How Women Enforce ISIS’ Abhorrent Laws Against Women

CREDIT: Channel 4/Shutterstock, ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos

Khadijah Dare, who gave her name as "Maryam" in a Channel 4 documentary, takes aim.

The FBI has charged the wife of an ISIS leader with holding an American aid worker captive and subjecting her to sexual slavery. Kayla Mueller was killed in an airstrike in Syria last February after being held hostage since she was abducted in 2013.

Mueller was held captive by an Iraqi woman named Nisreen Assad Ibrahim Bahar and her husband, a former oil and gas minister for the militant group. Bahar is in Iraqi custody for providing material support to ISIS, the group that refers to itself as the Islamic State.

An unidentified woman kneels near a makeshift memorial for Kayla Mueller in Prescott, Ariz.  on Feb. 15, 2014.

An unidentified woman kneels near a makeshift memorial for Kayla Mueller in Prescott, Ariz. on Feb. 15, 2014.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Brian Skoloff, File)

U.S. officials have said that Mueller was repeatedly raped by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, in an arrangement which it said was akin to sexual slavery.

Bahar admitted responsibility for holding the 26-year-old Arizona-native captive while her husband was away. According to the affidavit, she said that Mueller was “owned” by al-Baghdadi during his visits to the couple’s home.

“This criminal complaint is another step toward achieving justice in the case,” said Paul M. Abbate, who is a part of the FBI office that investigated the matter.

The affidavit reveals the extent of Bahar’s involvement in holding Mueller captive and subjecting her to rape. While women have been among the most vocal supporters of ISIS online, they don’t often take such a hands-on role on the ground. That’s not for a lack of interest, but rather because of the group’s stringently enforced gender roles. As the case of Bahar shows, women in ISIS only seem to engage in ISIS’ militant actions when it comes to dealing with women captives like Mueller or women who overstep the group’s laws on behavior and dress.

Extremist Distortions Of Islam

At the beginning of Islam’s history, women were afforded liberties that were nonexistent in other societies, like the right to inheritance and the right to consent to marriages and dissolve them. While such rights seem to be givens now, the religion put women’s rights on the agenda in its earliest years.

If it seems like Islamic teachings now offer a cover to the oppression of women, it’s because the spirit of its scripture has been re-interpreted by men with the intention of pushing women to the margins, according to Reza Aslan, author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. “[F]or fourteen centuries, the science of Quranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men” who, Aslan goes on to write, applied their own misogynistic and patriarchal views to their interpretations.

That said, Muslims around the world have incredibly differing views on the rights and roles of women.

It’s true that traditional Islamic teachings call on men to travel to the mosque for prayers, while women are not required to do so. ISIS has taken that prescription to an extreme by circumscribing women to their homes — and to lives devoted exclusively to the needs of their husbands and children. Such a role is eschewed by most Muslims, who recognize that Islam’s Prophet Mohammad accepted Khadijah, a woman who was a wealthy merchant, and not a homemaker, to be his first wife.

Despite this, ISIS has decried the liberation of women and said that they should focus on “nurturing and preparing [their sons] for life,” in “Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study,” a document obtained and translated by the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counter-extremism think tank.

“The base of society is shaken, its foundations crumble and its walls collapse,” when women seek stretch beyond the bounds of their homes, an ISIS propagandists wrote in the manifesto. “Verily God has ordained this sedentary existence for women, and it cannot be better in any way, for He is the Creator and He Knows what works and what does not in religion.”

According to the treatise, women can participate in battle but only under extreme circumstances, nothing that “It is always preferred for a woman to remain hidden and veiled.”


With such strict rules that bar women from leaving their homes without a male chaperone, women who join ISIS stress the importance of finding a husband — and indeed, many are married off soon after arrival in Syria.

This is something that the women who have joined ISIS readily admit.

“The reality is that to stay without a man here is really difficult,” a Scottish woman named Aqsa Mahmood who has actively recruited women to join ISIS wrote in a post on her now suspended Tumblr account:

I have stressed this before on twitter but I really need sisters to stop dreaming about coming to Shaam [Syria] and not getting married. Wallahi [I swear to God] life here is very difficult for the Muhajirat [migrating woman] and we depend heavily on the brothers for a lot of support. It is not like the [W]est where you can casually walk out and go to Asda/Walmart and drive back home … even till now we have to stay safe outside and must always be accompanied by a Mahram [male relative or husband].

When women stray from those prescriptions, it seems to be women who mete out their punishments.

Women Lay Down The Law Against Women

After a 21-year old Syrian woman ventured out without wearing the loose robe, gloves, and double-layered black veil that the group requires of all women in its territory, she was tortured to death by a female ISIS fighter called Umm Farouq.

ISIS’ views on proper behavior and attire for women are enforced by a group of about 30 women, according to a woman who was seduced into ISIS — and then later defected.

The group is referred to as the “Khansa’a Brigade”, and it patrols the streets of Raqqa, Syria for women in embellished or form-fitting attire and punishes those it deems to be dressed inappropriately.

Lashings against transgressors to the dress code were carried out by a woman called Umm Hamza.

“She’s not a normal female,” said the ISIS-defector, who identified herself by the pseudonym Khadija. “She’s huge, she has an AK, a pistol, a whip, a dagger and she wears the niqab [face veil].”

The woman helped Khadija learn to clean, dismantle, and fire a weapon. While part of the Khansa’a Brigade, Khadija was paid $200 a month along with rations of food.

Even if female members of ISIS don’t often enter into battles, many of them seem to possess the skills and weapons needed to cause some serious damage.

When a group of women heard gunshots in Raqqa a few years ago, one of them tweeted for help. After learning that she was safe, Umm Khattab sent out another missive: “Laaawl me and the akhawats [sisters] thought maybe murtads [apostates] were in the city lool I put the belt on and everything.”

While she didn’t find cause to detonate her suicide belt then, she and the other women of ISIS appear eager for a fight.

Battle-Ready Women

While Umm Khattab didn’t find cause to detonate her suicide belt then, she and the other women of ISIS appear eager for a fight.

A woman who identified herself on Twitter as “muhajira fi Sham”, or “immigrant in Syria”, said that she wanted to be ISIS’ first female executioner after American journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS in August 2014.

Screen shot 2016-02-10 at 12.27.43 PM

CREDIT: Twitter

The account– which has since been suspended — was believed to belong to Khadijah Dare, a young British woman who traveled to Syria after converting to Islam in September 2012.

“I wonder if I can pull a Mulan and enter the battle field [sic],” Another ISIS-sympathizer called Umm Ubaydah, or “the mother of Ubaydah” tweeted, referring to the Chinese heroine of Disney movie fame who disguised herself as a man in order to become a soldier at least 1500 years ago.

“Maybe the time for us to participate will be soon,” she added, although Umm Ubaydah later suggested that women should focus on their role as homemakers. “The best thing a man can do is jihad, and the best thing for a women is to be a righteous wife and to raise righteous children.”

According to a treatise on the role of women written by ISIS officials, however, that time may never come.