The Women of ISIS

One of the most frequently mentioned names in the news today is ISIS, the extremist Islamic group that has seized international attention through acts of unusual barbarity, often filmed and distributed as terrorist propaganda. ISIS is not merely an extremist minority, but a powerful network of organized militants who control large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, and is quickly spreading to other parts of the world.

​ISIS’s culture of fear and control is not only aimed at the West, but at the citizens of the areas they have claimed. Women in particular have become targets under ISIS’s strict edicts, with their expectations and roles strictly defined by extremist ideology.

A manifesto published by the group, written with the aim of outlining the role of women, gives a glimpse into life under ISIS rule. Though it deviates somewhat from a radical portrayal of Islamic laws – women are allowed a limited amount of education, are allowed unescorted out of the house under specific conditions, and are provided for in the case of widowhood – it is nonetheless an extremely misogynistic and repressive doctrine.

Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.

“The central thesis of this statement,” states the manifest, “is that woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband.”

Subsequently, it outlines how best women can carry out this duty. Girls are to be educated to the extent that they can adequately raise their children and instruct their families, with education stopping at age 15. Girls are also considered ready for marriage at a mere nine years old.

The UN published a report on the acts of violence carried out on women. Lashings for deviating from established rules, executions for adultery, and the well-documented capture and sexual enslavement of the Yazidi women are among ISIS’s growing lists of human rights violations. Disturbingly, the punishments meted out, and those in charge of brothels are often women themselves.

The al-Khansaa Brigade is the group’s moral police and consists entirely of women. While this seems to stand in contrast to ISIS’s assertion that women should first and foremost be wives and mothers, women are, even in the manifesto, permitted to fight for Islam.

An expert on Islamic militancy, Thomas Hegghammer, told The Atlantic, “There is a process of female emancipation taking place in the jihadi movement, albeit a very limited (and morbid) one.” Indeed, ISIS actively works to recruit women. Girls as young as 16 from Western countries have been reported to travel to Syria with the intention of joining ISIS.  Little is understood about what is drawing women to the besieged region, but ISIS’s campaign is proving disturbingly effective.

As bizarre as it is perverse, ISIS’s relationship with women is complex, but wholly exploitative.

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

Misogynist Ideology of Nigerian Kidnapping

Written by Zainab Khan and Paula Kweskin

Eighteen-year-old Deborah Sanya went to school to take her final exams before graduation. She never expected what happened next: a mass kidnapping of her and over 200 of her fellow students. Deborah and her three friends are some of the lucky ones; they bravely ran when one of the kidnappers wasn’t looking, found refuge in a local village, and eventually made it home.

Four weeks later, there is no trace of her friends.

Islamic militants known, as Boko Haram, are believed to be behind the kidnapping of the girls from their school in Chibok. The literal translation of this radical, extremist terrorist group means “Western education is sinful” in the Hausa language.

The group is fueled by the ideology that Western influences have corrupted their society and a pure Islamic state can restore the country of Nigeria. The group wants to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, in Africa’s most populous and economically developing country.

Boko Haram is one of the most dangerous manifestations of the global resurgence of radical Islam. It utilizes brutal, violent, inhumane tactics to force a skewed, political ideology upon innocent people.

Since 2002, it has claimed thousands of lives through attacks on Christians, school children, and government targets.

The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau, warned in a video obtained in March that all students should leave universities and girls are to drop out of school to get married.

“In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves,” Shekau said. “In due course, we will start taking women away.”

And this is precisely what was done.

Civilian victims targeted by these insurgents are frequently women and girls. The concept of “Western education” being deemed as dangerous is nothing new because the education of women and girls is an affront to the twisted ideologies of these terrorists.

Malala Yousufzai, the poster child for girls’ education globally, was shot on October 9th, 2012 by the Taliban en route to school. She, like her sisters, in Nigeria,‘dared’ to demand an education and to lift herself out of poverty.


For these terrorists, there is nothing more intimidating.

Educated women and girls are the agents of change in their communities and an indicator of progress and enlightenment. As such, they are the first targets for extremist groups.

Reports have indicated some of the abducted girls have been sold as brides to soldiers for $12, and some were forcefully converted to Islam.

It is horrifying to imagine what these innocent girls are undergoing. They have been captured and sold into sexual slavery in a practice reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

The Nigerian people are now on the battleground of two ideologies: one which views their women and girls as seeds of peace and harbingers of a better future; and the other, an extreme ideology of hate and oppression which views women as chattel to be sold and used, abused and discarded at will.

After the girls were taken in Chibok, Nigeria, their school was burned to the ground. The flames consumed their books, papers, and end of year exams. Their actions were clear: education, especially of girls, should be destroyed.

How will our voices respond?

Learn more about the oppression women face in honor-based societies. Watch Honor Diaries, a film featuring Zainab Khan and eight other courageous women’s rights advocates in a dialogue about gender inequality in Muslim majority countries.

Cover Photo Credit: Michael Fleshman, Flickr Creative Commons

Girls like Wadjda on Bicycles!

This screen shot from Wadjda is from

In Saudi Arabia in the blistering heat on April 1st, 2013, something remarkable happened for the first time in history: women were granted the right to ride bicycles in parks and recreational areas. “What’s the catch?” I hear you ask. They have to be accompanied by a male relative and dressed in the full Islamic head-to-toe abaya. Saudi Arabia follows an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam and bans women from driving. Women are also banned from riding motorcycles or bicycles in public places excluding public parks.

Therefore, it begs the question is this really progress in the struggle for the human rights of women and girls? Some argue yes it is, like Saudi Film maker, Haifaa al-Mansour (who just happens to be the first female Saudi filmmaker ever!), speaking in an interview with British Newspaper the Observer she shared:

I’m so happy that girls will have more opportunities to learn to ride bikes and feel the freedom and exhilaration that goes with any type of outdoor sport, and hope it helps pave the way for more and more steps in the right direction. The religious police should be commended for giving more liberties to women, even small liberties.

Small liberties indeed! The lift on the bicycle riding ban comes in the wake of King Abdullah’s appointment of 30 women to the country’s Shura Council and his pledge that women would constitute 20% of the consultative body issue. However, dig a little deeper and you realise that in fact the Shura has no authority to pass or enforce laws, hence is this progress in the political empowerment of women or is this merely symbolical?  Encouragingly, in 2011 the King issued a decree allowing women to run for office and vote in municipal elections beginning in 2015. But will there be a backlash against women who run for office, the same way there was a significant backlash in 2012 against female Saudi Olympians Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar (both teenagers), the first women athletes to ever represent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. All eyes will eagerly be watching the coming elections and results.

Yet let us not get carried away here, as noted women’s liberties are in fact extremely limited in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Women remain severely restricted and cannot travel, work or open a bank account without the permission of a male relative, or “guardian”. Within a court of law a woman’s testimony is valued less than a man’s, therefore making women more vulnerable and at risk of exploitation and/or abuse as they are less likely to report a situation.

Haifaa al-Mansour is one Saudi woman who is challenging the status quo, through her debut film Wadjda – the film, which won the best Arabic feature film at the Dubai Film Festival, is the first full-length feature ever filmed entirely inside the Kingdom. The film tells the story of a young Saudi girl, Wadjda, who is 10 years old and lives in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital. She dreams of buying a green bicycle but her mother won’t allow it out of fear from the community and society at large. Wadjda, however, is fearless and decides to try to raise the money herself. The story shows a different perception of women and girls in Saudi. Wadjda represents the strong will and determination of Saudi women.

In 2012, a group of Saudi women took to the streets and protested against the ban on women driving. Some fearlessly jumped on the roads, got into cars and behind the wheel, driving illegally to make the point: WOMEN CAN DRIVE! However, a number of these human rights activists have received harsh prison sentences, which no doubt sends out a clear message to others wishing to defy the sharia law or criticise the repressive regime.

Haifaa Al-Mansour stated:

It’s very important to celebrate resistance, pursuing one’s dreams. Sometimes, it’s easy to make a character in a place such as Saudi a victim; people exploit them, they give up hope.

The Guardian speaks to Haifaa on being the first female filmmaker from Saudi. See the interview here:

Wadjda is now open in cinemas around the world. Ride your bike to the nearest cinema in town!

Sam’s Story: How One Woman’s Journey to Islam Holds an Important Lesson for Us All

Meet Sam. A young, Canadian woman constantly surrounded by friends, working toward a university degree in psychology. Sounds like a fairly average North American student, right? I would tend to agree. However, recently, Sam has taken on a very personal and spiritual endeavor, and is in the process of converting to Islam. When I first learned about Sam’s journey, I have to admit I was kind of surprised. As a young, educated woman myself, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the idea that another woman would choose to dedicate herself to a faith under which some customs have aided in marginalizing and disempowering women. After speaking one on one with Sam, who formerly associated with Christianity and Buddhism, and who openly admits to previously disliking the idea of Islam for women, my understanding has been changed.

My conversation with Sam began with some background on how her journey came to be. An extremely intelligent girl enrolled in a competitive university program, she explains she has always had a busy mind, and made the decision to seek some form of spirituality so as to gain a better sense of inner-peace. In the beginning, Sam’s impression of Islam was that it was oppressive and belittling for women; feelings she never wanted to experience. She decided to educate herself, enrolled in religious studies classes, and even read the Qur’an. After a lot of learning, she realized that maybe the one faith she had, in a sense, written-off, was the one with which she could actually most relate.

My real questions for Sam revolved around becoming a Muslim woman, and what that meant to her. Sam’s first point was something along the lines of what I expected out of our conversation. She emphasized the importance of interpretation when it comes to religion, and how just like with the Bible, or the Torah, there are many different ways to interpret the scripture you read in the Qur’an. And as an individual fortunate enough to live in a peaceful and open society, she feels she has the power to embrace these interpretations as she sees fit. Sam states,

“God gave me a brain for a reason; you should be able to read the Qur’an or not read the Qur’an”.

Sam goes on to explain through the Qur’an’s underlying emphasis on community and compassion for others, she has come to value her relationships more, and is reflectively thankful. She has found an increased sense of inner-peace in that whenever she becomes frustrated or mad about something, she takes time out for herself, and prays.

The next portion of my conversation with Sam is what really got me, and truly opened my eyes to the beauty of her journey. By her own choice and merit, Sam decided to start wearing a hijab when she made her conversion to Islam. I assumed Sam would consider this somewhat of a sacrifice; something that would be appropriate in mosques, and something that would physically display her dedication to her newfound spirituality. However, Sam quickly explains she decided to wear a hijab out of respect for herself and her own needs. Prior to her journey, Sam explains she was living life believing what everyone else thought. She was afraid of being controlled or losing her identity, and felt people judged her and each other based on surface factors, and things that it turns out, weren’t of much value. Sam states, “Islam didn’t create inequality; society created inequality.” Wearing a hijab has actually made Sam feel more respected, and more importantly, has created within her, an increased sense of empowerment. She says,

“Wearing a hijab almost makes us more undivided – there is less emphasis on what you look like, and more emphasis on what kind of person you are; inner beauty is more important than outer beauty”.

Furthermore, through Islam, Sam says she now has a better understanding of what it means to her, to be a woman. She now acknowledges her body in a new light; disregarding outer beauty, and embracing the power that exists in her capability to bear children and be a mother. In this sense, Sam says she has learned,

“Real beauty is in the power women possess.”

She also emphasizes the importance of embracing her inner-strength and all that she has to give because of it. Sam says, “I never felt like I had enough to give, like I wasn’t good enough; now I know I’m good enough.”

Whether or not you agree with Sam’s reasoning, and whether or not it largely reflects society’s totally skewed values of beauty and materialism, the important thing for us to take away from this is the fact that Sam felt something was missing in her life, so she went out and did something about it. She educated herself, took time, found what was right for her, and ultimately increased her own sense of self-empowerment through her journey and newfound spirituality. From my perspective, Sam was empowered well before achieving her goal. To me, it was her decision to branch out, try something new, and disregard what others around her might have thought in an effort to enhance her own well-being, that makes Sam’s story truly inspirational. Ultimately, through her decisions and will, Sam empowered herself. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a beautiful thing.