From the home front to the frontline: The role of women in Islamic State
- Jasmine Opperman
- 17 Mar 2016 11:46 (South Africa)
Until recently, women in Islamic State have largely been confined to a supporting, sedentary role with only men allowed to do the actual fighting. But these are desperate times, and the Islamist militant group is increasingly entrusting women with direct combat positions. By JASMINE OPPERMAN.
Since its inception, Islamic State (IS) has attracted women to its cause. While men were lured with tales of heroism and battlefield glory, women were drawn to Syria and Iraq with promises of marriage and children; their role, while deemed no less important to the creation of the Caliphate, was restricted to a supporting act.
In February 2014, this began to change with the creation of the all-female al-Khansaa Brigade. Though still not used for frontline operations, the brigade was tasked with policing other females, and swiftly developed a reputation for abusing that power. Only women between the ages of 18 and 25 were permitted to join, and each received a monthly salary of 25,000 Syrian lira (less than $200).
A year later, in February 2015, another major development: Islamic State released a document defining the role of women within its borders. The patriarchal nature of the society they are creating is clear in the wording, which advocates that women pursue a sedentary lifestyle in service to their men, described as their “masters”. Women are permitted to become teachers, doctors and nurses – not fighters. However, there is a loophole, with the document saying women may leave the house if the situation of the umma [the broader Islamic community] has become so desperate that a fatwa [religious decree] has been issued permitting women to fight in the name of jihad.
Several recent events have indicated that this fatwa may have been enacted as a tactical reality.
Photo: Weapons training for women in the Islamic State. Photo obtained by TRAC.
In Libya, in late February/early March this year, seven females were arrested and three others killed in Sabratha. All were Tunisian nationals working in combat roles with the Islamic State in Libya. This is the first documented confirmation that IS is using women on the frontline outside of Syria.
In Syria, the first reports of a female defence unit emerged in late February 2015 (these reports, while credible, have not been confirmed by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium). An activist in the region reported that Nada al-Qahtani, one of the leaders of the Raqqa branch of the al-Khansaa battalion, was appointed to lead a new branch of the unit in Hasakeh. According to the same activist, “she plays a prominent role on the level of communicating with foreign fighters”. Nada al-Qahtani has tweeted in the past her desire to become a suicide bomber and for wives to encourage their husbands also to become suicide bombers.
In Nigeria, while women are not used in traditional combat operations, they have been central to the success of Boko Haram's terrorist attack (Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Islamic State in March 2015). In particular, female suicide bombers have become a Boko Haram signature move. Boko Haram has been using females as couriers and recruiters since 2013 and as suicide bombers since 2014, in areas where penetration is difficult for men.
What conclusions can we draw from these developments?
First, it would be hasty to assume that the role of women in Islamic State is fundamentally changing. A few female fighters here and there do not change the reality of life for women in the self-proclaimed Caliphate: they are overwhelmingly viewed and treated as mothers of the nation rather than fighters for the nation. Even blogger Aqsa Mahmood, a Glaswegian who joined Islamic State, admitted that daily life in the Caliphate was "mundane", and revolves around cooking, cleaning, looking after children and sometimes educating them.
Second, it's important to remember the nature of Islamic State, which is more than a traditional terrorist organisation. Its creation of a functioning state in Iraq and Syria relies on a back-end of teachers, nurses and homemakers, roles traditionally reserved for women. So just as it needs to attract foreign men to its cause to fight, and devotes significant time and resources in doing so, it also needs to attract foreign women to fulfil these less glamorous positions.
Here, however, Islamic State runs into something of a contradiction: many modern women, even those sympathetic to Islamic State's cause, are unwilling to confine themselves to a supporting, subservient position. In this the influence of liberal western values is a major factor, ironically. Therefore Islamic State propaganda works hard to create at least the illusion that women are trusted with weapons, and may have the opportunity to fight – hence the need for visuals of women being trained in weapons use, and sporadic reports of women on the frontlines.
So while Islamic State is offering glimpses, through its propaganda, that the role of women is changing, these should not be taken at face value. Ultimately, women within its borders are still second-class citizens, and that's unlikely to change any time soon. DM
Jasmine Opperman is the Africa Director for the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC).
Main photo: Weapons training for women in the Islamic State. Photo obtained by TRAC.