By Dr. Halla Diyab
1 July 2015
Previously, in groups such as al-Qaeda, women who were associated with the terrorist organization were presented as tough and resilient as in the case of alleged militant supporter Sajida al-Rishawi who appears in her confessional videos with a seemingly callous composure and a facial expression wholly devoid of emotion. The recent emergence of ISIS female militants marks a transition in this archetype, with female terrorists being portrayed as sentimental, passionate and overtly emotional.
Along with being increasingly romanticized, the characters of the females are also often strongly interwoven with the roles they occupy within their romantic relationships, with many being celebrated for travelling to Syria by breaking the laws of their countries to marry the jihadists that they have fallen in love with. It is this “forbidden love” narrative that adds an additional facet to their sentimentality as they are portrayed in their roles as wives as romantic and passionate in their quest for love. An example of ISIS’ perpetuation of this narrative lies in the case of reported Malaysian militant Shams, who details her innermost emotions in her “diary of a Muhajirah” which documents each moment of her love story with her jihadist husband, from first sight to wedding day.
With the newly-constructed image of the female militant, ISIS is effectively humanizing the female jihadists in an attempt to make them relatable to young, impressionable girls of today who could gradually find themselves becoming sympathetic to the cause of the female militants.
For the female militants, ISIS heralds their reconciliation with male jihadists as being pivotal to their evolvement process. This psychological and ideological evolvement revolves around the female militant taking the path to radicalization with the influence of the jihadist. An example of this is in the case of Dutch girl Aisha who was reportedly radicalized under the influence of the apparent jihadist Omar Yilmaz who she is said to have romanticized as the Muslim version of Robin Hood, with her going on to evolve under his influence into an extremist, eventually emigrating to Syria to reconcile with him. Preceding the reconciliation of these couples, ISIS’ narratives of these women are always marked by transitional binary oppositions which see the female militant evolving from liberal to radical; invisible to visible; or from un-practicing to extremist.
ISIS acts as a match-maker, bringing together the correct components to ensure that the reconciliation process is successful; the right jihadist for the right female militant. Through this match-making process, ISIS as an organization gives the illusion to their members of working in their favour by granting them-through this reconciliation-the opportunity to be purified Muslims. An example of this reconciliation would be of that between the alleged jihadist Abu Bilal al-Homsi and his Tunisian bride who reconciled in Raqqa after months spent talking online and went on to convey the idyllic images of themselves in the role of typical ‘love birds’, eating ice cream while strolling hand-in-hand along the Euphrates River; an image intended to portray the militants reconciling with their purified souls.
Life and Fertility
With ISIS female jihadists, there is a celebration of the female body with recurring images of marriage, and re-production. Unlike former female militants of al-Qaeda who were used as a medium for death through suicide bomb attacks, ISIS female militants are used as mediums for life and fertility. With limited involvement of female militants in ISIS’ suicide bomb operations- with exception of the “white widow” who according to media outlets “has joined ISIS and is training a female suicide bomber squad in Syria”-the suicide attacks are regularly reported to be performed by a male militant.
This is mainly because female militants are important factors in the continuity and the survival of ISIS’ territorial existence through their production and rearing of children who can continue perpetuating the narrative of ISIS. Encouraging jihadists to marry has been a priority to ISIS as they recognize this to be pivotal to securing their survival as an ideology and as a state. In order to encourage re-production, they devote to the jihadists an allowance of $400 as a bonus for each child. With male militants leading military operations, female militants are crucial to the structure of the average ISIS household where the male holds less significance than the female militant because he is expected to face death anytime, whilst female militants can remarry another jihadist to resume the cycle of re-production. This role allocation marks a regression in the role of the male militant in the household, because he is dispensable, and can be replaced, and this gives a pivotal power to ISIS female militant.
The image of ISIS female militants is changing because the roles they play within the insurgency have evolved. Though female militants in Raqqa pose carrying weapons and dream of being martyrs, the narrative that surrounds them is full of references to food, love, poetry, marriage, and cleaning; images which reflect the celebration of these women and their daily lives rather than their immorality. The female militants are no longer defined and merely driven by the act of jihad but are shown to be wholly celebrating liberation and life in the land of death. It is a false notion of female empowerment which is being exported by ISIS to allure women across the globe to their cause under false pretences.
Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East.