Unlike other Islamist groups, Isis woos women, giving them key roles. But claims that it has killed 19 captives for refusing to have sex make it clear females remain a commodity
Zahra and Salma Halane were 16 when they left their homes in Manchester to join Isis, but the sisters didn’t cut their ties with like-minded teenagers left behind. Somewhere in the Syrian city of Raqqa — the stronghold of the Islamist terrorist group — the twins have access to a laptop.
Just like their friends in Britain, they post pictures on Twitter. But rather than sharing snapshots of teenage dissolution, they put up images of them target shooting and wearing black niqabs. In one picture a woman holds a pistol while others fire Kalashnikov automatic rifles: “Fun day training for self defence in the Islamic state with humble sisters,” the caption reads.
Whether it is really the Halane girls posting these idealised images of life in the proclaimed caliphate we can’t know. What is certain is that it won’t be them choosing what gets shown to the rest of the world: every aspect of Isis’s propaganda is closely and cleverly controlled. But the very fact that girls are out there on Twitter as recruiting sergeants is a fascinating aspect of how key women are to the Isis “project”.
Isis has broken new ground in the way it oppresses and manipulates women. No one remembers young girls running off to join the Taliban — an equally repressive regime — because under the Taliban women were, essentially, invisible. They were forbidden to work or to receive an education after the age of nine. They were never an important part of Taliban propaganda.
Yet Isis uses women both to recruit other women and to recruit men — with women offered as sexual bait for fighters. Only last week a Kurdish official claimed Isis had murdered 19 women in Mosul for refusing to have sex with its fighters. A UN envoy investigating the Isis sex trade said that “girls get peddled like barrels of petrol”. She revealed that children aged nine or under can be sold as slaves for £107, and women over 40 for just £27.
Isis has also made unprecedented use of “jihad al-nikah” (“sexual jihad”), a controversial fatwa (Islamic ruling) that suggests women should offer themselves as sexual servants to jihadist fighters. The purpose of this is purportedly to relieve a man of distracting sexual frustration during times of war.
The fatwa gives a man permission to marry a woman for a week or for a few hours, to have “halal” sex with her, so that he is able to pursue his jihadist mission more effectively on the battlefield. This is now widely practised in Isis-controlled areas. Muslim scholars condemn this and many consider it to be prostitution.
It’s not impossible to work out why this might be attractive to some young men, but an estimated 500 European Muslim girls have also made the journey from their homes to join Isis. Never mind the reality of drudgery, violence and being used for sex: they have been lured into the belief that an idealised life awaits a “jihadist bride” in Syria and Iraq.
The girls who have already entered the “caliphate” are used to spread the belief that it is a duty of all female Muslims to travel to Isis areas, where they will find everything they need — a man will love them, marriage and children, a beautiful house — and they will also become female warriors, taking to the battlefield for a just cause.
Aqsa Mahmood, originally from Glasgow, has a leading role among the women of Isis. Mahmood, 20, was herself slowly radicalised as a teenager by articles and posts she read online. Now, under the name Umm Layth, she is one of the most active Isis figures online, keeping a blog and engaging in debate on Twitter. She guides young women through the process of joining Isis, advising them on daily practicalities, such as what clothes to take to Syria and Iraq in winter.
She also takes on a counselling role to prepare and support young women in the emotional upheaval of leaving home. “The first call you make once you cross the border is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do in your life,” she writes. “They will ask whether you are OK and what has happened. Why their son or daughter has left their well-off life, education and future to live in a war-torn country.”
Mahmood and others like her present themselves as living the life of a “true” Muslim and actively engaging as a fighting force for Isis. The al-Khansaa Brigade is sometimes shown as such, with women in niqabs and burqas, carrying weapons. In truth it is an ultra- repressive police force — largely made up of educated western women — that imposes punishments on those who do not follow the strict guidelines of behaviour for women in this society. In other jihadist groups it is the men who enforce such rules upon women. Only under Isis do women have an active role.
Earlier this year Isis published a guideline for women under the title Women of the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study. The manifesto was drafted by the al-Khansaa Brigade and published in Arabic on various online jihadist forums. It states women should remain hidden and veiled. Men and women are not equal. Fashion shops and beauty salons are banned and denounced as works of the devil. It also declares that a girl can be married at the age of nine, and urges that all girls be married by the age of 16 or 17, while still “young and active”.
The manifesto is not available in other languages and clearly aimed at an Arabic audience. Isis seems to be aware this description of life as one of its members might repel potential female recruits from typical western societies, and therefore adopts a different strategy when approaching women outside its territory.
As for female prisoners, Isis fighters do not even need to marry them at all. They are given to them as a “gift from Allah”. Yazidi women and children are sold at market: girls who are nine years old and under fetch the highest price. Women acquired in such a way can be used not just as sex slaves, but beaten.
Isis is a state created by men, for men, to satisfy men obsessed with weapons, killing and torture, and with the urge to rape, and abuse women and children. The regime gives them an Islamic justification that has no grounds in real Islam. It is a worrying sign of its allure that it has also become so perversely attractive to young women.