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In the Name of ISIL. Reflections on the Status of Women in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

Seminararbeit 2019 23 Seiten

Geschlechterstudien / Gender Studies



1. Introduction
1.1 Methodology

2. An Ideology of Differences
2.1. ISIL Women vs. ISIL Men
2.2. ISIL Women vs. Western Women
2.3. ISIL Women vs. Kafir Women

3. The Political Sphere
3.1. A Gender-Based Apartheid System
3.2. The Female Jihad
3.3. The All-Female Al-Khanssaa Brigade

4. The Media
4.1. A Space for Women
4.2 The Notion of Sisterhood
4.3 An Alternative Vision of Liberation and Empowerment

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography
6.1. Primary Sources
6.2. Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

Women joining and serving terrorist groups is not a new phenomenon. However, the large number of female recruits also from Western parts of the world together with ISIL’s gender-targeted propaganda strategy, its specific policy on women and its strict gender apparatus made it rather unique. The global dimension with women having joined from all over the world to support the establishment of a global caliphate adds yet another level to the complexities and historical relevance of this phenomenon.

A lot has been written about ISIL’s gender-specific recruitment practices, the motivations of women to join ISIL as well as the particular functions of and conditions for women from a security perspective, particularly with view to counter-terrorism aspirations and the broader “Women, Peace and Security” (WPS) agenda addressing also women’s right’s concerns including Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV). ISIL women are thus mostly portrayed as either committed jihadists or victims of a brutal regime.

Less has been written though on ISIL’s gender ideology from a feminist perspective, although various sources list “liberation from the West” as one of the main motivators for women to join ISIL. The literature also neglects somewhat the political dimension of ISIL’s gender apparatus. Considering women’s contributions to a larger state-building project it is rather surprising that the literature has not taken these perspectives up in depth.

In this paper I, therefore, set out to combine these angles to provide a more nuanced perspective on ISIL women by analyzing their prescribed roles and positions in the Islamic State in light of particular norms1 that many feminists adhere to in order to transcend the debate between global and Islamic feminism. I will lay a particular focus on the political dimension that is interwoven with the role of ISIL women in the establishment of a global caliphate and identify some of the intricacies thereof.

More specifically, the construction of differences between women and men as well as among different types of women served as a main instrument for ISIL’s gender ideology in this larger state-building project. I, thus, aim to address and answer the following question in this paper: How did the construction of differences inherent to ISIL’s gender ideology shape the discursive construction of the role and position of women in the Islamic State and the Levante?

1.1 Methodology

To answer my research question, I will analyze ISIL’s manifesto on women “Women of the Islamic State” issued by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade - ISIL’s all-female police force and media wing - and its online magazines Rumiyah and Dabiq. My primary sources are limited to those that were written in English; there are further sources published in Arabic, that will not be considered in this paper due to my own language limitations.

I will first give an account of how difference is discursively constructed in the Islamic State and subsequently show how it discursively shapes the roles and position of women at ISIL. As units of analysis I will use Cunningham’s seven spheres of influence relating to those facets of society that must be reached to transform any society for it to bloom and reach its highest potential of development. (Cunningham, 2007) I will thereby reflect on the before-mentioned norms to give a feminist account of the discursive construction of women’s roles and positions in those spheres, which can be deemed essential for the establishment of the global caliphate.

Two things need to be mentioned at this point: a) I will use the spheres as units of analysis devoid of their religious connotation relating my analysis solely to this idea: if these spheres are needed to be reached to transform a society in a religious way, I suggest that the role of propaganda is also most effective when targeting those spheres in a gender-specific way; b) Due to the restricted number of words assigned for this paper, I will limit my analysis to the spheres of “government”, which I will rename “political sphere” as ISIL did not directly have a government in place, and “media” to cover, what I deem to be the most important public spheres for ISIL’S gender ideology to be propagated.

In the chapter “The Political Sphere”, I will work with Von Knop’s gender-specific interpretation of the “female jihad”. This conceptualization builds on the idea that women do not predominantly seek the male’s honor by engaging physically in the conduct of hostilities but rather experience emancipation by supporting and facilitating terrorist operations “from behind” allowing them to gain strong influence on the current and next generation of jihadists. (2007) Providing a more nuanced perspective, I consider this concept more fitting for my analysis than the frequently used interpretation of jihad, which relates solely to physical fighting, a role reserved for men, leaving no place for women in it.

