Thursday, March 05, 2015

IS And Women. Part 1: The Rules For Sunni Muslim Women

What would life be like for a woman living in the imaginary caliphate IS* is creating or trying to create?  What rules would women have to follow?  What is life like for women who today live in the area under IS rule?

These are the questions I wish to tackle in the first and second posts of my series on IS and women.  This post, the first one, will address the terrorists' plans for Muslim women, or at least the kind of Muslim women (Sunni or perhaps only Salafi) that its clerics view as proper believers, as opposed to non-believers, a term which covers all non-Muslims and possibly even Shia Muslims.  The second post will cover the treatment of those female "non-believers."

I try to answer the three questions I posed above with three sets of available information:  First, the concept of sharia law the IS clerics advocate, second the evidence we have from the guidelines the women's wing of IS, the Al Khanssaa Brigade, has provided and, third, the news (1) about how women are treated by IS in the areas it occupies in Syria and Iraq.

1.  Sharia and Women in IS

Sharia is the system of religious laws in Islam.  Its main roots are in the Koran and in the sunna (practice, conduct and the tradition of Mohammed), which means that it is based on the norms and beliefs of a society which existed about 1500 years ago.  A different interpretation of sharia sees it as the system of laws given by a supreme power.  Such a system cannot be altered by mere humans.

Sharia can be interpreted in many different ways (2), including ways which take into account the changed circumstances from Mohammed's time.   But the clerics of IS have adopted a very strict interpretation of sharia as the law they employ in the occupied areas:

In “Profiling the Islamic State” Charles Lister of the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center writes about ISIS’ version of Islamic governance:
“The implementation of a strict form of sharia law is clearly central to IS’s governance,” he writes. “This includes imposing the hudud (fixed Islamic punishments for serious crimes); enforcing attendance of the five daily prayers; banning drugs, alcohol, and tobacco; controlling personal appearance, including clothing; forbidding gambling, non-Islamic music, and gender mixing; and ordering the destruction of religious shrines, among other rules.” (PDF)

Hudud  includes public stoning to death, public lashing, public execution and the amputation of hands.

Even less strict interpretations of sharia  conflict with gender equality (3).

Though it is possible to interpret some of its strictures in a more gender-egalitarian manner,  sharia reflects the gender norms of the age of Mohammed or at most the medieval era.

In the past edicts which prescribe different treatment of men and women may have made more sense.  For instance, that daughters always inherit less than sons in sharia could be viewed as reasonable in a society where women receive a dower (4) from the prospective husbands at marriage and where husbands alone are regarded as solely responsible for the financial upkeep of the family, whether the wife works for money or not (5).

Likewise, the part of sharia which states that male witnesses are to be regarded as more credible than female witnesses (initially only in financial matters) might have been sensible in a society where few women were allowed to have public roles or to handle money, and the rule forbidding women from traveling alone may have served to protect women during war times or against bandits during times of high crime.

But others cannot be salvaged in those terms.  Thus, divorce in sharia is much easier for men than for women and polygyny is legal for men up to four wives, while a woman may have only one husband at a time.

The strictest interpretations of sharia (used in Saudi Arabia) regard women as permanent legal minors, under the guardianship of their mahrams (husbands, fathers, brothers or adult sons). Women need the permission of their mahram to work outside the home, to travel and to engage in those religious activities which are not deemed obligatory.

One of the first moves of IS in the areas it has occupied is the establishment of sharia courts.  Given the strict form of sharia IS advocates, the Muslim women under its rule will have fewer rights than the Muslim men.

But this change is not one from perfect gender-equality to something much more hierarchical.  That is because sharia already is the foundation of the legislative systems of both Syria and Iraq.

Before the birth of IS  Syria already had sharia courts (for Muslims) which covered legal matters concerning marriage, divorce, inheritance and so on.  In those courts women's testimony was worth half of men's testimony, while in Syria's secular courts women's testimony was worth the same as men's testimony (6).

How large is the change IS brings to the interpretation of sharia when it comes to women's rights?  That is what matters when judging the impact of stricter sharia in the IS-occupied areas of today (7). Unfortunately, the information on that is currently very limited, though the next two sections cast some further light on the possible answers.

What is much clearer is the fact that the caliphate IS argues to be creating would be based on a very strict interpretation of Islamic law, possibly a stricter interpretation than that found in Saudi Arabia.  That interpretation would be forced on all Muslim women in the areas the caliphate aims to cover.  And in the long-run dreams of the terrorists it would be imposed on all women everywhere.

