The civil war that followed the Syrian popular uprising that sought to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad created a perfect environment for ISIS to expand by recruiting more fighters. The terror group attracted thousands of young people from different backgrounds and nationalities. But what baffled many was the number of women recruited to the group.
“Traditionally, terrorism has been considered a male domain, women, on the other hand, are believed to have roles that are inherently less important and by extension undeserving of equal consideration in efforts to counter this phenomenon”, read a report on women in Daesh prepared by the Carter Centre in 2017.
“For many, it is difficult to comprehend how a terrorist organisation like Daesh can appeal to so many women from varied national and cultural backgrounds.”
Even though terror groups such as the Taliban had recruited women, the number recruited by the ISIS was incomparable. According to a report by Kings College’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 4,761 (13%) of 41,490 who became ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq were women. The number was even higher considering that the report did not include women recruited locally.
Why so many women were attracted to ISIS remains a topic of discussion. According to the Carter Center, ISIS capitalised on people’s disillusionment with their governments to attract recruits.
Women living in the Middle East and North Africa encounter different daily challenges such as unemployment, limited access to basic services, and oppression. Such conditions predisposed them to Daesh’s idealistic representation of a well-equipped state that offered a high standard of living and promises of amenities that catered for women’s rights.
These views were echoed by Journalist Mah-Rukh Ali in his paper, explaining how ISIS exploited women for propaganda. He argued that women were attracted by a promise of an adventurous life portrayed by ISIS through its propaganda tools. Many girls were also influenced by the social media activity of those who had already joined.
Key in helping ISIS recruit more women in its ranks was a manifesto of women prepared by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade which was mainly made of foreign women fighters. By publishing the manifesto ISIS hoped to position itself as the champion and protector of women’s rights. This they believed would help attract to the caliphate women from countries where women’s rights were violated.
Part of the document read, “Women felt the effects of poverty more than men. It meant that they were not able to sustain themselves as easily as they should have been able to. This miserable situation is obliterated by the Zakar chamber of ISIS, which is installed so women could take their rightful livelihood from it. Hence all due respect and capability is given back to women and harm does not come to them.”
Boasting of how the ISIS justice system was effective in protecting women’s rights, the document stated, “Women now go to courts and openly talk of their issues. They find that they are listened to and their issues are dealt with.”
Many women fell for such promises and left to join ISIS. However, they found a different situation when they arrived in the caliphate. They found a society where women were suppressed and mistreated under radical Islamic rules. They were recruited as policewomen to propagate ISIS abuses and to enforce laws that violated the rights of their fellow women.
They arrested and tortured women who were not fully covered, who embraced western culture and those who ventured outside without a proper reason.
Aisha was one of the foreign women recruited by ISIS in Raqqa Syria. In an exclusive interview with Aljazeera, she said, “That was our job, torturing people. We tortured a lot of people. I cannot even tell you how many”.
She narrated how ISIS had used a pair of pliers to pull out the nails of a woman who had applied polish on her nails and how she had seen pregnant women being tortured.
“Some women were in the early stages of pregnancy. The torture caused them to miscarry. A woman gave birth in the offices of the religious police. She was on her way to the hospital. She had not covered her eyes so they arrested her. She gave birth at the station while they were torturing her. A lot of women had miscarriages there,” said Aisha.
For those women who committed minor offences, there was a biter who would bite the nipples of their breasts as punishment. There was this story of a woman who had just given birth. Her son had a fever. She went out in a panic to get medicine at the pharmacy. A religious police car drove by, they arrested her.
They said,” Why did you go out in that outfit ?” The women answered that she had just had a baby. But the biter still had no mercy and went on to bite her breast. “ The biter would sometimes use her teeth, other times electrical pliers,” said Aisha
ISIS was also known for its sexual objectification of women. Many were detained as sex slaves while others were forced into temporary marriages. They justified their heinous acts by misinterpreting Islamic laws. They claimed that Fatwa Nikkah ul Jihad, required a woman to submit herself to jihadi fighters.
This was to satisfy the sexual needs of the fighters so that they could concentrate on the war. The Fatwa according to ISIS, permitted a jihadi to marry a woman for a week or even a few hours. This had been largely propagated by Saudi born Muslim cleric Sheikh Mohamed al-Arefe, who encouraged women to present their bodies to jihadis fighting Bashar Al Assad.
Perhaps the Yezidi women were the most sexually assaulted women by the ISIS. Many of them were captured as sex slaves when ISIS seized areas of Sinjar in Kurdish Iraq. The Yazidi are considered a minority with their numbers being estimated to be around 50,000 according to the latest figures.
Since they are not Muslims, ISIS called them ‘kafir’ (pagans) and executed many Yazidi men. They detained many Yazidi girls and abused them sexually claiming they were a gift from God to enable them to fulfil their sexual desires while fighting the holy war.
Asharq Haji Hamid was one of the Yazidi girls enslaved by ISIS. In an interview aired on Iraqi TV Al-Iraqiya, she recounted how she was captured and raped by an ISIS fighter called Abu Humam after the capture of Sinjar.
“Abu Humam selected me and then he pulled me by the hair. I did not expect them to rape us, because I was only 14. But they restrained us with iron handcuffs and violently raped us. They raped us one after the other. He kept on promising me that he would let me go but then he would rape three or four times a day. I was just a child and didn’t know anything,” Hamid said.
Long after he sexually assaulted Ms Hamid, Humam was arrested and is currently in prison in Iraq. Last week Hamid now 20, was brought before the captured Humam, and tearfully confronted him saying, “Why did you do this to me? Do you have any feelings?” She fainted shortly after.