In a release dated February 7th 2018 the Islamic State (IS) published a new propaganda video which featured violent clashes with enemies, suicide attacks and a father’s farewell message to his children. Largely speaking, the video resembles thousands of other such videos released by IS via its media organisations. At one point, however, the footage shifts to focus on several women heading into battle alongside male IS members. This is the first confirmed case of women taking part in combat on the side of IS. In a group where the domestic and even subservient role of women (towards their children and husbands) is emphasised, this is a significant event.
Women Take to the Field in Syria
Titled “Inside the Khilafah 7”, the video was released by the al-Hayat Media Center, one of the official media groups run by IS.1.“The ISIS propaganda war: a high-tech media jihad” : The Guardian The propaganda video details the ongoing fighting between IS and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the former’s remaining territory along the Euphrates river in eastern Syria. This fighting has been termed by IS “Revenge for the Chaste Women”. The footage showed at least three women fighting alongside men against the SDF. The female fighters are the focus of several shots, and the narrator talks about them specifically: “And following them [the men], the chaste Mujahidat women journey to her Lord with the garments of purity and faith, seeking revenge for her religion and for the honour of her sisters imprisoned by the apostate Kurds.”
Alongside the footage from “Inside the Khilafah 7”, the IS-run Amaq news agency released a video on January 19th which some have claimed shows women in combat. The video showed fighting between IS and the SDF from the same operation as the “Inside the Khilafah 7” footage. There has been much debate, especially among IS supporters, over whether or not the video actually showed female IS combatants.
While many were initially shocked at the footage of women fighting, believing that this is an unexpected event that IS would not normally tolerate, such shock is arguably unfounded. While it is certainly unprecedented, there have been multiple statements from official IS media as well as pro-IS sources in regards to women in combat. Suggesting that their position on women in combat has shifted over time as the strain of battlefield losses has become more difficult to bear.
In early 2015, a woman claiming to be part of the IS “al-Khansaa Brigade” released a document online which discussed the role of women in the Caliphate. The document focused on the role of the women in the home, but it did say that “if the enemy is attacking their country, and men are not enough to protect it, and the imams give a fatwa for it”, then women can fight.2.Bryson, Rachel, “Female Fighters Show ISIS’s Changing Nature”, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
A pro-IS female orientated media group named the “Zawra’a Foundation” outlined in a leaflet in 2015 that there were several exceptional circumstances in which women could take up arms, all relating to defending themselves and their home or on the direct orders of an Emir.3.The Mujahidat Dilemma: Female Combatants and the Islamic State : Combating Terrorism Center
Only in late 2016 did official IS media discuss the role of women in combat. An article published in al-Naba, the group’s weekly newsletter, claimed that a woman could participate in Jihad if defending her abode.4.The Mujahidat Dilemma: Female Combatants and the Islamic State : Combating Terrorism Center In a mid-2017 release of their Rumiyah magazine, IS officials also encouraged their fighters to “rise with courage and sacrifice in this war as the righteous women did at the time of the Messenger of Allah.” The article went on to list women who participated in combat during the time of the Prophet Mohammed.5.Bryson, Rachel, “Female Fighters Show ISIS’s Changing Nature”, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
In early October 2017, IS made their clearest statement yet on women in combat, stating in al-Naba that “Muslim women must fulfil their duty in supporting the mujahideen in the fight, in every way possible”, and adding that “they should regard themselves as jihadis for the sake of God and prepare to defend their religion with themselves” and “actually take up what many men do”, referring to combat actions.6.“Islamic State calls on female supporters to take part in ‘jihad’” : Middle East Eye
Outside of the apparent justification for female combatants found in written publications, it is important to note that women are not just limited to domestic roles in IS-occupied territory. Though that is their most important task according to IS, and is emphasised in the groups propaganda. The previously mentioned “al-Khansaa Brigade” is a homogeneous police force that operated in Raqqa and filled its ranks with IS-supporting women. The brigade’s job was to punish other women for failing to follow IS’s laws.7.“ISIS women and enforcers in Syria recount collaboration, anguish, and escape” : New York Times Many other women were also active online, recruiting for IS and expressing support for the group.8.“How ISIS is recruiting women from around the world” : Time Magazine Last year, during the latter stages of the Battle of Mosul, there were also several unconfirmed reports of women being used as suicide bombers.9.“ISIS unleashes dozens of female suicide bombers in battle for Mosul” : Newsweek
A Global Phenomenon
Women seem to play a more active role among IS affiliates in Southeast Asia. Wives of fighters have previously been pictured at militant camps in the Philippines10.https://twitter.com/SaladinAlDronni/status/935900036755525632 and several arrested for being active recruiters.11.“DOJ slaps 295 cases vs. alleged IS recruiter” : Inquirer Women are also known to play an important role in financing for their husbands and the militant groups they are part of.12.“Who is Farhana Maute?” : Rappler One woman, arrested for links with the Philippines-based affiliate Maute Group, had explosives hidden in her house when police searched it. 13.“Philippine Police arrest Indonesian widow of Marawi militant leader : BenarNews In Indonesia, police arrested and charged a woman suspected of preparing a suicide attack that was organised by an IS militant in Syria.14.“Jail for Indonesian woman who planned suicide strike” : The Straits Times
