What Kind of Women’s Empowerment?
Why do Muslim girls in the West run away to join ISIS? Rafia Zakaria argues that they are responding to online propaganda that “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.” She hypothesizes that ISIS may offer “an escape from a nation where to be an equal citizen requires abandoning the dictates of one’s religion.” While she emphasizes that the main duty of these girls will be to marry and propagate, she also describes them as “women warriors,” making an extended comparison between them and Aafia Siddiqi, who refused to “submit to traditional female roles” and whom she believes represents “an alternative, if highly controversial, portrait of empowerment that groups like ISIS use to appeal to other women.”
Let’s stop for a moment to note that ISIS has enslaved thousands of Iraqi and Syrian women, mostly from minority groups; it has even reportedly published a pamphlet detailing the proper way to treat female captives, which includes immediate rape, with no exceptions made for young children. One of its recent propaganda coups, according to an Iraqi news source, was to release a price list showing the costs of Christian and Yazidi female slaves of different age groups, probably as an inducement to foreign fighters; the youngest children are the most expensive and foreign fighters are not allowed more than three per person.
So, yes, it is important to try to understand why Western Muslim girls—or anybody else—would want to join such a violent group. The question is, how much do we really know about the runaways? Is Zakaria working from a sample large and well-documented enough to support her hypotheses, or are other conclusions equally plausible?
Two researchers at Kings College, London, have been tracking female recruits to ISIS from the UK. Melanie Smith of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has a database of twenty-five such girls; she emphasizes the romantic lure of a man with a gun and says a number of girls have run away to marry jihadists they have met online. Indeed, some of the online methods used to engage these teenage girls resonate with grooming techniques used by pimps; a recent investigation by the London Times points to an organized ring of “facilitators” in East London, offering girls as young as fourteen passports, travel help, and money for travel to marry jihadists in Syria. The BBC interviewed a number of girls in Luton who said they wanted to go and some knew so little about either Islam or politics that they were not even aware ISIS was fighting other Muslims.
Another researcher at Kings, Katharine Brown of the Defense Studies Department, says girls who join ISIS do not all want the same thing: some want to be jihadi brides; some are drawn by the utopian vision of a caliphate; and many just want to be independent, get away from their parents, and have adventures.
Zakaria speculates on the attraction of ISIS for “French Muslim schoolgirls who are excluded from school for wearing headscarves [and who] live and learn in relative isolation from the mainstream of French society.” Certainly some French runaways fit this description, like fifteen-year-old Soukaïna, whose parents had no idea she frequented jihadist websites until they were warned by the cops; three months later she stole her sister’s passport and headed for Syria. Another fifteen-year-old French girl, Nora el-Bathy, came from a family that was Muslim but not Islamist and only donned her veil after she left home in the morning. She went to Syria thinking she could work in a hospital; when ISIS made her stay inside and do babysitting instead she wanted to come home but her brother couldn’t get her out.
According to Dounia Bouzar, the anthropologist founder of the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam (CPDSI), most young French women who seek jihad do not come from particularly religious families; they are good students who want to go to Syria either to marry a devout Muslim or provide humanitarian aid. She says, “There is a mix of indoctrination and seduction. . . .They upload photos of bearded Prince Charmings on Facebook.”
Zakaria says most Muslim girls from the West who join ISIS are between eighteen and twenty-five and are attracted “because its political vision appears to offer a solution to some of the problems that plague them.” But are they adults capable of making mature decisions? They are certainly capable and well-enough organized to deceive their parents and find a network to help them travel. Zahra and Salma Halane, sixteen-year-old twin sisters from Manchester, the children of Somali refugees, had twenty-eight GCSEs between them (most students take eight or nine) and were enrolled in college until they ran away to marry ISIS warriors. Aqsa Mahmood, whom Zakaria quotes, was a twenty-year-old pre-med from Glasgow, educated in private schools; she is now married and produces a recruiting blog under the name Umm Layth.
But no matter how well-organized and educated they may be, most of the girls whose stories we actually know tend to be fifteen or sixteen. Can we really compare these teenagers to Aafia Siddiqi, a thirty-five-year-old PhD with degrees in biology and neuroscience, married twice, with three children, and a dedicated Islamist for many years, who, when captured in 2008, was reportedly carrying cyanide crystals and documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs.
Zakaria also hypothesizes that some women join ISIS because they can more easily remarry there if they divorce or are widowed: “A divorced or widowed woman with children can rarely remarry in Afghanistan or Pakistan.” But no evidence of Afghan or Pakistani women joining ISIS has yet emerged, so how does this apply? And, while divorce may be disgraceful in Afghanistan, it is so common in Pakistan that more than 100 divorces take place every day in Lahore alone. So whom is she actually talking about here?
