You’ve Reversed a Long Way, Baby
It’s International Women’s Day -- and no one wants to talk about the Islamic State’s hold over women. Why Beijing+20 looks more like Beijing minus 2000.
It’s that time of year when activists, envoys, politicians, and their aides are putting final touches to their International Women’s Day events. March 8 may be just another day for most Americans, but in some parts it’s a very big deal. Presidents and prime ministers will soon be affirming that equality for women means progress for all. Speeches are being polished, mission statements are making the rounds, and draft documents are being examined in excruciating detail.
This year also happens to be “Beijing+20” — or 20 years since the watershed U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. So, anyone who’s anything in the women’s movement wants everything to be bigger, better, brighter. At the United Nations’ New York headquarters, a high-level international women’s conference will bring together officials and activists from across the world for a two-week extravaganza that will include marches and celebratory events featuring, I’ve been told, the likes of Hillary Clinton, Bill de Blasio, Michelle Obama, and “top musical artists.”
By the time the international news teams descend on Manhattan, journalists will have exhausted everything they have to say about the three missing London schoolgirls who are believed to have crossed the Turkey-Syria border into the self-declared Islamic State “caliphate” — which, in case you were wondering, will not be represented at the U.N. conference. Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and Amira Abase, 15, boarded a London-Istanbul flight on Feb. 17, joining a wave of women and girls heading for the Syria-Iraq badlands controlled by the Islamic State.
But who knows, something miraculous could happen to the three teenage girls who dominated the British headlines for several days. They may be found; they may realize that the jihadi El Dorado is actually Hell on Earth; they may miss their mummies. Until then, we can only wring our hands and hope and pray.
Two and a half years ago, we were horrified when Taliban militants attacked a preternaturally articulate Pakistani student on her way home from school in the Swat Valley. But Malala Yousafzai has a way of tapping into our collective conviction that good must surely triumph over evil. She survived; she emerged re-energized in her commitment to girls’ education; she delivered a rousing address at the U.N.; she won a Nobel Peace Prize.
This time though, we seem to have hit an all-time low. After what Amnesty International has called a “devastating year” when “the world’s politicians … miserably failed to protect those in greatest need,” our girls are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been. Straight-A students in London are being swayed by an Islamist group advocating sexual slavery, child marriage, gender subjugation, grotesque murders, and genocide of minorities. Women inside Islamic State-controlled territory are enticing other women across the world on social media sites with uploaded images of chick-jihadi heaven. And with it, a centuries-old progression on gender rights is going down the toilet in some parts.
Nobody has a clue about how many vulnerable women and girls are at risk. Some experts say an estimated 550 Western females are believed to have migrated to Islamic State-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq. This figure, however, does not include women from neighboring Arab countries. It would be safe to say that the number of women across the world at risk of being swayed by the Islamic State’s message — whether or not they plan to make their way to the “caliphate” — is in the thousands.
While some of the female migrants accompanied their fighter husbands, others have traveled independently, sometimes to marry fiancés they encountered online. The idea of women voluntarily signing up for a life of extreme restrictions in a conflict zone is so baffling that it has sparked a “jihadi brides” discourse that has ranged from the astute to the absurd, including an infamous CNN segment on the Islamic State luring women with kittens and Nutella.
Why are Western women and girls signing up for the Islamic State dream? For the same reasons that men are, say the experts.
Like their disaffected menfolk in the West, female migrants to Islamic State areas are inspired by a new vision for society and a chance to live out, what they believe, is a “true Islam.” As Katherine Brown, a lecturer in defense studies at King’s College London, noted in a BBC piece, “Women are joining [the Islamic State] because it provides a new utopian politics — participating in jihad and being part of the creation of a new Islamic state.”
Unlike their male counterparts, though, the female migrants — or muhajirat — aren’t getting anywhere near the heart of the action.
A vision of female Islamist warriors strutting around in their all-black hijabs and brandishing Kalashnikovs first captured our imaginations shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution, when Tehran was fighting the long, terrible Iran-Iraq War against a Western-backed Saddam Hussein. By the time the United States decided to oust Saddam, we were spooking ourselves with reports of al Qaeda’s [nonexistent] female foot soldiers. Desk-bound editors are particularly susceptible to “female ninja fighters,” and so, over the years, I’ve spent more time than was necessary writing on “black widows” and their white counterparts. Bereaved, avenging Chechen women: done. Moroccan widow of Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Massoud’s killer: check. By the time Somalia-bound, al Shabab-supporting British national Samantha Lewthwaite (yes, the “white widow”) was distracting from coverage of the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, I had to patiently explain the jihadi gender status quo. These are hard-line Salafi groups that view women as baby factories or incubators of the next jihadi generation, I explained. Their women have no agency and no mobility — except with a mahram, or male escort. So, our very white widow will very likely have to find herself another male provider in al-Shababistan, marry him, pop out his babies, and sit at home. End of non-story.
With the Islamic State, we see the same misconceptions — with a few alarming differences. Months after the June 2014 fall of Mosul, Iraq, when the trickle of females heading for Islamic State areas turned into a flood, reports of the newfound caliphate’s “al-Khanssaa” female brigade began circulating. The old images of niqab-encased, pistol-packing mamas resurfaced. They were reinforced by the adrenalin-pumped social media posts of jihadi sistahs posing with rifles, declaring their passion for suicide belts, and braying over the Islamic State’s brutal killings of Western hostages. The al-Khanssaa girls, it seemed, were on the front lines of the fight against the kafirs (infidels).
