An estimated 30 Muslim women from the West, most of them British, are thought to have traveled to the Mideast to join ISIS, eliciting shock amid the wider public. Yet Muslim women have long been potent radicalizing forces in Islamic jihad.
It’s time we unveiled these invisible women.
I, too, was once an invisible woman – a Muslim living in Saudi Arabia who was objectified by men and women alike, reduced only to the correctness (or not) of my attire. Like the Saudis, ISIS enshrines gender apartheid – but in their enthusiasm, jihadist women appear oblivious to that.
Experts at Kings College International Center for Radicalization in Britain have been monitoring the online activities of the 21 women among the 500 Britons thought to be in Syria with ISIS, which has fighters from over 81 nations. The women’s social media activity reveals that they often go on to attract other women to ISIS, and support ISIS’ recognition that in order to perpetuate itself, it must procreate.
Women are drawn to ISIS for a number of reasons. First, they are responding to ISIS’ leader, Baghdadi, who has called upon them to help build the new Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's “caliphate” needs women to assume the traditional roles of marriage and childbearing. Others respond to ISIS’ call for skilled workers – doctors, nurses and engineers.
But among these women are others who seek combat, and are joining to wage war. Many of the British Muslim women joining ISIS aren’t particularly religious – think of them as ISIS “groupies.” But by engaging them to be foot soldiers, ISIS shrewdly reaches audiences that Al Qaeda could not (though women did provide support to Al Qaeda and posed themselves as serious risks).
The British female jihadists are invariably young, including Zara and Salma Halane, 16-year-old twins from Manchester; Aqsa Mahmoud, a 20-year-old from Glasgow; and Khadija Dare, a 22-year-old from London who reportedly aspires to be the first ISIS female to behead an “infidel.”
In the United States, the recent case of 19-year-old Sharon Conley of Colorado is a chilling example of an American female newly converted to Islam and seeking jihad, imagining she will engage in combat, work as a nurse and marry a fighter. Even under FBI interrogation, she remained committed to waging jihad.
Female Islamists, even violent jihadists, have long been prominent. In 2010, Afia Siddiqui, a neuroscientist from Pakistan, was found guilty in New York City of attempted murder of U.S. personnel investigating her material support to Al Qaeda. She is now serving an 86-year sentence in federal prison.
Siddiqui’s descent into radicalization and her equally disturbing rise to national adulation in Pakistan, where she remains lionized as a “Daughter of the Nation,” was brilliantly detailed by Deborah Scroggins in her book, “Wanted Women.” Scroggins revealed Siddiqui’s dual dimensions: her fanatical commitment to jihadist ideology and the way she used the advantages she enjoyed in the West to radicalize others. ISIS, recognizing her stature, even offered to give up its captives, including the late James Foley, in return for her release in an attempt to broaden its global outreach.
In our correspondence, Scroggins reminded me her scholarship of Siddiqui underlined how “women have always been swept up by the romance of jihad just like men.”
At their most extreme, female jihadists become suicide bombers. Developed by the female Tamil Tigers, suicide bombing was imported by Hezbollah and became the hallmark of the Second Intifada against Israel. Radical clerics issued fatwahs legitimizing women as suicide bombers.
Dr. Anat Berko, a counterterrorism expert with the Israeli Defense Force, named them “The Smarter Bomb,” based on her 14-year studies of captured female Palestinian jihadists. Berko found their motives were as numerous as their identities. Some, sexually compromised in ways that they thought sullied their honor, believed martyrdom would absolve them of sin. Others were militant operatives, as politically motivated as their male counterparts. The point is, each one saw herself as an active jihadist.
Since ISIS burst onto the global stage, we have been enthralled by its brutality – decapitations, crucifixions, the severing of a Christian child in half, the beheadings of babies and the executions of children by hanging, shooting and decapitation. Certainly, many of these brutalities – executions, stonings, rape, child marriage, forced marriage and slavery – have befallen women.
If women have been considered in the public discourse, it is mostly through the lens of ISIS’ misogyny - commentators worry that even that has been relegated to the margins. But even less attention has been given to women who choose to participate in ISIS as perpetrators, rather than as victims.
Islamist ideology is intrinsically supremacist, racist and expansionist. It is also by definition anti-Semitic and misogynistic.
Regardless of what attracts them, women jihadists serve a fleeting purpose for ISIS. They are unaware that they will progressively lose their freedoms as they empower Islamism through their actions.
But Western women are joining ISIS nonetheless, so Americans must recognize the deadly ideology that attracts them for what it is: lethally totalitarian, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, supremacist and profoundly anti-democratic.
Political Islamism, whether espoused by men or women, is the gravest threat to secular democracy man has known. By unveiling these invisible women for the radical Jihadists they truly are, we can begin to confront Islamist ideology for what it is: a singularly lethal assault upon our sacred ideals.
Qanta A. Ahmed, M.D., is Associate Professor of Medicine, State University of New York, and Honorary Professor Glasgow Caledonian University, School of Public Health. She is currently a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She is the author of "In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom." You can follow her on Twitter@MissDiagnosis.