Who are the women who join Isis?

Anakana Schofield

There isn't much primary source material on the foreign women who have gone voluntarily to Syria and Iraq and chosen to live under the Islamic State, alongside the thousands of women Isis have kidnapped, beaten, raped, forced to convert and sold into sexual slavery. We know the places the volunteers have left but can only speculate as to why.

The women who join Isis are often referred to as female foreign fighters or women jihadis. But according to Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade, in a section headed ‘secondary functions of a woman’, it would require a fatwa for them actively to fight, ‘as the blessed women of Iraq and Chechnya did, with great sadness’.

The manifesto has been translated by the Quilliam Foundation, ‘the world’s first counter-extremism think tank’, which says that it is aimed at recruiting Arab women, especially from Saudi Arabia. It is supposedly written by women but doesn’t sound like it. It reads as if written by a bunch of men squashed in a hot shed.

The manifesto could be summed up in the line: ‘If men were men then women would be women.’ It says ‘people are dazzled by the adornments in this world which are the fruit of the enemy of God’ and have forgotten that ‘worship is the only reason for their existence.’ Women ‘are not fulfilling their fundamental roles’; ‘woman was created to populate the earth’; there’s ‘no responsibility greater than that of being a wife to her husband’.

Above all, women are told they should stay indoors: ‘women have this Heavenly secret in sedentariness, stillness and stability, and men its opposite, movement and flux.’ Apart from to wage jihad ‘by appointment’, women ‘may go out to serve the community’ as doctors or teachers. But ‘the most common reason’ for leaving the house ‘is for studying the sciences of religion’. Women are advised ‘to train themselves and bring up their girls according to how God has ordained it’. The manifesto is keen to discredit any notion that the Islamic State is anti-education. ‘Education is mandatory’ and the manifesto’s authors do not ‘support illiteracy, backwardness or ignorance’.

The curriculum proposed for girls between the ages of 7 and 15 consists of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), religion, Quranic Arabic and science. More religious studies are added between 10 and 12 along with ‘skills like textiles and knitting, basic cooking will also be taught.’ From 13 there’s to be less science and ‘more of a focus on Shariah’, along with ‘more manual skills (especially those related to raising children)’ and Islamic history.

The curriculum could however be interrupted since ‘it is considered legitimate for a girl to be married at the age of nine’ (this is the line that got most media attention in the West) though ‘most pure girls will be married by sixteen or seventeen, while they are still young and active. Young men will not be more than twenty years old in those glorious generations.’

There’s a puzzling analogy to support the importance of veiling: ‘It is always preferable for a woman to remain hidden and veiled, to maintain society from behind this veil. This, which is always the most difficult role, is akin to that of a director, the most important person in a media production, who is behind the scenes organising.’

What bearing the manifesto has on the reality of life under Isis is unclear. Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, a report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, relies on collated social media and blog posts to examine the reasons women go to Syria and Iraq, give a portrait of their daily life and evaluate of the threat they may pose to the UK.

There’s no way of knowing for sure that the various dispatches and meanderings on which the report is based were uploaded from Raqqah or Tabqah, rather than a Hounslow bedsit. Describing their methodology, the researchers say that ‘the women have been designated as ISIS migrants if they self-identify as migrants in ISIS-controlled territory... evidence from photographs, online interactions with other ISIS accounts, and media reports’ were also used ‘to help determine the probability that the person is actually in Syria or Iraq’.

If we assume the voices are genuine, several tumblrs in particular provide quite comprehensive daily dispatches:

Sometimes, my husband will be away for so long and I have to get groceries for my self. I remember there were period of time I would go alone to the market.

During my first trimester, I had severe fatigue, and walking for five minutes was such a big challenge for me. I remember once I almost passed out in the crowd, so I sat by the shop-lot to gain some strength. An old man who sat not too far away from me, came and offered me his chair. Later he brought me something to eat (a pear).

One woman receives a combination of queries about trying to make the pilgrimage and goading messages wishing her dead; she responds to them all.

The women sound very young and earnest, their posts punctuated by memes and photos like any exchange on social media. They record their journeys and adjustment to life in the Caliphate. They justify beheadings and encourage other young women to follow them using the same kind of motivational language you’d find on dieting forums, except with more references to God’s will. Single women are warned not to turn up without the intention of getting married, and there’s such practical stuff as bring warm clothes and medication (including for diarrhoea and constipation) and even ‘bring good make-up since you will barely find the real stuff here.’ One French parent told Lara Marlowe of the Irish Times that her jihadi son sounded as if he were on a school trip, and there’s something of that here, a sense of sisterhood and pitching in. Also, a hint of surprise that not all the locals are thrilled by their presence. None of these women appears to be adhering absolutely to the sedentary, indoor life prescribed by the manifesto.

 Darshna Soni on Channel 4 News last October interviewed the family of a British woman who had said she was going on holiday to Spain but travelled instead to Syria with her toddler. The story was later taken up by the Sun as the woman had escaped to Turkey and was pleading with her father to come and collect her. The Sun arranged a brief ‘emotional reunion’ with her father. The Burton Mail reported on 10 February that ‘she is still being questioned in Turkey.’