The ‘ISIS widows’ and the myth of the innocent women jihadists

Today the ISIS 'widows' are the center of sympathy.

A displaced woman from the minority Yazidi sect, who was kidnapped by Islamic State militants of Tal Afar but managed to flee, reacts in Duhok province, northern Iraq, November 24, 2016.  (photo credit: ARI JALAL / REUTERS)
A displaced woman from the minority Yazidi sect, who was kidnapped by Islamic State militants of Tal Afar but managed to flee, reacts in Duhok province, northern Iraq, November 24, 2016.
(photo credit: ARI JALAL / REUTERS)
One woman recalled being raped by an Islamic State fighter. First the fighter’s wife would come in and put makeup on her. Then the wife would force her to dress up. Then, when his wife was done “preparing” her, the husband would come and rape her. According to an account published this year, the survivor remembers the rapist calling her “kuffar,” the Islamist word for sub-human or “unbeliever.”
Today the ISIS “widows” are the center of sympathy.
“Hundreds of ISIS widows trapped in Syria as caliphate falls,” a headline at The Sunday Times claims. The article tells us that young ISIS brides miss their homes far away. They are the victims now. Then there is the story of the German woman who joined ISIS and now claims to have been an “idiot” for doing so. She was a teenager and left home to go to romantic and exotic Syria and Iraq.
She showed little remorse, according to an article at The Telegraph. According to the article the German teen fell in love with a Chechen man she met online.
Supposedly she didn’t even learn his last name, despite going all the way to Syria and Iraq with him. He was just “Mohamed” and his last name was “something Chechen.” Life in the caliphate consisted of cleaning and moving between Raqqa and Mosul and looking after the kids of other ISIS women.
The thousands of Yazidi slaves that ISIS captured in August 2014 tell a different story of the ISIS women.
One told a reporter from Alternet that some of the jihadists’ wives were “worse” than the men. A Yazidi woman named Seeham said that the ISIS women would shout abuse at her. One of the women forced her to shave her body and “brought sexy clothes to wear for her husband and helped him rape me by tying me to the bed.” It got worse. Seeham had a little daughter.
The ISIS women would bring over their friends and force the Yazidi woman, whom they viewed as a “slave,” to clean the house. They would mock and tease her as she cleaned and boast about their “slave.” Seeham recalls that one time while cleaning the ISIS women kept her crying daughter on the fourth floor of the house. “She forced me to clean from the fourth floor to the first floor, the whole time I could hear my daughter crying,” she said, but the ISIS women would not allow her to breastfeed the little girl.
This is the face of ISIS and its army of women and men. In 2017 as the extremists are defeated, the remnants, like former Nazis, are running to play the victim.
Foremost among them are women, who claim they were “brainwashed” and pose as victims “trapped” in Iraq and Syria. These are the foreign women who ran to join ISIS in 2014 when it was at the height of its power.
They thought the Fourth Reich ISIS was building in Syria and Iraq was a romantic and glorious state under the black flag. They reveled and participated in the abuses of indigenous peoples in Iraq and Syria, playing out colonialist fantasies of control and power.
Reading through dozens of testimonies from victims of ISIS, from ISIS perpetrators, and civilians in Raqqa and Mosul, the presence and role of ISIS women is clear.
They were not just dupes or brainwashed innocents.
They joined their husbands, who were often also foreign fighters, in confiscating the property of locals.
They joined their husbands in expelling locals and in abusing “slaves” the men purchased. Accounts tell of ISIS women encouraging their husbands to sell and buy women on online forums, such as Telegram.
To pretend that ISIS “widows” played no role or were innocent victims replicates the chauvinist world view of ISIS and pretends that women are not equal to men in their choices.
Research conducted by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and reported in The Independent says at least 550 women from Europe joined ISIS.
The research found that many women saw ISIS as a source of “empowerment.” Women also wanted to rebel against Western secularism. “We are created to be mothers and wives, as much as the [Western] society has warped your views on this with a hidden feminist mentality,” one woman wrote, according to the article.
An article by Shiraz Maher at The New Statesman in August claimed that while women were often sent to work in schools or hospitals, some became female suicide bombers. “Our research at King’s College London shows that women are often more ideologically motivated as ISIS recruits than their male counterparts.”
Women in Nazi Germany played much the same role as under ISIS.
“The National Socialist Women’s Union and German Women’s Agency used Nazi propaganda to encourage women to focus on their roles as wives and mothers,” writes the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. According to the National Committee for Attending Deportees that covers the experience of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, there were 3,500 Nazi women guards at Auschwitz. “These [guards] women were also very rude and terrible with us. Generally much worse than German men. They would beat us, kick us, and shove us for any trifle,” recalled a survivor named Kottmann.
Kottmann’s account is reminiscent of Seeham the Yazidi survivor’s, because for Jewish women and Yazidi women the experience of genocide is much the same.
To pretend that there are ISIS “widows” and “jihadi brides” who were brainwashed and “trapped” is to ignore reality. Those who joined ISIS did so to murder and kill, to rape and genocide, to colonize and conquer.
They bought plane tickets, they traveled hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to be part of their genocidal utopia. They are no more innocent than the men who joined.
We must not fall into the myth that they had no choice. Women who journey to join organizations like ISIS are perpetrators alongside men. Their role in the organization may be different, but they have a role and agency nonetheless. Just like Nazis after the Holocaust sought to pretend they were just “farmers” and “clerks,” these women after the fall of ISIS now want to wander back into society. They pretend they didn’t ever read the news before going to Syria. They pretend they didn’t know their husband’s names.
These are the same people who were proficient enough online to go meet jihadists and even watch as slaves were bought and sold online. We’re supposed to believe that they could use social media to meet their husbands but didn’t ever see a video about beheadings and genocide? The testimonies of survivors tell a different story. These women were every bit as cruel, sometimes more so, then the men.