ISIS is looking to recruit Muslim women to their cause, serving the group through marriage to their fighters. According to a manifesto attributed to the media wing of the Khanssaa Brigade, a female branch of the Islamic State (IS) militant group, girls can marry starting at the age of nine; girls considered “pure” will be married by 16 or 17.
The manifesto,“Women of the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study,” offers new insight into the life of women in the Islamic State. The document intends to“clarify the role of Muslim women and the life which is desired for them.”
Women, it unambiguously states, are homemakers and mothers, and should pursue a sedentary lifestyle.
“It is always preferable for a woman to remain hidden and veiled, to maintain society from behind this veil,” the manifesto says. It adds that girls should be educated from seven to 15 years old, with a focus on religion.
At more than 10,000 words long, the manifesto was circulated in Arabic this January and was recently translated into English by the the Quilliam Foundation, a U.K. based counterterrorism think tank.
Quilliam researcher Charlie Winter translated the original document and spoke to Syria Deeply about it, from its target audience to the vision of women in its self-styled Islamic caliphate.
Syria Deeply: Ten percent of the Islamic State’s foreign recruits are women. Why are women abandoning their lifestyles and joining its ranks?
Winter: It depends on where they’re coming from – different factors push different people. The overwhelming factor that drives people to find an ideology like the Islamic State appealing is a sense of disempowerment, and a perception that joining this group and becoming a founder member of a new state is the ultimate feeling of empowerment.
Syria Deeply: The text was widely distributed among its Arabic-speaking supporters. However, it was not picked up by Western jihadists, or the international media. Who was the target audience of the manifesto, and what was the objective of the manifesto?
Winter: The document is very clearly aimed at women in the Arabian Peninsula, not Western women. It gives a very different message from English-language recruitment propaganda. The document is tailored to the location, culture and grievances of a given area, particularly the Gulf region.
It didn’t get nearly the same amount of views as a recruitment video, because it takes a long time to read. It is a propaganda piece that is part justification, part myth busting and recruitment tool, and part clarification of a woman’s role in the Islamic State.
It’s another layer added to the many factors that are aimed at reinforcing the perception that the Islamic State is a legitimate caliphate, and that sharia law that it’s upholding in Iraq and Syria is the right law and is divinely appointed.
We can’t mistake it for something that is similar to propaganda released by al-Hayat media, the official media arm of the Islamic State. The document was produced by a woman’s organization within the Islamic State, not an official arm. It’s not an official constitution that has been sanctified by Islamic State leadership, but it is an idealized version from within the Islamic State of what a woman’s role should be.
However, the references to Saudi Arabia suggest that the target audience can be narrowed down to women in Saudi Arabia more than anyone else. It’s a very strong condemnation of Saudi Arabia and its monarchy. It lays into the structure of the state there, and basically implies on multiple occasions that it’s morally bankrupt and hypocritical. These are sentiments that resonate with people in the region. It talks about specific incidents of people facing daily injustices, being taken to jail etc.
Syria Deeply: The document provides a lengthy rebuttal of the perils of Western civilization and Westernization. Throughout the document, the author attempts to convince the audience that it is a fundamental necessity for women to have a sedentary lifestyle. What is the role of women in the Islamic State?
Winter: It gives a lengthy rebuttal of “Western civilization” and universal human rights such as gender equality. Essentially the main problem, which the authors perceived was taking place in the West, was the fact that men, because they weren’t operating as God had appointed them to operate, weren’t being leaders and taking charge. Men weren’t presenting the right picture for Western women, which meant that gender roles got mixed up and the foundations of society collapsed.
The document encourages women to stay indoors and support society from behind. It talks about female teachers and doctors, but there are very narrowly defined provisions and circumstances where it is sometimes permissible for a woman to leave the house. The circumstances in which this is permitted are: a) if she is going to study theology; b) if she is a women’s doctor or teacher; c) if it has been ruled by fatwa that she must fight or engage in jihad because the situation of the ummah has become desperate, “as the women of Iraq and Chechnya did, with great sadness.”
However, the overwhelming important value a woman has is to bring up the next generation of jihadists. They are put on earth to bring up the next generations and to study religion. But again, when you ask what kind of religion they are asked to study, it’s bits of theology, kalam and fiqh, which predominantly deal with women’s issues, so they are actually limiting the religion that women study to things that are focused mainly on women’s issues as well. It’s a limiting clarification of what women are supposed to do in society. But the prevailing sense throughout the document is that it’s not a bad thing that women are to have this sedentary lifestyle.
There is a strong undercurrent throughout the text itself of the fact that women are just as important as men. There is no disparity; they are equal in the eyes of God. It’s just that they are extremely limited in any role they play within the Islamic State and the daily workings of life.
The document makes it very clear that the role for women is to be limited from a very young age and that indoctrination begins very early for both male and female children. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the most important age for education is right at the beginning, when you can instill ideological values within a child and set them on a path that they will have a great amount of difficulty deviating from in the future.
Throughout the Islamic State’s education system, children are forced to, among other things, learn ISIS’ version of the Koran, and their knowledge of the outside world is extremely limited. Lessons in religion will invariably be more in the lessons of the ideology of jihadism than in mainstream Islam.
Syria Deeply: One of the sections of the manifesto provides eyewitness accounts of women living in Raqqa and Mosul. How does it provide an idealized version of life there? Does it make any references to crimes committed by the Islamic State?
Winter: The case studies – eyewitness reports from Raqqa – gave the sense that there is a great muddling of cultures, people, ethnicities and languages from all around the world in Raqqa. It speaks about the mixing of cultures inside Raqqa, but I think culture will be immediately subjugated and replaced with jihadist values. It gives the sense that Raqqa is a haven for people to come to from around the world, to flee from injustice, and when they come there they will be immediately raised into a status in life where they enjoy nice living, brotherhood and sisterhood, and their neighbors will be people from around the world.
It’s an idealized and utopian view. It’s fairly reminiscent of the idea of a Muslim vanguard that is coming to change the world, and that the Muslims that commit to it are the most pious and pure. We have to remember it is a propaganda tool, so the picture given of Raqqa is an idealized one. We don’t hear anything about the people who aren’t willingly part of the Islamic State and its ideology, and are punished for crimes they don’t commit.
Photo Courtesy Ahmad al-Bari