On social media sites like Facebook, several women have appeared as ‘nodes’ connecting a large number of IS fighters and supporters among the South East Asia region, particularly the Philippines. Often they are the wives of fighters, and tend to have more connections to other IS related profiles compared to profiles run by men. This would suggest they are active in recruiting and connecting supporters. Farhana Maute, the mother of the two brothers who founded the Maute Group, was seen as an important matriarch in the organisation. She played an important role in recruitment, logistics and funding and also helped to care for wounded fighters. In addition, she was known to personally buy weapons and equipment for the group.15.“Who is Farhana Maute?” : Rappler The wives of militants fighting in the Battle of Marawi were alleged to have fired on troops.16.http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/11/09/malaysian-militants-see-marriage-as-way-to-spread-ideology-says-igp/ While an eyewitness supposedly saw young girls being used by IS militants during the battle to man checkpoints, run errands, and carry out other tasks. The young girls were never witnessed actually fighting, but did reportedly carry weapons.17.“Philippine matriarch Farhana Maute alleged kingpin in Isis assault” : Stuff.co.nz
Elsewhere in the world, women have been implicated in multiple attempted terror attacks carried out in the name of IS. In Kenya three women were killed when attacking a police station, leaving behind a note pledging allegiance to IS. In France, a woman was arrested along with her boyfriend, both on suspicion of planning a terror attack inspired by IS. Israel also arrested two women who were planning an attack inspired by IS.18.“Women and Jihad” : News Deeply According to a Belgian IS fighter interviewed by American soldiers in Syria, female attackers were not only inspired, but trained and sent back to Europe by IS to carry out terror attacks on behalf of the group.19.“ISIS trained Dutch, Belgian women to commit attacks” : NL Times
Boko Haram, a group which pledged allegiance to IS in 2015, has used women and girls extensively in suicide attacks. While many of these women and girls have been coerced into such attacks, many also volunteered. 20.“ISIS Just Started Using Female Suicide Bombers, But Boko Haram Has Been Doing It for Years – And Shows No Sign of Stopping: Newsweek Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to IS, also used female suicide bombers during its tenure. The group leader, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, released multiple statements discussing the role of women as suicide bombers, while the organisation would issue statements about attacks carried out by women.21.“ISIS’ Female Suicide Bombers are no Myth” : Foreign Affairs
Outside of the ideological and practical positions on women fighting, there is plenty of religious context for the act. At the time of the Prophet Mohammed there were several cases of women fighting, such as Umm ‘Amarah fighting by his side in multiple battles, and Khawlah bint al-Azwar fighting in several battles against the Byzantine Empire.22.Cook, David, “Women Fighting in Jihad?”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28:375-384 (2005) These are just two of several examples, plenty of which have been mentioned positively in official IS publications.
More recently several fatawa, or religious rulings, have been issued regarding women in combat. Nawaf al-Takruri’s Martyrdom Operations in the Legal Balance lists six rulings that allow women to participate in martyrdom operations.23.Cook, David, “Women Fighting in Jihad?”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28:375-284 (2005) In 1979, al-Qaeda founding member Abdullah Azzam, published the treatise Defence of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation after Faith,24.https://english.religion.info/2002/02/01/document-defence-of-the-muslim-lands/ in which it is written that defensive jihad was a personal duty for every Muslim — including women.
The reactions of IS supporters to evidence of women fighting for the group varied. Some were angered by the use of female fighters: in an unlisted Telegram group, one supporter said “What has become of our caliphate? God help us.” However, anger was not the dominant reaction. Many male supporters felt shame rather than anger at the images of women fighting. On Facebook a common reaction was a ‘crying’ emoji, while comments on Facebook and Telegram include statements complaining about the situation women were in and how men had failed them. Many complained how this was a failure of the men of the caliphate, that they had failed to protect the women because these have been forced to take up arms.
Surprisingly, one of the most common reactions was positive. Pictures of women fighting were shared widely on Telegram and social media sites like Facebook with positive comments. Such comments included “bless the Martyrs of Jihad” and “God bless the men and women of the Caliphate.”On Facebook a common reaction was the ‘heart’ emoji, while some people even changed their cover photos to still images from “Inside the Khilafah 7” showing women on the frontlines. A nasheed (a form of vocal music which is popular in Islam) piece was uploaded to YouTube including a slideshow of images showing women fighting for IS.
Women had never before been shown in active combat by official IS media, but despite this change it is unlikely that women will start regularly participating in active combat — such a drastic shift seems unlikely in a group that is as conservative as IS. Even if their media has tentatively discussed the role of women combatants, the overall majority of female related content discussed their role in the home. Propaganda pictures and videos released since “Inside the Khilafah 7” have also shown no other signs of female combatants.
However, in light of their caliphate being defeated on the ground, and as IS continues its shift to an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, women within the group will likely seek out new roles. The domestic role which has been most strongly emphasised so far is less feasible without a physical caliphate. More likely, women will become increasingly active in support roles such as recruiting, financing, and logistics, as has been shown in Southeast Asia. Alongside this shift, one might see the return of female suicide bombers following the example set by AQI. Far from being rejected by its supporters, judging from the surprisingly positive reaction from them towards “Inside the Khilafah 7”, a more active role for women in IS would be welcomed by its base.