Turns out it’s not quite true. The much-touted al-Khanssaa brigade is just a hisbah (religious police) for chicks. They check the square inches of female face visible beneath veils and whether burqas are billowing or too form-fitting for Islamist comfort. They haven’t reached anywhere near the jihadi glass ceiling. Not that crashing the party is anything to celebrate: Nigeria’s Boko Haram, for instance, has started using female suicide bombers on an almost industrial scale. But let’s be clear: Militant Islamist groups in sub-Saharan Africa’s peripheral regions are very low on the jihadi pecking order. The respected jihadi groups with ideologues releasing sermons and statements believe women have no place on the battlefield.
This is amply clear in a lengthy manifesto uploaded by al-Khanssaa’s media wing on jihadi forums and recently translated by the London-based Quilliam Foundation. Titled “Women of the Islamic State,” the chilling document features rants against feminism, science, and secular education. It also decrees that females are best married before they reach 16 years old and can start wedding men when they hit 9.
This is not the stuff of “Beijing+20” — it’s “Beijing minus 2000” or, more accurately, “Raqqa circa apocalypse.” If people in the international “equality for women means progress for all” crowd want to make any progress, they simply must address this issue.
The problem is, will they?
But the women of the Islamic State, unlike al Qaeda’s monochrome widows, are dangerous because they effectively and tirelessly put out a message that’s cogent, consistent, and compelling — if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing. Because the group is also alarmingly prolific, I’ve had to read too many of their takfiri texts, and I can attest that, beyond a point, it starts to make sense in a twisted kind of way.
It’s a state Graeme Wood reached at the end of his Atlantic cover story, “What ISIS Really Wants.” I must confess I found the article interesting and well written, but not shocking. How do we know what the Islamic State really wants? They tell us — repeatedly, in as many languages as the group can manage. And its discourse is far more compellingly Islamic than anything al Qaeda ever put out in over a decade. So, I was stunned by the backlash to the article from the liberal-left set.
I really don’t want to get into the details of that here. What’s important for the women’s movement, though, is to avoid the pitfall of abandoning gender rights in a bid to steer clear of the rabidly Islamophobic right. Thousands of women and girls are being swayed by the Islamic State/Khanssaa message because they believe it is Islamic. The vast majority of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Muslims beg to disagree, and they have the world’s leading Islamic scholars on their side. That’s great. Now go get the message out. But don’t steer clear of asking hard questions to arrive at effective solutions. And stop ignoring women in Muslim-majority countries who are raising alarms about “Islam-lite” initiatives supported by either Wahhabi or Muslim Brotherhood-funding Persian Gulf monarchies.
The good news is that plenty of women’s rights activists from Afghanistan to Tunisia clearly understand what’s happening to their societies and they’re not taking it lying down — even in the face of Islamist threats. Too many high-profile Afghan women who have taken on the Taliban have been killed by a hard-line Islamist group that, we’re now told, we must engage in talks with. How that’s going to happen beats me (and has beaten several top diplomats and officials). But no one in power seems keen to re-examine those contradictions. In Tunisia, the women’s movement came together with other civil society groups to send a peaceful, powerful message to the Islamist Ennahda party that they were not going to sit quietly while secular activists and politicians were being assassinated. Ennahda got the message and bowed out of the 2014 presidential election, which was widely hailed as free and fair.
How many women must die and how many must travel to Islamic State lands for us to realize that right-wing, conservative forces must be challenged whether they’re in the East or West, North or South?
On March 9 (since March 8 falls on a Sunday), U.N. delegates and representatives of more than 1,100 NGOs will gather in New York for the 59th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Traditionally, the conference ends with an outcome document, called the “agreed conclusion,” after much wrangling and late-night negotiating. This time, though, the CSW outcome document will not be negotiated during the two-week conference. That is being done by U.N. member delegations ahead of the event. So, when participants from across the world troop into the conference on March 9, they will be handed a “political declaration” that has been “pre-negotiated, signed, sealed and delivered before they have even set foot in the UN complex,” notes activist Lyric Thompson on the website openDemocracy.
The official line is that a predetermined outcome will enable participants to get on with the business of implementation on national and local levels. Final-statement negotiations tend to hijack the two-week conference, according to organizers. That may well be the case, but some argue that the whole point of getting together more than 8,000 NGO representatives from across the world in New York is for activists to push their governments to do more on gender rights.
The truth is, we’ve gone so far back since Beijing 1995 that women’s rights advocates actually prefer not to open old international declarations to push for further advances because they are afraid of conservative backlashes. “It is far too dangerous now to re-open international agreements on women’s rights,” wrote gender rights advocates Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler this year. “The power of these reactionary forces in an international forum is considerable; they could seriously reverse progress made at Beijing.”
Well, fancy that. We’re marking Beijing+20 in mortal fear of sliding back to pre-1995. If that’s the case, fine, let’s not reopen agreements. Let’s not waste time kvetching over words. We have to get down to work, and we have to start now. Happy International Women’s Day 2015, sisters. Enjoy the commemorations, tea parties, solidarity gatherings, marches, and celebrations because, god knows, we have the right to enjoy ourselves. We’re not living in the Islamic State.
Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images