By Jessica Marano, M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University
At the end of 2015, the Government of Canada was aware of more than 180 individuals who travelled abroad and were suspected of participating in terrorism-related activities. Typically, foreign fighters are male and counter-terrorism strategies continue to focus on the group’s male militants. However, today, Muslim women are increasingly joining the global jihad and holding various roles. Women from European countries, as well as from the United States, Canada, and Australia, amount to 10% of the total number of foreign fighters who have travelled to Syria. Unlike their male counterparts, women’s primary contribution to the political movement is to be a wife to the soldiers, give birth to the future fighters, and be active political representatives for the terrorist group online.
Foreign Women and the Fight in Syria
Who Are the Women Travelling to Syria?
A 2015 study conducted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, estimates that there are a total of 3,000 Western migrants in Syria, with as many as 550 being women. Lorne Dawson, co-director of the University of Waterloo’s Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, and her team has identified 10 of these women to be Canadian.
Research suggests that the majority of the women joining the ISIS have had difficulty in school, were marginalized in Western society, were vulnerable and impressionable, and followed a strict interpretation of Islamic law. For instance, in the summer of 2014, Umm Haritha, a 20 years old Canadian citizen, made her way to Turkey against her parents’ wishes. Umm Haritha told reporters that she began wearing a niqab, a veil that leaves only the eyes visible, for four months before she left for Syria. During this time, she says she experienced harassment from fellow Canadians. In an interview she said, “I would get mocked in public, people shoved me and told me to go back to my country and spoke to me like I was mentally ill or didn’t understand English. Life was degrading and an embarrassment and nothing like the multicultural freedom of expression and religion they make it out to be, and when I heard that the Islamic State had Islamic law, it became an automatic obligation upon me…”
Why Do They Go?
The motivations of women who contribute to the struggle in Syria can vary from person to person; however, research suggests that the motivations of the young women are not necessarily much different from the motivations of the young men. Primarily, there is an inherent assumption that Muslims are being targeted and oppressed throughout the world. Another prominent motivation is the desirability of adventure, in addition to rebelling against their immediate environment and family, and rather becoming a devout Muslim. Since ISIS’s self-proclaimed “statehood” on June 29, 2014 muhajirats regularly refer to this announcement with pride and admiration, and utilize it to motivate other Muslim women to travel to IS territory.
Another reason for why women rally to the IS, is the belief of finding love or romance. Men are ideologically represented as courageous fighters and for some women, the idea of being married to a heroic fighter who is willing to sacrifice himself for a greater cause is an appealing one. Being married to a fighter can also have advantages. If the husband dies as a martyr, the wives’ status in the community increases considerably.
Finally, belonging and having a purpose in a sisterhood has been identified as being highly appealing for British Muslim migrants, especially if they experienced exclusion or alienation in Western society. Although, women post that giving up and leaving their family and friends is hard, the friendships they get in return makes every other friendship fade. Female migrants celebrate being a part of the “caliphate sisterhood” and employ this sense of belonging to attract others who may be searching for acceptance.
Women’s Role in the Islamic State
To draw numerous women to the caliphate, the insurgency strategically markets the role of a wife by romanticizing jihadi marriages via social media and by providing fairy tale depictions of nuptials between ISIS soldiers and his wife. According to ISIS, wives are required to support the mujahedeen [jihadist fighters] and have basic medical training to take care of the wounded. In addition, women must be able to cook food that provides the fighters with energy and repair any damaged clothing. Furthermore, it is her obligation to win over her husband’s heart and be a source of comfort during the fight in the Holy War. This includes satisfying their husband’s needs for sexual intimacy.
Homa Khaleeli, of The Guardian, noted that young, school-age girls back in Britain find appeal in this “romanticized” role ISIS offers. Female migrants themselves reinforce such notions, as one female migrant tweeted, “I came here for hijrah, to take care of my husband and fellow mujahideen, and to fulfill my duties as a Muslim woman.” Another migrant commented about her role as a mother and wife on Tumblr stating, “This is the reality my dear sisters. We are created to be mothers and wives…sisters don’t forsake this beautiful blessing being able to raise the future mujahideens.”
In an interview conducted by text message, Umm Haritha said her decision to join the jihad in Syria was motivated by a desire to “live a life of honour” under Islamic law rather than the laws of unbelievers. Umm Haritha was married to Taha Shade, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Suedi, a 26-year-old Palestinian from Sweden fighting for ISIS; however, ever since her husband’s death she has been living in a house with the widows of other fallen jihadists. Umm Haritha also operates a blog where she offers guidance to other women who are considering moving to Syria to marry a jihadist and establish families in the newly declared caliphate. Umm Haritha said she has no plans to return to Canada and said most foreigners living under the Islamic State have ripped up their passports.
Motherhood is a well-defined element of the ISIS experience for women. The organization uses Qur’anic scriptures to support its core beliefs regarding motherhood. Women are expected to birth the next generation and be able to raise children to be brave and courageous, fearing none other than Allah and hating the kafir [the non-believers]. According to researchers at the University of Waterloo, three Canadian women have given birth to children of ISIS fighters, while another two are pregnant. However, in the end, the reality for the women being recruited is far different than what is promised. Upon arrival, they are quickly married and put to work. They are essentially seen as tools for sex, procreation, domestic labour, and recruiting.
Studies indicate that ISIS predominately relies on Western female recruits to share their experience as residents in IS territories on Twitter and Tumblr. The objective of the propaganda campaign is to motivate women from abroad to perform hijrah to the ISIS. Female migrants are seen as avid propagandists and devoted proselytizers, dedicated to promoting ISIS’s campaign of state building and expansion. For instance, the Al-Khansaa, an all-female brigade released a manifesto on the role of women in the IS. Throughout the manifesto, the emphasis was placed on marriage, motherhood, and family support.
ISIS has slowly begun to use women in other ways. ISIS views women’s participation in terrorism as an untapped resource and is increasingly willing to make concessions in it ideology. The manner in which women are often treated in patriarchal societies actually works to the advantage of terrorist organizations in the Middle East. To start, women in these societies tend to wear bulkier clothes than the men because of the modest way they dress, often in long robes. Therefore, it is easier for them to smuggle weapons and bombs under their robes than it is for men. Furthermore, because of the cultural norms against invasively searching or touching women, oftentimes, a man is more likely to be patted down than a woman at a checkpoint, and thus female suicide bombers are known to have a higher success rate than male operatives. Lastly, women have raised less suspicion than men because they are seen as weaker and less likely to carry out vicious attacks. They are seen as mothers and therefore are often underestimated, while in fact, they can be just as dangerous, if not more, than male suicide bombers.
In February 2014, the IS announced the formation of an all-female brigade. The Brigade is made up of around 25 to 30 women who are tasked with patrolling the streets of Raqqa, ISIS’s stronghold in Syria. The brigade ensures that women adhere to the laws outlined by the Islamic State, gathers intelligence, oversee the slaves, and recruits other individuals. Majority of the local women who join ISIS are members of this brigade, as these women possess intimate knowledge of the native people, local community, and Islamic culture. Although the IS is beginning to employ women in more operational activities, when asked anonymously if the sisters were planning on fighting on the battlefield, one female migrant stated, “there is nothing for women here with regards to qitaal [fighting] or anything of that sort right now, believe me I have tried.”
The phenomenon of females leaving their country of residence to participate in foreign conflicts will not disappear, however, if governments, policy makers, and counter-terrorism experts can acquire a better understanding of who these women are and why they are joining the IS, in addition to determining the activities they undertake, it could be possible to prevent or reduce the amount of women travelling to Syria.