Were the brides of Islamic State cloistered housewives or participants in atrocities?

More background on the women who joined or supported ISIS:

Thousands of foreign-born women left their homes and lives to join Islamic State and marry its fighters. But now that the militant group’s so-called caliphate is reduced to crumbled masonry and scorched rebar, many of them want to return home.

Shamima Begum was a teenage schoolgirl in east London when she left home to join Islamic State; Hoda Muthana, an Alabama-born college student; Kimberly Gwen Polman, a 46-year-old single mom in Canada studying to be a children’s advocate. Now they’re held in a Kurdish-controlled prison in the hinterlands of eastern Syria, asking to be let back into their home countries.

The women branded “ISIS brides,” using initials for the militant group, have become a focal point of fierce debate for governments worldwide: What are states’ responsibilities toward these women?

A central question in that debate is what exactly did the women do in the caliphate? Were they cloistered housewives largely ignorant of the group’s realities, or active participants in its genocidal acts?

Women initially did not join combat

When Islamic State declared the establishment of its caliphate in 2014, it called upon all able-bodied Muslims to emigrate and engage in jihad, or struggle, to further its cause.

Initially, for women, that didn’t include combat, said Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London.

“The role of the Muslim woman ideally was to be a wife and bear children,” he said in a phone interview, “and as a wife and a mother they were participating directly in jihad because they’re creating the next generation of fighters.”

While its militants were waging what Islamic State called “offensive jihad” — blitz campaigns that saw the group put a third of Iraq and Syria each under its dominion — women were to be “bases of support” for husbands, fathers and sons, one wife explained.

Hayat Boumeddiene, the widow of Amedy Coulibaly, the Paris gunman who killed five people in two January 2015 attacks, offered advice for fighters’ wives during a interview in an Islamic State magazine.

“Be advisors to them. They should find comfort and peace with you,” she said in an article in the February 2015 issue of Dabiq. “Do not make things difficult for them. Facilitate all matters for them.”

As a wife and a mother they were participating directly in jihad because they’re creating the next generation of fighters.

Boumeddiene, who like her husband was born in France, is still at large and being sought by French authorities.

Women did claim more operational roles in suicide attacks outside Islamic State territories, said Devorah Margolin, a senior research analyst at the War Studies Department of Kings College London.

But most women who traveled to the caliphate intent on reaching the battlefield were unable to do so.

That changed to a degree as the group began to lose territory and many of its fighters were killed. It began to wage “defensive jihad.”

“By 2017 and 2018 they were proactively calling for women to engage in combat as well,” said Winter.

But there is little evidence women did so in large numbers.

Winter said there had been rumors of women given explosives and weapons training, but Islamic State never confirmed these reports.

There had been predictions women would increasingly take part in suicide bombings, since they generally have an easier time passing through checkpoints and whose faces could remain hidden under their garments.

There was also precedence for their deployment: Abu Musab Zarqawi, the spiritual godfather of Islamic State, dispatched Sajida Rishawi with a suicide vest to the Hotel Radisson in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 2005. She failed to detonate her bomb but was caught by authorities after her husband’s device killed 38 people.

Some carried guns in the religious police force

Islamic State’s religious police, known as the Hisbah, roamed its territory to ensure residents were complying with the caliphate’s harsh edicts. People found in violation faced imprisonment, whipping and amputation. An all-female police force known as the Khansaa Brigade was an integral part of the Hisbah.

“We saw women in the Hisbah. They were all armed,” said Saad Ubaidi, who owns a beauty salon with his wife in Mosul, Iraq.

“Iraqi women had guns, but the foreigners carried ghadaraat,” said Ubaidi, using the slang term for Uzi machine guns.

Women played a vital part in the propaganda war

Women may not have fought on the battlefield, but they helped Islamic State spread its message.

“They were very much part of the propaganda machine of this state-building process,” said Margolin, who is writing a report on women’s role in violent Islamist groups for George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Women were some of Islamic State’s most active recruiters online, she said.

Blogs and social media accounts ostensibly held by foreign-born female adherents advertised their lives as if they were in an Islamist utopia. They encouraged others to do hijrah, emigrate to the caliphate.

