Recent headlines have howled at the atrocities: mass executions, public beheadings, and communities terrorized by Islamic State. Last week, CNN.com shared the ill-fated story of Jana, a 19-year-old Yazidi woman kidnapped by the militant group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. She was held hostage and sold to a 70-year-old man who attempted to convert her to Islam at gunpoint. Previously, Jana had once aspired to finish her education and become a doctor. She has since given up.
Regrettably, Jana’s story is one of many. Over 2,500 Yazidi and Iraqi minority women and girls were kidnapped last August, says Dr. Nazand Begikhani, an advisor to the Kurdistan regional government. Moreover, a report released by Amnesty International details that “girls in their teens and early 20s, have been subjected to rape or sexual abuse, forced to marry fighters, or sold into sexual slavery.” There are reports of enslaved girls as young as 10 being offered for purchase as wives.
Against the case of women, ISIS is notorious for promoting child marriage, sexual violence, and eradicating girls’ hopes for education and careers.
So why have there been numerous accounts of Western women fleeing their homes to join ISIS?
Evidently, there has been a recent social media campaign rigorously targeted toward recruiting women to join ISIS. The recruiting strategy offers an Islamic paradise of sorts, wherein women can join the fight by marrying jihadist fighters, or serve the cause through militant or domestic efforts. Dr. Katharine Brown, a lecturer in Defence Studies from King’s College London, says that these social media sites portray “images of women carrying AK47s and holding severed heads. But they are also cooking, making Nutella pancakes, meeting for coffee, and being mothers.”
We are talking about women who have felt negatively alienated and demonized by Western governments. Brown explains that while there is naïve romanticism in women becoming jihadi brides and marrying heroic ISIS fighters, they are attracted to a promise of a new utopian Islamic state. They find empowerment in their participation of this unified community. She claims that the campaigns demonstrate “[ISIS] takes [these womens’] politics seriously, they give them a voice, they give them credit, and that has a certain amount of appeal,” There is a sense of welcome and belonging being offered here for women who otherwise feel marginalized in Western societies.
But let’s be clear: ISIS does not promote gender equality or positive empowerment of women. To quote Steven Erlanger from his The New York Times article, “the reality of life inside the radical groups is often different from the cheerful images on screens. The Islamic State is run by men and is strictly patriarchal.” The primary role of a migrant woman is not to have a voice or find purpose, but to support her fighter husband and his jihad.
Instead of living an empowered life in this new caliphate state, there have been reports of women taken as wives and then violently sexually abused. Women have been confined to their homes, requiring permission to leave, and day-to-day tasks consist of watching the children of the jihadist fighters. Of course, there are still the massacres, airstrikes, bombings, and beheadings.
While the natural reaction of some is to point fingers at these women and say they got what they deserved, are we justified in viewing them as traitors? Mia Bloom, a professor at UMass Lowell studying crime and terrorism, says no.
These women are victims.
“They’re tired of being not the agents of change in history. They are just the bystanders,” says Bloom. Yet, “within a few weeks they’re going to be married and pregnant and basically that’s not the life that they’re anticipating in terms of their contribution to the cause.”
Help for these women will not be found in continuing to demonize their motivations, as they have been left to live among the lies of ISIS recruiters. We cannot neglect to see that there are complexities in the situations from which the women left. On either side, minority women have been abducted from their communities and subjected to sexual abuse and slavery, or have been wrongfully alienated from their society and pushed out to find a place of belonging. Yet both have found themselves manipulated as resources of a war fought by male ISIS militants. The hope for their situation lies in the steps that organizations committed to ending gender violence will take next. But it will also take our voices in confronting these atrocities. Will you stand with the women who have been oppressed in the incalculable horror of the ISIS conflict?