2.  Women in the Islamic State.  A Manifesto by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade

The title of this sub-section refers to a document translated by the Quilliam Foundation and supposedly written by members of the all-female Al-Khanssaa Brigade, a girls' auxiliary of IS which is responsible for morality policing of other women. 

The document may have been aimed at women in the Middle East, because it was not translated from Arabic to English by its creators.  It is intended as a guide to the life a woman in the planned caliphate should lead.

We learn that girls may marry as young as nine but should ideally by married by sixteen or seventeen, that girls should be educated, though mostly in religion (including sharia) and the skills required to care for children or the home and that women should not hold jobs outside the home if at all possible:

It is the “fundamental function” of a woman to be in the house with her husband and children, the jihadi guide says, adding that they may leave the house to serve the community only in exceptional circumstances – to wage jihad when there are no men available, to study religion, and female doctors and teachers are permitted to leave but “must keep strictly to sharia guidelines”.
“Yes, we say: ‘Stay in your houses’, but this does not mean, in any way, that we support illiteracy, backwardness or ignorance,” the English-language translation reads. “Rather, we just support the distinction between working – that which involves a woman leaving the house – and studying, as it was ordained she should do.”
The studying the document recommends is essentially the study of Islam.  Female teachers and doctors are allowed to "leave their houses," because strict gender segregation becomes inhumane if female patients get no care or girls no education.

With the exception of the reference to nine-year olds being able to marry the above principles don't sound that different from the principles of right-wing fundamentalists among the US Christians.  Indeed, they sound pretty much like the principles of all religiously conservative movements.  All of those focus on complementary roles for men and women (8) and stress the importance of having women stay at home (at least in the middle and upper classes).

Where does that "Stay in your houses" come from?  It is from the Koran, but the context matters greatly:

32. O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any other women. If you keep your duty (to Allah), then be not soft in speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease (of hypocrisy, or evil desire for adultery, etc.) should be moved with desire, but speak in an honourable manner.
33. And stay in your houses, and do not display yourselves like that of the times of ignorance, and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat), and give Zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah wishes only to remove Ar-Rijs (evil deeds and sins, etc.) from you, O members of the family (of the Prophet ), and to purify you with a thorough purification.
Despite the reference of the wives of the Prophet not being like any other women, the above  is applied by some to all Muslim women and used as a basis for arguing that women's proper place is at home.  But even that interpretation does not go as far as stating that women should not work outside the home (though there may be conditions to that work, including the husband's permission).

Because this manifesto cannot be viewed as an official IS statement it is difficult to know how much weight we should assign it in terms of the rules for Muslim women in the imaginary (future) or real caliphate.  But I doubt that the powers-that-be within IS would frown on this:

The document, Women of the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study, says women must stay behind closed doors and leave the house only in exceptional circumstances.
“It is always preferable for a woman to remain hidden and veiled, to maintain society from behind this veil,” the English translation says.
Or on the condemnation of the Western ways in the manifesto:

The model preferred by infidels in the West failed the minute that women were “liberated” from their cell in the house.
Problems emerged one after another after they took on corrupted ideas and shoddy-minded beliefs instead of religion, Shariah and the methodology of life that was ordained by God. The falsity of these ideas were made evident by governments giving salaries to those who return to their homes and raise their children, finally openly accepting that they are “housewives”.
Here, we are not going to present a list of the negatives that are caused in communities from the “women’s emancipation” narrative. These are apparent, unhidden from the distant observer, let alone the close observer. Rather, women have this Heavenly secret in sedentariness, stillness and stability, and men its opposite, movement and flux, that which is the nature of man, created in him. If roles are mixed and positions overlap, humanity is thrown into a state of flux and instability. The base of society is shaken, its foundations crumble and its walls collapse.
The women of the Al-Khanssaa Brigade also disapprove of most scientific research and higher education of non-religious type.  That probably has something to do with their extremist take on religion, and in that resembles the attacks on higher education and science by conservative religious groups from other religions.  The only real difference I see is the level of control that is seen desirable on women's behavior.  It's turned a bit tighter here.

Juxtapose that with the idea of the terrorist group being radical.  It's not that it isn't, but some of the ways it is radical (perhaps even most ways) hark back to the imaginary times of 1500 years ago.  I use the term "imaginary" on purpose here, because we have no way of knowing how women in those long-past times actually lived, behaved or dressed.