Some would provide a guide on how to avoid being identified as someone traveling to Syria to join Islamic State. Others would suggest what to pack for life in the caliphate (makeup and Islamic clothing, according to one blogger), or offer quotidian details on how the group assigned housing to fighters and women.

Others would cheer for the group’s barbarism and gruesome tactics.

Muthana, the Alabama-born student and daughter of a Yemeni diplomat who joined Islamic State in 2014, exhorted Americans to follow her lead.

“Soooo many Aussies and Brits here,” she tweeted from her now-suspended account. “But where are the Americans, wake up u cowards.”

She encouraged those who couldn’t travel to Islamic State territory to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S.

“Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc Day parades..go on drive by’s + spill all of their blood or rent a big truck n drive all over them. Kill them,” she tweeted.

Women took part in the enslavement of Yazidis

In August 2014, the extremists surrounded Mt. Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. They began to hunt the Yazidis, an ancient religious minority long persecuted for their beliefs, which include elements of Christianity and Judaism. Islamic State viewed them as devil-worshipers.

Thousands of Yazidi men were slaughtered; women and girls were kidnapped and driven away to be sold in markets or given as gifts. In their enslavement, the women and girls would be servants to the household’s wife and raped by the husband.

One wife of an Islamic State member with a Yazidi enslaved in her household defended the practice in an issue of Dabiq. Her article was entitled “Slave-girls or Prostitutes?”

The woman, who called herself Umm Sumayyah al Muhajirah, cited religious texts and the works of scholars to construct an argument for taking Yazidi women as concubines. And she dismissed reports of abuse, attributing them to “devious and wicked slave girls” who “made up lies and wrote false stories.”

And whereas sex with a Yazidi slave is permissible, she adds, prostitutes in the West “openly commit sin.”

“Leave us alone with your burping,” she wrote of people judging the slave practice.

Pinning down what each person did will be difficult

Investigators looking for clues to the individual actions of each woman, away from social media, will have a difficult time gathering evidence admissible in a court of law.

“In the U.S., we’ve had 16 people who returned that we know of, 13 have been prosecuted in federal courts, so there’s a system to do it,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

But most of those were people who admitted their actions, he added. For those who don’t, investigators using Islamic State documents, for example, have to have a rock-solid chain of evidence, which is difficult to establish in the chaotic environment of a war zone.

Witnesses, often intelligence or security personnel, are often reluctant to testify in open court, and identifying women dressed in three-layer niqabs, the de rigueur face covering, will be unreliable.

Even the social media presence these women maintained is being lost. Blogging sites like Tumblr or WordPress, and messaging platforms such as Telegram, have aggressively shut down the accounts of Islamic State-affiliated users.

In any case, said Margolin, the women probably weren’t lying when they said they had been mostly concerned with family matters, but that didn’t absolve them of responsibility.

“Yes, they were wives and mothers, but what that means isn’t like what we mean when we think of a housewife,” said Margolin.

As the bearers of the group’s ideology for the next generation of fighters, she said, they were pursuing a higher objective.

“They represented,” said Margolin, “the future and permanence of Islamic State.”

Source: Were the brides of Islamic State cloistered housewives or participants in atrocities?

The West Needs to Take the Politics of Women in ISIS Seriously

Well worth reading and reflecting upon that these were conscious choices by the women involved and that they should not be portrayed as victims:

In recent weeks, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have closed in on the last remaining Islamic State holdout in eastern Syria. The remains of the so-called caliphate occupy less than half of a square mile of a small village called Baghuz, and all but a few hundred remaining insurgents have been driven out of the area by U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish ground operations. Over a thousand fighters and civilians, including many Islamic State militants’ wives and children, have fled. The SDF houses them in camps such as al-Hol, where humanitarian conditions are dire and the application of international law is ambiguous at best.

In the camps, the muhajirat, that is, Western women who joined the Islamic State, are easy to find. And tales of muhajirat like the American Hoda Muthana and the British Shamima Begum “begging to come home” have dominated headlines over the last two weeks. Their stories are part of a wave of recent coverage of Islamic State women, much of it pointing to a supposedly new and uniquely dangerous “Islamic State women problem.” Unfortunately, many of these accounts rest on flimsy scholarship and irresponsible reporting. The sensationalist, politicized, and often factually misleading nature of some reports masks complex political dynamics and peddles tired cliches about women in war, now cast with Iraqis and Syrians instead of Palestinian, Chechen, Timorese, Lebanese, Tamil, or Nigerian women.

