When the Syrian civil war started over three years ago, many terror groups aligned themselves with the Syrian rebels in the fight to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Since then, some of those terror groups have all but abandoned that cause in order to advance their own. None of these groups have ascended so rapidly as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIL, once affiliated with Al Qaeda, has used horrific violence to gain followers and territory. They have even been so bold as to declare a caliphate and rename themselves the Islamic State (IS).The level of violence, tactical advances and media savvy of IS dominates the headlines. What is not as widely reported is the role women play in IS. There have been occasional blurbs about rapes or beatings, or even about Western women traveling to Syria. The real story is far more diverse and complicated. Horrific stories of the treatment of women and girls are not making the headlines like the stories of beheadings.
Throughout Syria, scores of women and girls have been captured only to have the women sold off at makeshift slave markets. The girls are mostly kept to be given to IS fighters as brides. In some cities and towns captured by IS, there have been “marriage bureaus” set up in Aleppo and Al Bab to recruit women and girls to offer themselves for marriage. Even widows are encouraged to remarry. There are, however, questions as to the consent of some of these marriages.
This is repeated throughout the captured territory of the Islamic State. In northern Iraq, dozens of Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped to become slaves. In a recent interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, a young Yazidi girl describes her time as an IS slave. “Mayat” (not her real name) tells of “rooms of horror,” basically rape rooms where many different men would come and have their way with her and the others who were kept there under guard. She goes on to say they are sometimes taken three times a day, and some of the girls she is held with are as young as 13. (Read an English version here.)
Even more horrifying are the reports that emerged after Iraqi Special Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga troops entered villages formerly held by IS. Some women were found naked and tied to trees, having been repeatedly raped. It seems as though some women are given to returning fighters as a reward. As terrible as the violent rapes are, what happens to the women after they have been discarded is heartbreaking. The women who have been raped (and their illegitimate children) are treated as outcasts by their families and villages. Some have even been the victims of honor killings. The extreme violence against women is being used as a form of terrorism by the Islamic State. It frightens those living in the areas captured by IS, but it hasn’t stopped others from wanting to join.
Not all stories of women in the Islamic State are those of victims of violence. On the other end of the spectrum, at least two all-female brigades have been formed in Syria to enforce IS-implemented sharia law. The Al-Khansaa and Umm Al-Rayan brigades are tasked with policing women. These brigades, based in Raqqa, were formed to enforce the Islamic State’s strict interpretation of sharia law, to make sure women are fully covered or are not out without a male chaperone. Another duty performed by these women are to help out at checkpoints, searching women and insuring there are not men dressed as women in order to evade. To quote one IS official, “We have established the brigade[s] to raise awareness of our religion among women, and to punish women who do not abide by the law.” They have the power to arrest and even take part in beating the offenders. The women are paid for their duties, although none are yet to be involved in any terror operations. In perhaps a strange twist, it is reported that over 50 British women have joined these brigades.
Young women, like the British girls, are connecting with one another through social media. Like many other young women around the world, they talk of men, they post photos of themselves and travel tips for one another. What makes these posts and Tweets different are the references to marrying these men they hope will someday become martyrs. Their photos are of themselves completely covered, save their eyes. Some even brandish weapons. Their travel tips include directions on the best routes to Syria and tips on how not to get caught. One popular how-to blogger is Umm Layth, who is thought to be the name taken on by Aqsa Mahmood, a young woman from Glasgow now in Syria. But it’s not just European women being drawn in. Recently, American girls from Minnesota and Colorado have been caught trying to make the trip to join up with IS. It is thought that these girls were recruited by people loosely affiliated with IS – sympathizers – rather than joining on their own. In addition to the young women from the UK and America, other countries such as Austria, Bosnia Hercegovina and Turkey have seen their young women drawn to the caliphate. Recently France arrested a group of people trying to recruit young women to join IS.
Why are so many women drawn to Syria and the Islamic State? The desire to live in the Caliphate is a strong draw. Women are promised a perfect Islamic life upon arrival. Hey are encouraged to contribute by marrying fighters and providing children, having the “honor” of raising new fighters (read: martyrs). One online post by Umm Anwar reiterated that position, saying “Women who give birth to the mujahideen and they are the ones who raise them and teach them.” In a recent appearance on Al Jazeera America Mia Bloom, Professor of Security Studies at UMass Lowell, put it this way: IS is “not providing the Utopian Islamic society that they pretend to, but there might also be a sense of adventure. They’re [the women] promised romance, also promised a lot of support, subsidies for every child that they have, no taxation as well as a wonderful husband.” The reality is often far from the promise, but women are still lining up to meet their martyrs in the Islamic State.