I'm going to return to some of these ideas and recommendations in a later post of this series, about the reasons women from other countries might join IS.  But first to the last set of evidence we have about the way IS views the proper roles of Muslim women.

Evidence From IS-Occupied Areas of Syria And Iraq

IS invaded Raqqa in Syria by June of 2013 and Mosul in Iraq a year later.  These two areas are its headquarters in Syria and Iraq.  Although it is difficult to get news from either place, earlier news tell us that the terrorist organization enforces a strict dress code for women.  Those who violate it may be punished by lashing.

Reuters obtained copies of four statements issued on Sunday by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) prohibiting music from being played in public and photographs of people being posted in shop windows.
The sale of cigarettes and shisha water pipes are banned, women must wear the niqab, or full face veil, in public and men are obliged to attend Friday prayers at a mosque.
Thus, covering the face is obligatory for women in Raqqa.  Likewise, in Mosul women are required to wear the niqab or full face veil.  The linked sources suggest that the face veil should be white for unmarried women and black for married women.  Whether those colors have any religious justification is unclear, but what they certainly do is mark the women who might be coerced into marriage with the IS terrorists.

In November 2014 the UN reported on the treatment of women by IS in Syria:

47. In ISIS-controlled areas of Syria, women and girls have largely been confined to their houses, excised from public life.
48. ISIS regulations dictate what women must wear, with whom they may socialise, and where they may work. Women and girls over the age of 10 years must be fully covered when venturing outdoors. One woman, who had fled from the ISIS-stronghold of Minbij (Aleppo), described her clothing being checked at multiple checkpoints as she moved about the town. She explained, “you can hardly see your way...I fell many times. It is hard to breathe. You are walking in the street but it feels like a prison cell.” Women and girls are not permitted to be in the company of men outside of their immediate family. For women whose male relatives are dead, missing or fighting, the simple act of going to purchase food has become a hazardous undertaking.
49. ISIS’s rules exacerbate the subordinate role of women in society, reinforcing patriarchal attitudes. Failure to abide by these rules is punishable by lashing. Punishments may be carried out by the Al-Hisbah morality police but increasingly they are the responsibility of the all-female brigade, Al-Khans’aa, which assists in monitoring adherence to dress codes and enforcing punishments
Emphasis is mine.

Likewise, the UN reports from Iraq:

ISIL continues to perpetrate gross violations of the rights of women, subjecting women and children (both male and female) to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), particularly those from diverse religious and ethnic communities, particularly the Yezidi, who have been abducted by ISIL since August. Women also face severe restrictions on other rights, including freedom of movement, and face severe penalties, including lashings and execution, for transgressions of ISIL rules.
As previously noted, ISIL has been targeting women community and political leaders, subjecting them to abduction, torture and murder. As previously mentioned, in Mosul a number of female political leaders have been executed, including a prominent human rights activist and at least two female parliamentary candidates and a candidate for the Provincial Council elections.
ISIL has applied strict codes of behaviour on women and girls in areas under its control: when leaving their homes must be fully covered and accompanied by a male relative; certain occupations have been prohibited for women, and girls’ education has been curtailed or limited to only those topics deemed acceptable to ISIL.30
Emphasis is mine.

The above quotes suggest IS indeed employs an extreme interpretation of sharia, and not only when it comes to public executions, crucifixions and beheadings.  While all people living in the occupied areas are vulnerable to extreme violence and also subject to codes of conduct determined by IS, the form of gender policing it employs deprives women of the right to movement, makes working outside the home difficult, isolates women almost completely from the wider society, and makes something as routine as grocery shopping a route of hazards for those women who do not have a mahram (an appropriate adult male relative) to accompany them.

Two additional aspects of  Sunni Muslim women's lives in the occupied areas are extremely troubling.   One is the increased risk of sexual violence, kidnapping and rape (9) (a topic I will cover in greater detail in the next post of the series), the other is the increased likelihood that single women will be coerced into marriage with the IS terrorists.  From Syria:

51. Unmarried women – whom ISIS considers to be females over the age of puberty – pose a particular threat to the armed group’s enforced social order. Parents of unmarried women and girls are terrified of their daughters being forced to marry ISIS fighters and as a result, early marriage is on the rise. Their fears are not unfounded. There are distressing accounts of fighters taking girls as young as 13 years old away from their families, resulting in violations of international humanitarian law and acts that amount to war crimes of cruel treatment, sexual violence and rape.