Zakaria posits that Muslim girls in the West see ISIS as an opportunity because the United States has destroyed the option of feminism in their countries. “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 being handmaidens to foreign occupation.”
Let’s look closely at this thesis. Conservative opposition to women’s movements hardly began with 9/11. Patriarchal conservatives in the Global South have been calling local feminists tools of the West since at least the nineties and very likely since the nineteenth century. As I wrote in 1999, “To nationalist, communalist and religious backlash movements, feminism, no matter how rooted in local conditions, represents the globalizing forces that are undercutting patriarchal traditions. For them, it is intrinsically foreign, a fifth column undermining their efforts at unity. . . . the successes of the women’s movement are also seen only as symptoms of globalization, rather than as the result of an autonomous movement for female emancipation.”
But if conservatives see local groups like Shirkat Gah and the Women’s Action Forum in Pakistan, the Afghan Women’s Network, and the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq as a modernizing fifth column, doesn’t that make it all the more necessary for women in the rest of the world to show some solidarity rather than dismiss women’s desire for equality?
Rather than call for such solidarity, Zakaria cites Laura Bush and concludes that, because the Bush administration said it wanted to help Afghan women, “the very idea of gender equality [has become] 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.”
Surely there is some cognitive dissonance in the idea of “an alternative form of female empowerment . . . that men control” which, moreover, “allows the rape and murder of women who do not conform?”
Let’s call the phenomenon by its right name: This is not female empowerment but a buy-in by some young Sunni women to a fascist ideology that gives them admission to a society run by an elite group of warriors who have life and death power over other women—Yazidis, Shi’a, Ahmadis, Christians. All they have to do to join this elite is consent to their own subordination. They have even been allowed to form their own little militia, the al-Khansaa brigade, to police other women. The bargain is exactly the same as that made by women who join other poisonous right wing groups based on racial or ideological purity, like Nazi women, women of the Hindu right, or the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan.
So if Zakaria is correct and some of the runaway girls from the West have made mature, considered decisions, we have to ask, what kind of decisions have they made? Is it sufficient to talk about empowerment in the case of Mujahidah Bint Usama, a doctor who posted a picture of herself in Raqqa holding a severed head, with the message, “Dream job, a terrorist doc,” followed by smiley faces and hearts? What kind of empowerment is represented by Aqsa Mahmood, who wrote in a September blog post:
Know this Cameron/Obama, you and your countries will be beneath our feet and your Kufr [unbelievers] will be destroyed, this is a promise from Allah swt [abbreviation for ‘glorified and exalted be He’] that we have no doubt over. If not you then your grandchildren or their grandchildren. But worry not, somewhere along the line your blood will be spilled by our cubs in Dawlah [your country]. We have conquered these lands once Beithnillah [God willing] we will do it again. Read up on your History, and know that it will repeat itself, you will pay Jizyah [tax on non-Muslims] to us just like you did in the past. This Islamic Empire shall be known and feared world wide and we will follow none other than the Law of the one and the only ilah [God]!
Another question: if Zakaria is looking for examples of female empowerment in Syria, why pick women in ISIS? Why not choose the determined women in local Syrian civil society groups who insist on holding meetings, educating children, and carrying on humanitarian work under the most unpromising conditions? Why not choose the Women’s Defence Units affiliated with the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party? Necla Acik has described how these women’s militias rescued thousands of Yazidis who, fleeing ISIS massacres and slave markets, got trapped in the Sinjar mountains last August:
Setting off from Rojava, these fighters cleared more than a 100km passage through northern Iraq to Mount Sinjar and broke the siege of IS. They provided the desperate refugees with a secure corridor, which enabled them to embark on a 24 hour march into the relatively safe northern part of Syria/Rojava, where they received immediate medical attention, food and shelter.
Dilar Dirik adds, “the mass-mobilisation of women in Kobane is the legacy of decades-long resistance of Kurdish women as fighters, prisoners, politicians, leaders of popular uprisings and tireless protesters, unwilling to compromise on their rights.”
The Kobane women’s militia members are not only women warriors, they are feminists, socialists, and secularists. Is that why Zakaria avoids making them part of the picture—because they disprove her thesis that egalitarian feminist ideas are no longer viable in war-torn Muslim-majority countries? The women who hold equal leadership positions in the Rojava cantons do not seem to feel that secular feminism is a hopelessly outdated and compromised idea. As their example becomes more widely known, I suspect many other women in South Asia, the Middle East, and the West will find their insistence on women’s equality a more useful model of female empowerment than that of high-school girls who run off to join ISIS.