The persistent appeal and shock value of the “beautiful but deadly” female fighter depends on an assumption that women have no politics and that their only natural role in times of conflict is to play the (usually sexualized) victim. Media coverage and rhetoric that reduces conflict-affected women to rape victims, sex slaves, or, most recently, “ISIS brides” lends itself to policy responses that have terrible consequences for innocent people. Women’s presumed victimhood has been deployed to justify military intervention, to excuse or obscure widespread human rightsabuses of civilians, and to privilege the judgment of external actors or local male elites over the perspectives of local women about what they need in the aftermath of war. Over-simplified victimization narratives are so entrenched that evidence of women’s political agency in wartime reads as either false consciousness (“ISIS lures women with kittens, Nutella”) or as a monstrous upending of femininity and the natural order.

Sensationalized accounts may garner far more clicks thansober social science, but the bland truth is that women in the Islamic State fall into well-established patterns.

For one, the idea that armed extremism has only recently become attractive to women is simply false. Since shortly after the Islamic State’s inception, women have taken on armed and unarmed roles in it; they have served as police in the group’s all-female Khansaa Brigade, as members of the all-female counterinsurgency brigade Umm al-Rayan, and as recruiters and propagandists. Both foreign and domestic recruits have participated in the brutal torture of Yazidi captives while also playing more domestic roles supporting male Islamic State fighters. Toggling back and forth between violent and nonviolent activities is not unique to the women who have participated in the Islamic State, however. In fact, this is the norm.

Further, although some reports have painted women’s voluntary participation in the Islamic State as unexpected given the group’s ideas about gender, it is not surprising in light of the histories of women in other Islamist and violent movements. Although less likely in groups that identify with Salafi doctrines, women’s participation, including in combat roles, still occurs. For example, women made significant support and frontline contributions to groups in Kashmir and fundamentalist organizations in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

More nuanced reporting on women who joined the Islamic State highlights a broad range of motivations for joining, including survival and coercion as well as status and deeply held commitments to the group’s doctrines. This, too, is consistent with extensive research on women’s participation in other conflicts, which finds that their motivations are deeply political and suggests that they generally have the same reasons for joining armed organizations as men do. Portraying Islamic State women’s behavior as unique to this organization is decontextualizing and counterproductive. It feeds into arguments about the singular brutality of the Islamic State that have been used to justify a heavily military-focused response likely to undermine post-conflict recovery.

Western governments would do well to confront the fact that many Islamic State women reported feeling more liberated after they had joined, not because they liked fighting but because they believed that men in the Islamic State respected their commitment as Muslims. Many of the muhajirat in particular reported fleeing isolation, disaffection, and discrimination as Muslim women in the West. Stripping them of citizenship and otherwise treating Muslims as second-class citizens has every chance of contributing to the dynamics that led women to join in the first place. The same goes for blanket suspicion of anyone wearing a niqab.

Portraying the women of the Islamic State exclusively as victims to be saved or monsters to be feared strips women of their humanity and denies them the complexity, nuance, and depth that media and policymakers readily afford to men. Post-conflict policy that fails to take women’s politics seriously will only feed cycles of violence and impede the pursuit of a sustainable peace.

Source: The West Needs to Take the Politics of Women in ISIS Seriously

Punishment or Banishment?

A rather curious article that lumps some of the Canadian worries regarding returning ISIS fighters (including wives)  with citizenship revocation.

The Liberal government reversed the Conservative government’s change to the Citizenship Act that allowed for revocation in cases of terror or treason

The statelessness provisions in most other countries require having a second nationality in order for citizenship to be revoked which makes the process more difficult to implement (as UK is finding out with respect to Begum not having Bangladeshi citizenship  and Australia with Prakash not having Fijian citizenship).

In the Canadian case, the issue is whether or not Canada should provide normal consular services (e.g., as we do to Canadians on death row in the USA) or make efforts to facilitate their return to Canada.

The former may be difficult given where they are being held and the latter, as many have noted, raises the possibility that there may not be enough evidence to prosecute successfully in Canada.

