IT was only a couple of months ago that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) came out with its women’s magazine. Titled Sunnat-i-Khaula, the magazine attempted to appeal to Muslim women, offering first-person stories of a female doctor who gave it all up to travel to ‘Khorasan’, an interview with the wife of a commander (he did the dishes and helped around the house), and even a supposedly inspirational portrait of a child soldier.
The objective was simple: brand extremism as heroic, joining up as a duty of faith possible for all sorts of women; they could go themselves, or send their husband and even their baby sons.
Last week, the militant Islamic State (IS) group, which has long been in the game of recruiting women and has a whole brigade comprised of them, renewed its call for action. Unlike prior attempts at recruitment that have appeared in Dabiq, the group’s English-language magazine, this latest one was issued in its Arabic newspaper under the title ‘Wajib un-Nisa’.
Unlike previous attempts at swelling the numbers of women in IS-controlled territory, which hinted at fighting as an option for women, this latest call demands it, calling it an obligation and a duty. Specifically, it says, “Today, in the context of the war against the IS, it has become necessary for female Muslims to fulfil their duties on all fronts in supporting the mujahideen in this battle”, and that women should “prepare themselves to defend their religion by sacrificing themselves [for] Allah”. To bolster the legitimacy of its command, the directive points to the women who were companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and who (according to IS) fought alongside men, and also to female warriors in the golden age of Islam.
With so many men leaving, the militant Islamic State group is quite predictably turning to women.
Unlike the TTP, whose open attempts to recruit women surfaced only very recently, IS has been targeting women as recruits for some time. Even in the initial days of the group’s takeover of Raqqa in Syria, its efforts were directed at women who were recruited into the Al Khansaa Brigade, which went around disciplining and abducting women who did not conform with the group’s stern directives.
Women without a full-face veil, women without guardians, and even women talking loudly were all subject to the wrath of this wandering all-female morality police.
On social media, the group’s female recruits, particularly those from the West, took on the task of wheedling others to join, talking about how lovely life was in daula [the IS-controlled ‘state’] and what a grand time was to be had in living in such a pure place. Even then, the group manufactured a genealogy for the female warrior. Al Khansaa, originally a female poetess, and Nusaybah, a female warrior, were selected from history for this purpose.
Propaganda for terrorism was thus couched in religious duty, a return to Islamic authenticity, both of which had been honed to perfection in the group’s recruitment of men. The small difference was in the details, mentioned here and there: that women were to have a ‘supporting’ role whose focus was the implementation of decisions by men.
So it was until this summer, when IS began to lose. As the reports of the group’s losses mounted and fighters were lost, more were required. The desperation was evident in the group’s propaganda; an article in Rumiya, another of its propaganda publications, asked women to “rise with courage and sacrifice in this war”.
Perhaps pre-empting that this could be considered a capitulation to the fact that no male fighters were available, the author went on to add that this call to women was “not because of the small number of men” and that women should join owing to “their love for jihad”.
The argument that turning to women does not come from the surrender of men would be harder to make now. Last week’s call to women to fulfil their obligation for ‘jihad’ and undertake terrorist attacks came in the wake of enormous losses suffered by the group. According to the New York Times, more than 1,000 IS fighters surrendered en masse to Kurdish militias. Their commander had told them to make their own decisions and they had chosen to surrender, they said, because it meant they would have some chance at survival. With so many men leaving, the IS is predictably turning to women.
The whole story proves only one thing: terrorist groups, whether they are the TTP or IS, manipulate history and text and faith, all to serve their own desire for power. When the groups take over territory, women are deemed worthless, sentenced to isolation, banished from public space and treated like animals. Other women are recruited to carry out these degradations, to beat and search and imprison others.
In those moments, faith to these groups means segregation, seclusion and derision, a relegation of women to the status of lesser beings. When they are losing, so too does the religious demand, and suddenly, women are duty-bound to be in the battlefield fighting alongside men and carrying out attacks. All the reasons previously offered to keep them hidden and at home and subject to the whims and directives of guardians disappear in an instant.
Muslim women are smarter than Muslim men. The sly manipulation of faith that lies at the core of all terror groups and that is so useful in recruiting men is unlikely to be quite so effective in drawing in women. Unlike Muslim men, Muslim women know and remember that the violence now being demanded of them by IS is a mere redirection of the violence that is inflicted upon them.
Men who justify beating women, mistreating women and abusing women as a religious right, are now arguing for the same women to take up arms so that they may return to power and to the task of subjugating women. Whether it is IS or the TTP or some other militant group, Muslim women are not fooled, not duped by the propaganda that insists that murder is a religious duty.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2017