Meredith Tax is a writer and activist in New York and a founder of the Centre for Secular Space. Her most recent book is Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights. Her 1982 novel Rivington Street is now available as an ebook.
Rafia Zakaria replies
January 23, 2015
In her response to my article “Women and Islamic Militancy,” Meredith Tax says that I argue Muslim women are joining ISIS because they are “responding to online propaganda.” But this misrepresentation is one of many; Tax misunderstands the point of my piece. As I state clearly, my article is an attempt to “understand the interplay between culture, religion, and politics” that informs the decisions of some women to join militant groups. I consider how “[t]he ‘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.”
However, in the shadow of Charlie Hebdo, when a defense of secularism is once again on the lips of many Western commentators, it is useful to consider Tax’s point of view. At its best, her argument is susceptible to a rhetorical temptation that claims many: to crudely condemn and denounce militancy without attempting to understand how it works. The former would not be a problem; indeed I and a vast number of Muslims spend much of our time at the same task: denouncing the brutality of groups like ISIS, whose bloodlust has killed our friends and destroyed peace in our communities. The particular danger so broadly on display in Tax’s piece is that her argument goes no further; she imagines that the Enemy can be routed out and the war won with a shrill scream of “you’re evil,” repeated a million times. If, like me, you belong to a country and society devastated by terror, you know that this is a costly—perhaps even fatal—obstinacy.
To be clear, I am not interested in valorizing the alternative model of “empowerment” vaunted by groups like ISIS, a model that I clearly say revises parts of Islamic history at will but is largely preoccupied with presenting itself as visibly “anti-Western” (a position that is simultaneously presented as Islamically authentic). Dissecting the appeal of this model, I argue, requires not simply understanding the contexts in which Muslim women live (they are vast and varied) but also examining the role of Western powers in those contexts. Understanding this latter point—about how social exclusion and military intervention have characterized the treatment of both Muslim minorities in European countries as well as Muslim majority countries—is crucial in order for us to move beyond facile denunciations and toward actually contesting the ideology of groups like ISIS.
Since the publication of my piece, two cases have emerged that again illustrate the points I have made about how the trope of the “Muslim female warrior” presents an alternative model of empowerment and agency that operates within militant discourse and is used to attract women to their ranks. The better known of these is the case of Hayat Boumeddiene. While the details of her involvement in the attack on the kosher supermarket following the Charlie Hebdo massacre are not yet known, French authorities allege that she helped her husband Amedy Coulibaly orchestrate the event. News sources differ on the facts: the Wall Street Journal alleges that she had already left France on January 2 for the Syria-Iraq border, though the French publication Le Parisien says she could still have been in the country.
While these issues may remain debated, Hayat Boumeddiene has nonetheless been labeled the “most wanted woman in France.” Dissection of her past reveals a troubled and neglected childhood, a photo of her in a bikini, and a marriage with a Muslim man that caused her to lose her job because she decided to wear a full-face veil or niqab. Boumeddiene was known to be critical of France’s exclusionary headscarf law, which bars Muslim girls who veil from education and public service. Once again, Western commentators, particularly those mesmerized by the photos of Boumeddiene in a bikini, are flummoxed. Why would anyone give up all that freedom for a full-face veil? Can a woman, once liberated (she wore a bikini), actually choose Islamic militancy? Once again, such critics view the process of religious radicalization without examining the political and cultural context in which Muslim minorities in France live. They also ignore the fact that the “submissive” label applied to veiled women who turn to militancy is often inaccurate. Such stereotyping of “oppressed” Muslim women clouds any analysis of the interplay between ISIS and its propaganda image as pre-colonial utopia, and Islamophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment in countries like France.
A second case, from Pakistan, again points to how certain militant organizations can provide ways for Muslim women to subvert oppressive cultural and religious traditions. Jamia Hafsa, a seminary run under the auspices of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, first earned notoriety in 2007 when its students became involved in several acts of moral vigilantism. Female students kidnapped an alleged brothel owner in the city and then held her captive inside the seminary, where they administered trials according to their own interpretation of Sharia law. It took government intervention and eventually a siege to end that standoff in July 2007. Many, including the son of Umm-e-Hassan, the female head of the madrassa, died in this operation. More recently in November 2014, the women of Jamia Hafsa were in the news when a YouTube video showed them declaring their allegiance to ISIS. The video (which is in Arabic) features the voice of Umm-e-Hassan, who asks her brothers in ISIS to avenge the 2007 raid on the seminary.
