women, ISIS may appear to offer an escape from a nation where to be an equal citizen requires abandoning the dictates of one’s religion. From this perspective, the ISIS denunciation of national identity in favor of a faith-based identity transcends borders in a crudely welcoming way. On her blog, Umm-Layth explains that in territory that ISIS controls, Muslim women are not mocked for wearing Islamic clothing and instead receive nothing but “respect and honor.”

Remarkably, for women like Aafia Siddiqui who have roots in Muslim countries, groups like ISIS can also offer a certain kind of freedom from patriarchal traditions and cultural mores. A divorced or widowed woman with children can rarely remarry in Afghanistan or Pakistan; a virgin bride is the only kind. But within jihadi realms, that prohibition does not apply; for instance widowed women (of which there are many owing to frequent deaths of ISIS fighters) are immediately married again. A devout woman, despite her lost virginity, is still considered pure and marriageable because she wants to fight.

Not long after her divorce in October 2002, Aafia Siddiqui married Ammar al-Baluchi in Karachi, a much younger man closely related to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The female members of the al-Baluchi family welcomed both her and her children. Yet, ISIS also decrees that a woman must get married if she wishes to join the group; a wedding is arranged immediately or as soon as possible after a woman arrives in an ISIS-controlled area. And if her new husband dies in battle, remarriage is expected and facilitated.

Since the rhetoric of women’s liberation has been used to justify the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a group like ISIS which violently opposes those interventions can gain a degree of legitimacy unavailable to secular feminists in those nations, who are constantly and consistently under attack for propagating Western ideas and are perceived as handmaidens to foreign occupation. The invasion of Afghanistan was hailed by former First Lady Laura Bush and others as a way to “liberate” Afghan women. But thirteen years later, that project has largely failed, leaving the very idea of gender equality tainted as a pretext for foreign occupation. This dynamic—repeated in Iraq and even Pakistan (with U.S-led drone attacks on one end and U.S.-funded women’s empowerment projects on the other)— creates a political opening for an alternative form of female empowerment, even though it is one that men control, and which allows the rape and murder of women who do not conform.

In a period marked both by Islamophobia and Islamic fundamentalism, jihadist militancy is a phenomenon fraught with complexity and enmeshed both in opposition to Western interventions and the ongoing tribulations of the Muslim world. rejecting equality between men and women does not render a Muslim militant; neither does cultural alienation automatically make one an ISIS sympathizer. On the contrary, jihadists have persecuted millions of devout Muslim women (and men) around the world and killed thousands of them. Many Muslims actively denounce extremism and advocate peace, equality, and an end to discrimination from both within and outside their faith.

As one right-leaning host on Pakistani television asserted, “Aafia is a heroine among educated women,” emphasizing that her choice of militancy was not the result of some naïve indoctrination but a politically considered one, made with complete knowledge of the level of violence involved. Neuroscientist, mother, and now inmate at Carswell Prison in Texas, Aafia Siddiqui was never a member of ISIS. Yet to understand the interplay between culture, religion, and politics in her life can reveal something important about why she and other women become jihadists. The “liberation” offered by ISIS can seem like an escape from both the ghettoized status of Islam in the West as well as the restrictive cultural mores of many Muslim countries; just as crucially, it can also seem like a legitimate response to being victimized by U.S.-led wars that promise female empowerment but deliver widespread destruction. Unless we examine why some women choose to devote their lives to such a group, we cannot grasp the power of ISIS’s utopian, yet violently deceptive promise.

Rafia Zakaria is an author, attorney, and human rights activist. She is the author of the memoir The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, due out in February 2015 (Beacon Press).

To read Meredith Tax’s response to this article, followed by Rafia Zakaria’s reply, click here.


1. The Deoband school of Sunni Islam is the one espoused by among others the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. It must be remembered, however, that not all of those who identify with the Deobandi school espouse or support militant jihad.

2. Scroggins, p. 197.

3. Ayesha Hidayatullah, Feminist Edges of the Quran (Oxford University Press, 2014)

4. American Muslim Women, Religious Authority and Activism: More than a Prayer. Juliane Hammer. University of Texas Press (2012), p. 131.

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