Why we should not ignore the women of ISIS who fled fighting


15 April 2019

By Busra Nisa Sarac

This article first appeared on the blog of the Political Studies Association. The original can be accessed here.

When the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared “Islamic Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the self-appointed Caliph of the self-described Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, called on all Muslims around the world to join ISIS in order to help build the new territorial identity. What ISIS offered them has been a true Muslim land in which every true Muslim is ruled by God’s laws. A lot of women from the West responded to that call and decided to travel to Syria to join ISIS. At that time, many researchers whose studies focused on gender and political violence started to ask a question of ‘why’ a Western woman chooses to join such a brutal radical Islamist movement and sought to learn the motivations of these women that drove them to fight for its cause.

Asking ‘why’ a woman decides to get involved in a violent group raised a lot of questions about conventional gender stereotypes about femininity and masculinity. It is because simple women are not supposed to be violent. Despite the fact that women have participated in various militant activities in various part of the world, the concept of violent women still seems to be a topic that needs a lot of work to change people’s perceptions about women in violence. 

With the collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria (as of March 2019, the ISIS lost its last stronghold, Baghouz in Syria), women and children who fled fighting are being taken to Internally Displaced Camps (IDP camps) by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria. Men, on the other hand, are being held in detention facilities. This situation also raises questions about the traditional perceptions of women in violent activities, as holding women in IDPs camps feeds the idea that they did nothing under ISIS-controlled areas; however, even being present in ISIS provides a sense of approval of their atrocities and helped them spread their messages through the women’s presence. 

Because the more women they had in the territories they captured, the more likely they were to lure other women into the group. Nonetheless, it is certain that holding hundreds of thousands of people in the camps is not an easy thing to do. It requires many people and a lot of attention under such circumstances. What it has sought to emphasise is that women who joined the group willingly should be taken seriously because defeating ISIS on the ground is different from defeating ISIS in people’s minds. 

For example, two women, one from the UK, one from the US, who live in these camps received considerable media attention for expressing their willingness to return to their home countries. Shamima Begum is from the UK and Hoda Muthana is from the US. Their cases are somewhat different and also the same. Hoda was active on social media between 2014 and 2015, calling on Americans to join her and also urging people to abuse Americans whenever they could. But later on in an interview, she said that she had been brainwashed online. Begum, on the other hand, had a baby when she was interviewed (the 3-week old baby died of pneumonia later on) and, at that time, she asked for sympathy. The Home Secretary decided to take her citizenship away for the ‘safety and security of Britain and people who live here’. 

These cases have been a topic of discussion in the field of gender, political violence and national security. There have been two main arguments. Some claimed that these women should not be allowed to come back home. They joined the group willingly and pose a threat to their communities. On the other hand, others argued that this is something that we as communities need to deal with. Syria has been through enough and the West should not export its own problem to Syria. These women should therefore come home and be detained upon their arrival, and they should face justice for joining ISIS. 

Local and international journalists have been interviewing and talking to the women about their lives in the camps. It is clear that the women, who were interviewed, if not all, are still loyal to the so-called Islamic Caliphate and expressed their desire and willingness to live under Islamic State again. It is important to remember that not all women are the passive victims of ISIS. Even though they lost the territories that ISIS captured, women themselves come to play in an increasingly large part in creating a sense of community among the people who fled. It may be too early to be able to grasp the fully complex ways these recent conditions are affecting women’s lives and their thoughts. However, in the weeks or months to come, we will see how the countries which these women come from will take their positions on this issue. There is a great need for focused attention and further measures by Western countries, as well as a need to address these women’s lives.