I will also work with Chesler’s concept of “gender apartheid” relating to a rather asymmetric form of sex segregation including "practices which condemn girls and women to a separate and subordinate sub-existence and which turn boys and men into the permanent guardians of their female relatives' chastity". (2011) I consider it a more matching concept for the situation in the Islamic State in that it goes beyond the mere segregation of the sexes including the social and economic disempowerment of individuals and recognizes the danger of severe physical harm such practices can result in.

2. An Ideology of Differences

ISIL‘s gender ideology is imprinted by the construction of differences between, on the one hand ISIL women and ISIL men, on the other hand between ISIL women and other women, notably Western Women and kafir women. These constructions are grounded in certain beliefs or presumptions of the nature of women as derived from the Shari‘ah. As the words of Allah are considered the ultimate truth, the nature of women as construed at ISIL constitutes the basis for their role in society and the norm from which all deviations are assessed. Such assessments are accompanied by value judgements as the nature of women is seen as God-given and thus as something fixed, so that any aspect of diversity or fluidity is ruled out. The construction of differences thus seems to serve a larger polarization project.

2.1. ISIL Women vs. ISIL Men

In Dabiq ISIL women are considered “the twin halves” of ISIL men (D8, p. 33) The Manifesto on Women of the Islamic State (subsequently the Manifesto) explains this with a reference made to Quran 30:21 for “[...] she was made from Adam and for Adam. […] From this it is inferred that women are in no position equal to men nor should they desire to be so; it is men that are in charge of women. The Manifesto therefore proclaims that women should not imitate nor rule men for it warns that otherwise humanity will be thrown into a “state of flux instability”. (p. 17-18) From this sura also follows the attraction of man to woman and of woman to man. Dabiq declares everything beyond as sexual perversion with “sodomy” as its worst. (D15, p. 21) Hence, the inferiority of women and heteronormativity of all people are derived as given from this sura ruling out any kind of sexual pluralism.

Women’s nature and role is further defined by reference to the second half of this sura as follows: “And of His signs is that He created for you from you yourselves mates t hat you may find tranquility in them; […] In this sense, the Manifesto ascribes characteristics such as sedentariness, stillness and stability to women, while men are associated with their opposites of movement and flux. (p. 19) These black-and-white characteristics bestow dominance upon men and the role of implementation upon women, who are to realize men’s instructions. This is considered to make for “an equilibrium agreed upon from the birth of all human” (M, p. 18)

Dabiq further describes women as “fragile as glass bottles” (D8, p. 34) so that men are held to rise above harming women. Man is characterized in the Manifesto by “goodness and sympathy toward the weak”. (p. 18) This, of course, does not make for a convincing case for the prevention of SGBV in the Islamic State, where the stoning of women guilty of adultery is stated in Dabiq as a just punishment according to the Shari’ah. (D2, p. 36)

2.2. ISIL Women vs. Western Women

Religion and chastity are stipulated as the two most important qualities in ISIL women in the Manifesto (p. 26), whose greatest responsibility is that of being wives to their husband (M, p. 17) leading a sedentary and simple life that is much confined to their homes. In Dabiq Mother Marry is considered the equivalent role model for the true woman in the West, who is found to be an “endangered creature”. (D15, p. 23) Western women are said to have become unprincipled displaying too much of their bodies, abandoning motherhood, wifehood and heterosexuality, being “[…] more promiscuous than any prostitute has ever been”. (D15, p. 23) Rumiyah further portrays them as pro democracy bikini-clad atheists, who are “vile, despicable, absurd and miserable”. (R4, p. 5)

This promiscuity attributed to Western women in the magazines is however not related to the practice of polygamy or slavery in the Islamic State. In Dabiq we find that ISIL women are expected to share their husband with up to three further wives and an unlimited number of women slaves as these are explained to be God-given rights enshrined in the Shari’ah. (D9, p.44) Dabiq describes this practice as heavily disputed by the West, which considers polygamy as oppression toward women and sexual slavery as rape. The West, in turn, is decried for having prohibited polygamy and slavery, which is interpreted by ISIL as something Allah has intended for. At the same time the West is discredited for having allowed what Allah has prohibited, namely the “sexual revolution” five decades ago though which the West is said to have plunged into a downward spiral of sexual deviance and immorality (D7, p. 42)

