The ISIS Crackdown on Women, by Women

ISIS's all-female brigade and the slowly growing role of female jihadis
Women in Raqqa, Syria walk past a billboard urging women to wear the veil. (Reuters)

Reports yesterday that ISIS had mandated female circumcision in the Iraqi city of Mosul quickly went viral and were almost as quickly debunked. The claim that the group now calling itself the Islamic State had issued a fatwa requiring female genital mutilation for all women between the ages of 11 and 46 came from a senior U.N. official in Iraq and appears to have been based on an edict ISIS calls a hoax.

But if ISIS’s relationship with women is not as eye-catchingly gruesome as many thought yesterday, it is exceedingly complicated, and shifting. In Raqqa, Syria, which serves as the Islamic State’s de facto capital, women who go out without a male chaperone or aren’t fully covered in public are subject to arrests and beatings.

And often it’s other women who do the arresting and beating.

The al-Khansaa Brigade is ISIS’s all-female moral police, established in Raqqa soon after ISIS took over the city a few months ago. "We have established the brigade to raise awareness of our religion among women, and to punish women who do not abide by the law," Abu Ahmad, an ISIS official in Raqqa, told Syria Deeply’s Ahmad al-Bahri. Ahmad emphasized that the brigade has its own facilities to avoid mingling among men and women. “Jihad,” he told al-Bahri, “is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well.”

The institution of female enforcers for female morality makes a certain kind of sense if you take the prohibition against sexes mingling to its logical extreme. Still, ISIS in Raqqa may be the only jihadi group employing this kind of logic. In other jihadi groups, “it is men who enforce modesty in public,” explains Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on Islamist militancy affiliated with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, via email. Nor has the practice spread elsewhere in the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. The al-Khansaa Brigade may be what Hegghammer calls a “short-lived stunt in a single city.”

Indeed, regional news sources suggest the brigade was designed to solve a specific problem: male anti-ISIS fighters disguising themselves in all-concealing feminine garb to pass through checkpoints. With male ISIS members reluctant to inspect under garments to verify the womanhood of the wearers, they got some women to do it.

But it appears that either their mandate has expanded, or they have simply taken more authority for themselves. One female teenager in Raqqa told Syria Deeply that she had been snatched from the street by a group of armed women for walking without an escort and wearing her headscarf incorrectly. “Nobody talked to me or told me the reason for my detention,” she told al-Bahri. “One of the women in the brigade came over, pointing her firearm at me. She then tested my knowledge of prayer, fasting, and hijab."     

In other words, whatever job the group was formed for, the women of the al-Khansaa Brigade aren’t just staffing checkpoints anymore. Hegghammer says whether or not female morality enforcement brigades spread more widely, their presence in Raqaa is indicative of a bigger, slow-moving shift toward allowing women “more operative” roles in the jihadi movement. “There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one,” Hegghammer says.

And the women of ISIS may find an enthusiastic fan base among ISIS’s many female supporters internationally. Hegghammer points to the hundreds of Islamist women in Europe who express support for ISIS on social media. “Many of them are eager to portray themselves as strong women and often make fun of the Western stereotype of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman,’” he says. “On social media at least, I think we can speak of a nascent ‘jihadi girl power’ subculture.”

The Western narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman may be misguided, but as Raqaa's experience shows, "jihadi girl power" often comes at other women's expense.

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Kathy Gilsinan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers global affairs. She was previously senior editor at World Politics Review.

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