And while all have justified sympathy for their children, no sympathy for the mothers who made a conscious decision to support ISIS and its horrors and thus have to live with the consequences.

While the mothers have the right to return to Canada, no need for special government efforts to facilitate their return:

So-called jihadi brides are in the news, accused of supporting terrorism by having travelled to ISIS territory to marry ISIS fighters in support of the caliphate. Three Western states are implicated: the UK, the US, and Canada.

UK citizen Shemima Begum left the UK four years ago, when she was 15 years old, and surfaced last month at a Syrian refugee camp, heavily pregnant. US citizen Hoda Muthana, then a college student, left the US four years ago, using her tuition money to buy a ticket to Turkey, from which she was smuggled into ISIS territory. She is now detained in refugee camp in northeastern Syria. Kimberly Gwen Polman, born in Hamilton, Ontario, is a dual Canadian–US national who converted to Islam. She became persuaded by a Syrian fighter online that her incipient nursing skills would be of great value to the caliphate. She left the US in 2015 to join the caliphate, only to attempt to escape nearly a year later. But then she was jailed (and raped) and forced to sign a document acknowledging that if she were to attempt escape again, her punishment would be death. All three women have publicly announced their desire to return home this week.

The UK government reacted swiftly, announcing its intention to remove the citizenship of Begum, thereby denying her the right to return home. Recent official statements suggest UK authorities believe she is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship, so revoking her British citizenship will not result in statelessness. US President Donald Trump announced over the weekend that all states should be ready to repatriate (i.e., bring home) and punish their “own” foreign fighters, but then tweeted that he had directed Mike Pompeo “not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!” Canadian officials have been relatively quiet on their intentions. A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada statedonly that “The government is aware of some Canadian citizens currently detained in Syria. There is no legal obligation to facilitate their return.”

These cases are not identical. Begum was a child when she left the UK and is now a mother to a newborn baby boy. Muthana’s choices were exacerbated by her use of social media to celebrate and encourage violence. Polman is known to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. What they share is the right to return home to face trial and punishment in their countries of citizenship.

All states have justice systems in place so that suspected wrongdoers can be tried and punished. Democratic justice systems are those that respect due process rights: the rights to a fair trial, including adequate legal representation, which permits the relevant evidence to be adjudicated by trained judges and, where relevant, juries of their peers.

It is conventional to say that citizens must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and this convention holds even where there appears to be incontrovertible evidence of guilt. Its purpose is to allow the possibility that what looks like a slam-dunk case is murkier upon examination, to ensure that in collecting evidence all of the rights of the accused were respected, and furthermore to allow for the presentation of extenuating circumstances that can complicate what seems like a simple guilty verdict.

There is more to criminal justice in democracies, moreover, than how the accused are treated during the trial phase. The punishments must also meet democratic criteria. It is a principle of punishment in democratic states that any citizen, no matter how criminal, must be treated as someone who can re-enter the community of equals from which she was temporarily excluded by punishment. This principle is why the death penalty must be rejected. It is also why denationalization must also be rejected.

Denationalization of terrorists, the process of revoking citizenship from those suspected of terrorist activities, is gaining in popularity in democratic states, who are rushing to prove they are tough on terror. Denationalizing terrorists is good politics.

Nevertheless, denationalization is unjust and undemocratic. It permits states to abandon citizens who are entitled to their protection in dangerous locations, in principle free to commit additional crimes. The Trudeau government recognized as much when it overturned the parts of the Strengthening Citizenship Act that permitted the revocation of citizenship. Weaselly words stating that Canada is not under the obligation to facilitate the return of suspected wrongdoers reveal an unwillingness to stand by the commitment implied by Mr. Trudeau’s now famous statement, “A Canadian is a Canadian.” Canadians, even criminal Canadians, are entitled to have their rights protected by Canada.

By revoking citizenship, states punish citizens suspected of criminal activities by banishing them, in advance of conviction. They treat them as unworthy of having their rights protected, as beyond the pale, rather than as individuals who in time can learn the error of their ways. These women must be returned to their states of citizenship so that we, their fellow-citizens, can judge their actions and, if appropriate, witness their just punishments.

Source: Punish homegrown terrorists. Don’t revoke their citizenship