It is women’s emancipation that the Manifesto considers as the cause for the many negatives in America and Europa and as the reason for why Western women have become derailed from their paths. (p. 19) In Dabiq emancipation is said to have mixed up the roles of men and women in the West with women “[...] working like men, ruling like men and having intercourse like an animal [...]” (D15, p. 20) which is considered to have given rise to the emasculation of men. The Manifesto suggests here that Western men treat Western women equally when they should actually be in charge of them. This in turn would lead Western women further away from their true role, which ISIL women are praised to stand closest to. (p.17)

The reader further finds that Western women standing on equal footage with men are portrayed as a temptation for the mind as the concept of gender equality would convey false promises of development, progress and culture for ISIL women, who are described to be seen as idle, idiotic and backwards by the West. In a rebuttal, al-Khanssaa depicts ISIL women amongst the best thinkers and the most knowledgable in the “sciences of the next” (M, p. 20-21) while Rumiyah depicts Western women as having no concern for simplicity let alone the world except for food, clothing and hairstyles (R8, p.17) as a result of the materialistic societies they live in.

This created dichotomy in character between Western women and ISIL women spans through ISIL’s gender ideology. An exception to this portrayal of Western women, however, figure those women that belong to the muhaajirat - the women that emigrated from all over the globe to join the Islamic State under the banner of monotheism. (M, p. 37) The Manifesto portrays these women in rather favorable terms as they committed themselves to the Shari’ah, often left their families behind and endured particular hardships along the way. (p.36) Western muhaajirat were often integrated into the land of the caliphate in privileged positions as opposed to those ISIL women, who had already resided in the territory. They were placed i.e. in ISIL’s media wing to recruit further women to its territories or in the al-Khanssaa Brigade to hold other women in check. They were also provided with homes, husbands and Arabic language classes. (Gardner, 2015)

2.3. ISIL Women vs.Kafir Women

ISIL’s gender ideology constructs the identity of kafir women as opposed to ISIL women in a rather minimal fashion. They are simply referred to as “disbelieving” women, which seems enough classification for a kafir woman to stand at the bottom of ISIL’s gender pyramid. The Manifesto in particular seeks to address the women of the Arabian Peninsular, who follow a different religion than Islam as well all those not believing in the strict interpretation of the Shari’ah, while the magazines aim to reach particularly the kafir in the West.

Especially on the Arabian Peninsular the Manifesto deems women to lean more and more toward the West as Saudi Arabia is said to have opened up its society giving women the opportunity to work alongside men in shops and to publish their words in the public press. At the same time, the image of a woman in hijab has started to gain a bad connotation in the country’s media, and females and males are said to mingle in the hallways of universities that are open for Western scholarship and libertine teachings. (M, p. 38-39)

To prevent the Westernization of women in the region, the Manifesto calls on the kafir women to repent and join ISIL. Otherwise, as an entry in Dabiq suggests, they will be taken as slaves and considered as “spoils from the property of His enemy” when jihad is waged. (D4, p. 10) Rumiyah explains that the Shari’ah foresees for kafir women and children not to be killed as they are seen as wealth for they would increase the Ummah2. From this rather objectified perspective they are thus not supposed to be “wasted”. (R5, p. 6-7) However, this does not imply fair treatment as a report by UN Women reveals. Not only would they be subjected to sexual violence by ISIL men, but also to the cruelties of some ISIL women if they didn’t choose to convert to Islam and follow its strict interpretation. (Lahoud, 2018, p. 15; 18)

3. The Political Sphere

The Manifesto shows that the construction of differences between the genders and certain groups of women is further spurred by the regions’ colonial past whose inflicted oppressions and stretches of poverty are reported to have been felt most by women: The hijab was banned, the courts blocked the Shari’ah so that women’s issues could not have been dealt with justly, and women were kidnapped, tortured and killed and had to bear the babies of Shiite militias. (p. 28-30) A dire picture is thus painted of women under colonial rule, which serves to justify the necessity of ISIL’s takeover.

