Friday, February 27, 2015

Introduction to A Series Of Posts About Women And ISIS

Since last August I have collected material on the news, pseudo-news, opinion pieces and deeper articles about the terrorist movement which is called by various names (IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) and which currently holds large land areas in Syria and Iraq.   My archives are now crammed with stories, my brain is now crammed with various theological and quasi-theological explanations about men and women as well as with arguments concerning local, colonial, global and religious politics.  If I don't write any of that out my head needs to hire an external storage space.

Hence this series which I introduce here.  The goal I had from the very beginning is to study IS (the acronym I choose to use for its brevity) from the angle of how it regards women's proper roles, how it plans to control women and what those plans tell us about the more patriarchal cultural rules concerning women.

 Given that IS views itself as a caliphate*, a state, and not as a mobile group of terrorists the rules it puts in place must be regarded as permanent, reflecting the way the leadership of the movement would ultimately treat all women within either the current borders of the caliphate or anywhere in the longer run.  The latter is because of the end-times assumption of the clerics in the movement who believe in a much larger caliphate.  Possibly even a worldwide caliphate. 

The IS is a terrorist organization which most nations, whether majority Muslim or not, deplore.  Its views and opinions and actions should not be confused with those of Muslims in general.  We must be careful not to carry out false religious generalizations, just as false generalizations about race or gender should be avoided.  But it is still important to note that when what I'd call extreme conservative religious movements start rising in a country, the very first thing they do is put women into pressure kettles by reducing the allowed circles within which women  may function without punishment.  These moves are about who owns women.

And that is often downplayed by outsiders, including the media, at least if we consider the fact that these restrictions and rules apply to half the population.

In the case of IS, the Western media has focused on its general atrocities,  its policy of inviting the whole world to view public slaughters (and forcing the locals to attend those beheadings or crucifixions) and its attempts to create a religious war with the West.   That focus is understandable, given the emotional reactions the atrocities generate.  But a focus on the gender politics of IS is also very important, and that is what I wanted to tease out from the events, as reported in the global media.

As the material piled up I noticed that it allowed me to ask several additional questions about gender and IS.  For example, how does the Western media cover those women who travel to join IS willingly and voluntarily?  How does the media cover the female Kurdish fighters who attack IS with weapons, side by side with men?  The Kurds are also mostly Muslim in religion.

All these questions must be answered against cultural backgrounds.  What I mean by those are the assumptions and traditions which prevailed before IS exploded in the arena, both in terms of how Sunni Muslims in the IS occupied areas actually treated women and in terms of how countries in the west understood and interpreted the meaning of radical Islamist women in their own countries.

They must also be answered against the relevant political backgrounds:  the civil war in Syria and the atrocities carried out by the Syrian leadership, the vast numbers of fighters arriving in Syria and available for further radicalization but still regarded as foreigners by the local people, the colonial and oil politics of the West, the long animosity between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq, the Turkish politics with respect to Syria and the Kurds, the role of Saudi Arabia, the role of Iran and the role of the Israel-Palestine conflict etc..

I am not able to cover all the complications sufficiently but you should keep them in mind in considering the atrocities IS commits, not because it would somehow defend them but because they give us a better understanding why the negative impact on women isn't getting the attention it should:  Gender equality is not among the goals of the fighters and politicians in these battles, rather the reverse, and neither is it necessarily something the majority of the people in the occupied areas focus on.  And that may include the majority of the women in the IS-occupied areas.

The planned posts include

1. How IS believes Muslim women should exist, what those beliefs are based on and how they are enforced.

2. How sexual slavery and rape is justified by the IS theologians and how the vast majority of Muslim theologians regard those justifications.

3. How Western media interprets the "woman question" of IS, with a focus on the stories told about the women and girls traveling to join IS


4. The coverage of Kurdish female fighters in the Western media, often as a counterpoint to the IS views about women's proper roles.

Then the limitations, which are crucial to keep in mind.  First, I'm not an expert in theological explanations concerning any religion, including Islam, and neither am I an expert in the politics of the area.  But I'm a diligent reader and a fairly competent researcher, and I hope that my erudite commentators will correct me when I get things wrong.

Second, the news that we get from the IS occupied areas must be considered very carefully.  That's because the place is so dangerous for journalists that it's unusual to get, say, three independent observations about any one event.  This makes it more likely that some stories contain inaccuracies or even lies.

I have tried to avoid falling into the trap of false reporting by looking for more than one source on various events, but it's impossible to guarantee that all the links I use are reliable ones.  On the other hand, the terrorists themselves provide evidence on many of the atrocities they have committed and defend them by explaining their reasoning.

Third, because of the focus of the series is on women I don't write more about the roots of IS than is needed for the rest of the story.  That means that I'm not going to cover the reasons for its existence or the role of colonial or oil politics or the role of Saudi Arabia in spreading Wahhabism.  You might put my focus this way:  Given that there is this terrorist movement, why does it have a particular policy about women?

Finally, I want to stress the importance of understanding that this series is not about Islam in general nor about many of its multiple sects nor about average believers.  It is about a particular terrorist movement.  Nothing in this series should be used to condemn innocent Muslims or innocent people in general.

The first post in the series may be found here, the second post here, and the third post here.
*The history of the term is discussed here.  Though few believe that IS is the promised end-times caliphate, it is possible that some of those who have joined it, including women, believe in that prophecy.  The role of hijra matters here.  Though theologians argue that hijra has not been required since Mohammad died, IS uses it as the reason why others should travel to the IS occupied areas and support it.