It is difficult to see how any of that could be justified by the most perverted of religious interpretations.  Indeed, the atrocities IS engages in differ from the historic fate of vanquished women in wartime battles only in being done much more openly and on a much wider scale than in recent wars and in the fact that IS attempts to justify the most horrendous of these acts, rape and sexual slavery of religious minorities,  by its interpretation of religious texts.

That the lives of Sunni Muslim women in IS occupied areas have become much harder is obvious.  But this must be placed against the background of a civil war in Syria and the continued unrest in Iraq.  The IS is not the only group which has killed, kidnapped and raped in those two countries.  What have been frightening and dangerous times for all those who live in the occupied areas have become many times more frightening and dangerous for some, including the women of Raqqa and Mosul.

As pointed out in the introduction to this series, it is difficult to get objective news from the IS-occupied areas because of the hazards to the journalists who venture there.  Thus, we cannot accurately measure the total extent of sexual violence perpetrated by the IS terrorists on Sunni Muslim women.  What my short overview of the events tells us, however, is that the rule of IS affects women in two apparently contradictory ways:

First, the IS clerics' interpretation of sharia is extreme when it comes to controlling women, but, second, the terrorists seem to regard  themselves above all laws, whether religious or not (10), when it comes to access to women for sexual purposes.

If this is what IS has in mind for the women whose religious affiliation they find acceptable, what about other women?  That is the topic of the second post in this series.

Once again, it's crucial to stress that we must not confuse IS with Muslims.  This series of posts is about radical fanatics who appear to read the Koran the way the devil reads the Bible and whose actual motivations are likely to be much more complicated than their simplistic and quasi-religious statements would suggest.

* IS is the acronym this series uses for the terrorist organization also called ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq and Daesh.  The introduction to this series is here , Part 2 of the series may be found here and Part 3 here.

(1) To be treated with caution, given the difficulties journalists have in entering IS occupied areas.

(2)  More than 120 Muslim scholars have written an open letter to IS, strongly disagreeing with most of their statements and actions from the standpoint of Islam.  In particular, the scholars state that it is forbidden in Islam to oversimplify sharia matters and that it is forbidden to ignore contemporary circumstances in legal decisions.

As an aside, the Slate article I used to find the letter notes that it is going to be difficult to understand for liberal audiences.  That may or may not be the case, but I'd argue that it's the responsibility of religious writers to make their arguments transparent to as wide an audience as possible.  Otherwise we are going to play the whack-a-mole game in debates of this type, where the arguments keep shifting like quicksand under our feet.

(3) To be treated with some caution, given the debate about the page.  I read the debate.  The criticisms didn't seem strong enough not to use this as a reference.

(4)  This is not a bride-price, but a sum of money or other resources given to the bride by the groom.  It is legally hers (though its payment may be deferred) and may function as a type of insurance should the husband later decide to divorce her, because the dower will have to be paid then if it has not been paid earlier.  See, however, the discussion of khula divorce here.

(5) The maintenance rights of the wife depend, however, on three conditions: validity of the marriage contract, the wife granting the husband sexual access at legal times and the wife obeying the husband's legal commands.  The latter two turn the wife into an employee of the husband.

(6) The links to Syrian legal practice are roughly a decade old.  I have no idea how well the courts are functioning during the civil war.  My point is to view the imposition of stricter sharia against the background of sharia, rather than against some ideal of gender-equality.

(7)  It is also important to note that a Pew survey on the world's Muslims found that sharia is regarded as divine law by the majority of Muslims in seventeen of the twenty-three countries the survey covered.  Sixty-nine percent of the Iraqi respondents in the survey viewed sharia as the revealed word of God, and  91% of the Iraqi respondents  expressed a desire for it to be the law of their land.  The Pew survey did not find statistically significant differences between men and women in those beliefs.

It's hard to argue against God.  Consider laws based on the Old Testament of the Bible.  If the majority of Christians were taught that those are revealed words of God, wouldn't most Christians then answer surveys of this kind in a manner matching the above findings for Muslims?

(8) I wish to point out that "complementary" roles here don't usually mean equal-but-different roles.  They are more akin to someone dividing a cake into one fourth and three-fourths.  The two are complementary in the sense that they make up the whole cake but they are not of equal size.

(9)  It is not possible to independently verify reports of these types.

(10)  The open letter to IS from over 120 Muslim clerics does not only condemn the group's interpretation of sharia in general, but makes a specific point (14) about its treatment of women:

In simple terms, you treat women like detainees and prisoners; they dress according to your whims; they are not allowed to leave their homes and they are not allowed to go to school.