According to reports published in Pakistani newspapers Dawn and The News, Uzma Qayyum, a twenty-six-year-old student, attended one of the branches of Jamia Hafsa, known as Jamia Bint-e-Aisha. On June 16, 2014 Uzma went as usual to her classes at the seminary. However, by nightfall she had not yet returned. On her bed, her family found a burial shroud, a sign that she did not wish to return. Her father, Abdul Qayyum, went to the seminary to look for her. There he was told that Uzma had left as usual at the end of the day, but had been accompanied by Umm-e-Hassan, who had been visiting the campus that day. Uzma’s father was able to see his daughter the next morning at the Jamia Hafsa campus, but only in the company of two other Jamia employees. He was not allowed to take her home. When he saw her, Uzma did not speak but the other women from the madrassa told her father that she had decided to dedicate her life to Islam.
Uzma Qayyum’s father has since filed an application before the Supreme Court of Pakistan alleging that his daughter has been “brainwashed” and must be returned to his care. In proceedings before lower courts and in Uzma’s father’s own statements, however, it has been revealed that Uzma was in fact fleeing a marriage that her father had arranged with a cousin. She has refused to return to her father’s home. While the case has not yet been decided, and it is unknown whether she was truly the subject of a forced marriage, Uzma’s story reflects yet again how female branches of militant groups appear to offer Muslim women a path different from the one dictated by tradition or culture. In the case of Pakistan, running away to an orthodox religious institution bears little of the moral stigma that would be attached to running away under other circumstances. In addition, families who are otherwise easily able to retrieve runaway women via their networks or by using moral pressure find it harder to penetrate institutions like Jamia Hafsa, which are able to shield themselves from scrutiny behind a banner of religious authenticity.
No decision has as yet been issued in Uzma Qayyum’s case by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The complexity of her case points directly to how militant groups are increasingly targeting women who, for numerous reasons, may find traditional domestic roles or arranged marriages undesirable. Should the court rule that Uzma’s father has the right to compel his daughter to return to his home against her will? Or, should she be permitted to do as she pleases and stay at the madrassa, and might doing so inspire other women to follow her path? Consider all this against the legal fact that fathers are considered guardians of unmarried women in Pakistan and are permitted to contract marriages for them. Ultimately, is it feminist to advocate for Uzma to be returned to her father and ostensibly to the marriage he has arranged for her?
The vexing nature of such cases illustrates precisely why the issue of women and militancy is not as simple as whether or not women should veil or as straightforward as a “this is what Islam says” diktat, since its tenets are open to numerous interpretations. Nor are the parameters of empowerment and choice easily delineated; given Jamia Hafsa’s policies of strict segregation and its austere and violent messages about Islam, it is unlikely to afford Uzma Qayyum any liberation beyond escaping a forced marriage. But that alone may be an adequate attraction for Uzma and for many others like her. Similarly, Hayat Boumeddiene may not have felt (or been perceived as) more French after donning a bikini, her immigrant origins marking her out despite her assimilative overtures. Militancy, therefore, may have held some crude magnetism for her, its promise of unconditional acceptance a fantasy of the excluded. As in the case of Aafia Siddiqui, my analysis doesn’t present any justifications for why women join ISIS; it does, however, offer possible explanations—ones that are arguably important and necessary—if we are to understand the appeal of militancy for women, not merely to denounce its power, but also to challenge it.
In discussions of women, militancy and empowerment, it is tempting to be diverted by debates about whether the choices of Hayat or Uzma or Aafia represent “real” empowerment or if they can be called “feminist.” While such questions are worth considering, they do not address the more pressing issue of how to challenge the appeal of militancy, an important task in contexts where this is an urgent problem. As the case of Uzma Qayyum shows; it is affected communities themselves that must grapple with the question of why militancy is the only option for girls seeking freedom from the constrictions of tradition and culture. If we grant that religion—in this case, in the form of religious militancy—has the discursive power to subvert traditional gender roles tied to domesticity, marriage, and cultural propriety, it follows that such power can also be used to envision female agency that is not tied to violence and the killing of innocent people. Muslim feminists have both the opportunity and the ability to challenge the distortions of militancy. Groups like the Malaysia-based organization Sisters in Islam have attempted to do just that by presenting arguments against polygamy, domestic violence, and terrorism from within Islam. But the task they face is a formidable one—not only are they viewed with suspicion for not being “Muslim enough” by religious actors, they are also attacked for not being “feminist enough” by secular ones. In the meantime, militancy marches on, fueled by a steady supply of fresh recruits.
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 Rafia Zakaria’s original article on “Women and Islamic Militancy,” click here.