The West Needs to Take the Politics of Women in ISIS Seriously
In recent weeks, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have closed in on the last remaining Islamic State holdout in eastern Syria. The remains of the so-called caliphate occupy less than half of a square mile of a small village called Baghuz, and all but a few hundred remaining insurgents have been driven out of the area by U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish ground operations. Over a thousand fighters and civilians, including many Islamic State militants’ wives and children, have fled. The SDF houses them in camps such as al-Hol, where humanitarian conditions are dire and the application of international law is ambiguous at best.
In the camps, the muhajirat, that is, Western women who joined the Islamic State, are easy to find. And tales of muhajirat like the American Hoda Muthana and the British Shamima Begum “begging to come home” have dominated headlines over the last two weeks. Their stories are part of a wave of recent coverage of Islamic State women, much of it pointing to a supposedly new and uniquely dangerous “Islamic State women problem.” Unfortunately, many of these accounts rest on flimsy scholarship and irresponsible reporting. The sensationalist, politicized, and often factually misleading nature of some reports masks complex political dynamics and peddles tired cliches about women in war, now cast with Iraqis and Syrians instead of Palestinian, Chechen, Timorese, Lebanese, Tamil, or Nigerian women.
Portraying the women of the Islamic State exclusively as victims to be saved or monsters to be feared strips women of their humanity and denies them the complexity, nuance, and depth that media and policymakers readily afford to men. Post-conflict policy that fails to take women’s politics seriously will only feed cycles of violence and impede the pursuit of a sustainable peace.