by Rita Faraj
The terrorist organization ISIS has taken pains to recruit women in its apparatus. On February 2, 2014, it established the “Al-Khansaa Battalion” in Raqqa (Syria). This battalion has undertaken several tasks, including screening, scrutiny, detaining, and security surveillance of women. Al-Qaeda, by contrast, had not engaged women in a similarly systemic way.
ISIS derived the name of the battalion from the poet Al-Khansaa, known for her fortitude, courage, and valor and regarded as a symbol of sacrifice. (She sacrificed her sons in the service of Islam in the battle of Al-Qadisiya.) The choice reflected the model of womanhood ISIS wanted to promote. (See Qaramy, Amal, “Women’s Jihad: Female Terrorism,” Center for Strategic Studies and Research, June 21, 2015). The security circumstances that prompted the formation of this battalion are linked to “the occurrence of military operations carried out in women’s garments. According to the testimony of one of the affiliates of the battalion, its hasty establishment was due to what happened on the Al-Sabahya roadblock west of Raqqa, when three ISIS members were killed, while four others were killed on the Mishlab roadblock, east of the city, at the hands of unknown gunmen dressed in women’s garments, covering their faces with a burka. Fearing a recurrence of the operation, “Umm Al Rayyan” (The Leader of the battalion) launched the battalion with 35 women: three Syrians, two Yemenis, four Saudis, one Kuwaiti, seven Tunisians, three Libyans, nine Chechens, three Egyptians, and three Iraqis. The urgent task at the core of the battalion was to seek out women in streets and shops, fearing a recurrence of the prior attacks, as well as remove the obstacles facing the organization to make arrests or punish women who make mistakes or violate Islamic law.” (See Mohammed Abu Rumman, Hassan Abu Haniya, “Lovers of Martyrdom: Women Jihadist Formations from Al Qaeda to the Islamic State,” Friedrich Erit publishers, 2017, p. 151).
Reports on numbers of “Jihadists” enrolled in this battalion differ. Some estimates indicate that their number ranged between 800 and 1,000. According to a report published by the Web site “Al-Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” each fighter in Al-Khansaa receives a monthly salary that ranges between from 500 to 700 dollars. A given salary is determined on the basis of whether the fighter is married or unmarried; number of children; and nationality. (American, British, and French women are accorded an advanced rank in the organization.) Female fighters are prohibited from mixing with civilian men unless they encounter one in the company of a family member. Members of Al-Khansa are allowed to drive, whereas civilian women are prohibited. They wear clothing deemed suitable by the organization, and carry arms, handcuffs, and transceivers. Most are immigrant woman married to non-Syrian fighters and do not speak Arabic. However, the eventual induction of some Syrian womenmade it possible to add at least two Arabic-speaking girls to each team.
Some of the most prominent tasks carried out by “Al-Khansa jihadists” in Raqqa city was intelligence work, managing security related to women, the women’s incarceration, and monitoring women who were formerly associated the Syrian regime and or “Free Army,” as well as the wives of leaders and their relatives. The battalion also worked to attract women from Arab and European countries to marry foreign fighters in the organization. A number of accounts on social media have been created for the latter purpose. The battalion also reaches out to girls in Raqqa — according to “Al-Raqqa is Slaughtered Silently” — to marry ISIS fighters, luring them with substantial sums of money. The battalion also offered sums to families should they marry their daughters to fighters in the organization, leading some families to accept proposals as a result of dire financial need. Finally, Al-Khansa battalion participated in hostilities, serving as auxiliary troops, and also served the military apparatus by providing medical services and preparing food. According to the organization’s documents issued by the “Bureau of Da’wa and Mosques,” which compiles biographies and heroic tales of the jihadists, one of the daughters of Umm Khalid al-Wahaji of Morocco, who worked in the Hesba apparatus in Raqqa, carried out a “martyrdom operation” against Kurdish defense forces in the city of Ein Arab Kobani (see: Lovers of Martyrdom, op. cit., p. 152).
As to women who would not commit to the dresscode imposed by ISIS in Raqqa, the battalion devised harsh and brutal retribution as a means of deterrent. “The Biter” — a piece of iron with pointed teeth like a hunter’s trap — was placed on women’s breasts, then firmly pressed down, causing deep wounds. According to a British Daily Mail interview with a woman who was subjected to this type of torture in Raqqa, “I was in the market buying a few items when Al-Khansa brigade arrived and detained me, on the grounds that the veil that I wore did not conform with the requirements of the Sharia law because it is transparent (…). Then they took me to their headquarters in the city, escorted me to the torture room, and then they gave me a choice either be whipped or the biter (…) I didn’t know what the biter is, I thought it was a lighter sentence, in fact I was afraid of whipping, so I decided to choose the biter, then they came with a sharp tool that had many teeth and grabbed me, placed it on my breasts and pressed firmly, I screamed in pain and was severely injured. Then they took me to the hospital (…). And I felt that my femininity had been completely destroyed, we can no longer endure living like this, I was not the only one that was tortured with that instrument, there were large numbers of women in the headquarters, the situation was tragic in reality.” (See “Many women have been tortured by it — the biter — the latest method of intimidation used by ISIS female police” Elaph January 1, 2015.)
In the 2015 book Frauen für den Dschihad: Das Manifest der IS-Kämpferinnen (Women for Jihad: Statement of the Fighters of the Islamic State) Hamida Mohaqiqi, a professor of Islamic studies, analyzes the materials published by women of the Al-Khansa battalion. He writes, “In an increasingly complex world this (publication) is a display that relieves you from thinking and liberates you of burdens.” Mohaqiqi warns that the intellectual agility of ISIS is one of its elements of success: “The picture of life in the areas controlled by the organization is polishes. There is no talk here about the brutality of the organization against the naysayers or against non-Muslims and against those who refuse to comply with its orders.” ISIS also tries to win sympathy among Arab women by noting their difficult social circumstances, identity crises, and the increasing burdens on poor Muslim women in particular, and promises to solve these issues in its own way.” (See: “Publication of the Women’s Section of ISIS — Women in the Islamic State — ISIS’s Method to attract Women and Jihadi Brides,” Qantara, September 8, 2015.)
The following statement, published by Al-Khansa battalion on January 23, 2015, explains that for females inducted into the Islamic State, “It is legitimate for girls to marry at the age of nine. Most pure girls marry at the age of 16 or 17. From this age, a girl is to remain hidden from sight, and to support the Caliphate from behind closed doors.” The statement adds that girls should not lag behind, but must, in fact, receive an education, especially concerning all aspects of the Islamic religion — but only between the ages of seven and 15. The statement says: “The Western model of women’s emancipation, to leave her home to work, has failed. Women acquired nothing from the notion of equality with men except thorns.” The statement indicates that the main role of women is to “abide” in their homes Rather than fight, they should support male fighters from home, bearing and raising children. (See Frank Gardner, “A Muslim Woman’s Guide to Life Under the Rule of the ‘Islamic State,’ BBC Arabic, February 5, 2015).
The appeal of jihadism to some women is a phenomenon that clearly merits further research. Are they motivated by nostalgia for a traditional way of life and desire to escape the burdens of modernity? Researchers will need to study the matter in depth and avoid reductionist conclusions.