ISIL’s administration is subsequently portrayed through rose-tinted glasses: Women are said to have been able to regain their rights (e.g. to wear the hijab) and profit from social security and justice. Women could now offer their wares in markets and “[...] wander in souqus and go on pilgrimage without falling foul of criminals, because the perpetrators would face painful punishments”. (M, p. 30) An idealized life for women in the land of the caliphate is presented further via two case studies in the Manifesto seeking to legitimize the institutions set up by ISIL. (p. 27-37)

This black and white portrayal goes in hand with the ideological battle between pan-Islamism advocating the unity of Muslims under one Islamic state and pan-Arabism imprinted by nationalist and secularist ideas of a unified Arab world dating back to the period of decolonization after World War II. (Trimmel, 2019) ISIL clearly follows the pan-Islamist convictions aiming to establish a global caliphate. With its Manifesto it seeks to invite particularly women in the Arabian Peninsula, which is accused to have turned toward Western ideas of nationalism and modernization, to move to ISIL territories, where the Shari’ah is embraced and secularism decried. (p. 12; 38-40)

Dabiq and Rumiyha, moreover, aim to make a case for waging jihad against the worst enemies of Islam, the liberal West. Thereby they also make a gender-specific argument for jihad suggesting that America and Europe are prioritizing the targeting of ISIL women and children in their war against Islam “[...] to destroy the “land” and its “crops,” as women are “arable land.” (R5, p. 34) The West is further blamed to target ISIL “women’s husbands with drones, to bomb their homes and to drop white phosphorous on their children” (3, p. 25) inflicting injustice upon ISIL women in “the name of freedom, humanity and equality”. (M, p. 27)

In this respect the magazines seek to clarify that it is democracy and man-made laws that stand behind these values and are to be rejected. Thus voting in government elections, working as a lawyer, and criticizing the Shari’ah are among the nullifiers of Islam. (R7, p. 19) Any Muslim supporting these ideas and actions is considered a kafir having “[...] committed shirk3 with Allah in legislation […]. (R7, 20) With this explanation ISIL justifies the mass executions it carried out that were reported in the media all over the globe. (R7, 19)

Consequently, ISIL advises every Muslim and Muslimah to perform hijra4 to the territory of the Islamic State to support the establishment of a global caliphate, which is considered in Dabiq an obligation for both women and men. (D8, p. 33) In Rumiyah women are explicitly instructed to leave their kafir families and relatives behind if they don’t support their journey. (R6, p. 24) They are assured that it is lawful for women to perform hijra also on their own in case they fail to secure a mahram5 to accompany them. (D8, p. 35) Exempt from this obligation are only the incapable women and incapable men such as the elderly, sick and disabled. (D8, p. 33)

3.1. A Gender-Based Apartheid System

Once in the Islamic State, the muhaajirat encounter a system that lives on the constructed differences and the resulting status individuals enjoy. It also goes in hand with the prohibition of the mixing of men and women in the public sphere, which trickles all the way down to the private sphere. In Rumiyah the reader learns about the prohibition of the free intermingling between men and women (R5, p. 8), which not only foresees measures for sex segregation in form of separate facilities for women and men such as schools and hospitals (M, p. 33), but also practices that relegate women and girls to “a separate and subordinate sub-existence” imprinted by economic and social disadvantage because of their gender. (Chesler, 2011)


1 Such as: gender equality, women’s rights, equal opportunities, anti-discrimination, protection from SGBV, and freedom from patriarchy;

2 The whole community of Muslims bound together by ties of religion. (Lexicon, 2019)

3 In Islam, shirk is the sin of practicing idolatry or polytheism, i.e., the deification or worship of anyone or anything besides the singular God. (Seveniç et. al.)

4 Hijra can be understood as the physical migration for the purpose of jihad (Gould, 2015)

5 A mahram is an unmarriageable kin with whom marriage or sexual intercourse would be considered illegal in Islam. (, 2019)


ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Wien – Development Studies
name isil reflections status women islamic state iraq levant




Titel: In the Name of ISIL. Reflections on the Status of Women in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant