By Rafia Zakaria
March 24, 2015
Last month three schoolgirls from East London flew to Turkey and crossed into Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The news generated a media frenzy and raised a lot of questions. Why would women from the West run away to join a barbaric militant group? How can they be stopped? What attractions is ISIL dangling before them? Are they misinformed and oppressed Muslim girls or radicalized extremists brandishing their own militant form of empowerment?
The search for answers has mobilized the cottage industry of self-appointed terrorism analysts, who are culling information mostly from tweets and other comments by female ISIL recruits on social media. Also, it has enabled women such as The Telegraph’s Emma Barnett to get into a game otherwise dominated by men.
“Stop pitying British schoolgirls joining Islamic State,” she wrote on Feb. 23. “People insist upon dismissing these girls as victims — bestowing them with pity instead of the anger and scorn that is lavished upon the young Western men joining ISIL.”
Barnett’s frustration illustrates the Western conundrum over Muslim women. On one end stands the liberated Western woman as the model of ultimate fulfillment for Muslim women who are supposedly hapless, submissive and long suffering. On the other end stands the brutality of ISIL — militant, subversive, barbaric and, most alarming, oppressive to Muslim women, so the story goes. The mystery is why some Western Muslim women are siding with ISIL instead of Western feminism.
The Failure of Men
An estimated 550 women from Western countries, at least 100 of them from Britain, are believed to have answered ISIL’s calls and relocated to territories under the group’s control. The reports of Muslim girls giving up their freedoms in the West to join ISIL’s ranks sharply contradict the stereotypical view of Muslim women as submissive and oppressed.
But most Western analyses are informed by dual and contradictory motives: a need to underscore ISIL’s evilness against the attempt to understand why women who have a chance at gender equality in the West are choosing ISIL’s segregated world. This rush to highlight the group’s barbarity — in which judgment trumps and often precedes examination — leaves Western analysts blind to ISIL’s political positions and appeal, particularly to Western Muslim women.
Unlike other radical groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, ISIL is actively recruiting women and devoting resources to articulating their place in the movement. Last month a London-based think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, released a translation of ISIL’s manifesto on the role of women, produced by the group’s all-female Al-Khansaa Brigade. In a lengthy preface appended to the translation, Quilliam reminds readers that ISIL “is no different from any other jihadist group” and that “it’s fundamentally misogynist and within its interpretation of Islamism, the role of women is ‘divinely’ limited.”
Quilliam’s analysis ignores ISIL’s emphasis on the role of women in early Islam as leaders and its calls for the continuation of that tradition. In fact, ISIL’s manifesto criticizes men for failing to “shoulder the responsibility allocated toward their ummah [community], religion or people.” The problem, the document asserts, is “the rise in the number of emasculated men.” Perhaps the emphasis on emasculation reflects the brigade’s position within ISIL: a female contingent activated into duty because of the presumed failure of Muslim men.
The theme of men’s failure to rise up against foreign invasions of Muslim countries, which necessitated women to join combat, reappears in the context of the debate over allowing women to leave their home alone. ISIL maintains that women are permitted to abandon their domestic roles for jihad “if the enemy is attacking her country and the men are not enough to protect it and the imams give a fatwa for it.” Here again, Al-Khansaa Brigade appears to relish highlighting the failures of men for creating the conditions for Muslim women to enter the battlefield.
The act of joining ISIL can be seen as a militant rebellion against the enduring Western construction of the Muslim woman as the lesser feminist.
Western analysts have also neglected the possibility that, through its repetitive disavowal of gender equality, ISIL’s manifesto may be targeting those women who have found feminism’s quest for parity hollow and unfulfilling. As such, these women may consider joining ISIL because they have given up on equality altogether. For example, a recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue uses “data” mined almost entirely “from Twitter, Tumblr and Ask.fm” and purports to examine why female fighters are migrating to ISIL-controlled territory and the reality of their lives in the self-proclaimed caliphate. However, this analysis focuses on the religious reasons the women have joined ISIL — reasons they share with their male comrades — and completely ignores ISIL’s dialogue with equality-centered feminism.
The emerging analysis fails to even consider the fact that ISIL’s female recruits may see gender segregation, freely chosen, as a solution to the discrimination, abuse and other problems facing women. Indeed, Al-Khansaa’s manifesto contains a critique of various feminist issues. For example, it denounces plastic surgery (and its inherent degradations), which leads women to “demand that surgeons change their nose, ear, chin and nails,” as well as an untrammeled careerism, which drives women to “farthest mountains and deepest valleys” in pursuit of an unachievable equality while accruing gobs of guilt for neglecting their jobs as mothers.
Al-Khansaa’s feminist dialogue with the West also addresses issues of motherhood and maternity leave. It prescribes that a woman’s work outside the home “should not exceed more than three days a week” and must take into account necessities such as “illness of a child and travel of a husband” and that she must be given “two years of maternity leave at least.”
Here ISIL’s position is similar to the postfeminist qualms expressed by Ruth Fowler in a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera America. “New mothers are treated more as profit centers for hospitals and burdens for employers than as the linchpin of a healthy society,” she wrote of new mothers in the United States. “Mothers are often given only weeks to recover from the huge physical, emotional and financial upheaval of birth before they are expected to be back in a work environment, where they will face prejudice for being mothers and risk consequences if they bring that role into their employment.”
The confluence between the gripes expressed by Fowler and Al-Khansaa’s dangling of two years of paid maternity leave and a pointedly high valuation of what women do in the home is not accidental. It is a classic postfeminist response to the devaluation of domestic and maternal labor in Western society.
Alternative Muslim Feminisms
To be sure, there are other and more equality-centered, nonmilitant and truly empowering feminisms available to Muslim women. In a new book, “Men in Charge?” authors Ziba Mir Hosseini, Zainah Anwar and Jana Rumminger write about their efforts to reinterpret Islamic law using women-centered perspectives. The authors report on the efforts to transform legislation in Egypt and present arguments for gender equality whose roots are in the holy Quran and Sunna, an Islamic way of life based on the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad.
However, the authors’ efforts, which are centered on solidarity with Western feminists, were either given nominal mentions in Western media or more often simply ignored. In being allied with the West, their project doesn’t rely on the civilizational contrasts manipulated by ISIL and is unable to provide a political platform against Western transgressions such as the deadly U.S. invasion of Iraq and the carnage in Afghanistan.
Such political failures render equality-centered Muslim feminism insipid against ISIL’s luridly anti-Western, attention-grabbing propaganda. Prominent Muslim feminists such as Anwar and Hosseini thus remain stuck looking like the submissive sisters to Western feminism. Meanwhile, ISIL’s promises of revenge for Western interventions and weapons and access to the battlefield to make up for the inadequacies of Muslim men may resonate more with some Muslim women’s desires for empowerment.
Barnett is right in suggesting that no one should pity the young Muslim girls joining ISIL’s ranks. Theirs is a subversive and militant agenda that does not frown at destruction or the mass killing of innocents. However, this very premise of pity and its habitual and racist allotment to Muslim women is part of the reason ISIL manages to lure Muslim girls living in the West.
The act of joining ISIL can be seen as a militant rebellion against the enduring Western construction of the Muslim woman as the lesser feminist. This in turn makes ISIL’s vision of gender relations — which is based on segregation and separation rather than equality and parity — appear original, authentic and even empowering in the eyes of those who are joining the group.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”