Women’s Lack of Freedom in ISIS

In this video, The Young Turks comment on the unofficial manifesto for women under ISIS issued by the all-female Al-Kansa brigade. Although women do fight in the Islamic state, they are only supposed to do so when there is a lack of available men. The role envisaged for women is extremely limited and strictly traditional. The manifesto declares that they should be married by nine years of age. Men should be married by twenty. They also, according to ISIS, should confine themselves to the home – the manifesto even describes it as ‘the cell of the home’. They are only to be allowed to leave the house in order to fight for the jihad, study religion, or to serve as doctors and nurses.

ISIS claims that despite these restrictions on women’s freedom, they do not stand for ‘illiteracy, ignorance or backwardness’. They do allow science to be studied, but it’s the basics only. So, as The Young Turks say, they do stand for ‘ignorance and backwardness’.

An increasingly restrictive attitude towards women has been a feature of the modern Islamic revival. In some very traditional Middle Eastern societies, women are not allowed out of the house except in the company of a close male relative. This is essentially the situation envisaged by ISIS in the manifesto issued by the al-Kansa brigade. Ethnographers researching contemporary Middle Eastern cultures have also observed and described the increasing lack of freedom granted to women. Lila Abu-Lughod, an associate professor of Anthropology at New York University, lived with a Bedouin matriarch, Migdim, between 1978 and 1980 for her research on the traditional nomadic tribes of Egypt and the changes their society was undergoing as Egypt modernised. This Bedouin lady was scandalised by the apparent lack of modesty of modern women. She and the other Bedouin women also complained of the lack of freedom they were given by their menfolk, and what they saw as the decline in the proper celebration of Arabic weddings. In traditional Bedouin society these lasted for a week, and the sexes weren’t segregated. Lila Abu-Lughod writes

When she [Migdim] gets together with other women, she often rails against the younger men of the community for being so strict about the movements and behaviour of their young sisters, cousins, and wives. “The boys are terrible now,” she began one such conversation. Her daughter agreed. “The boys are terrible. I swear by my father we have one son who’s black in word and deed. And he’s so young.” A visitor added, “Why, when we were yhoung, remember, we used to go off to herd the goats on our own. Not any more!” Migdim’s daughter continued, “Yes, that’s how things were, may God have mercy on past generations. They weren’t like this new generation … The men now are awful.”….

Yet the world she remembers is one in which behaviour that would now be considered scandalous was perfectly accepted. For example, Migdim things wedding celebrations have lost their appeal. She tells her newest daughter-in-law that they used to celebrate weddings for a week with evenings of singing and dancing. “Weddings now are like a shrunken old man,” she comments. At weddings in the past, young women, including her husband’s sisters and nieces, had danced veiled, in front of semi-circles of young men who serenaded them. Young men and women had always exchanged love songs at these weddings: “Stuff that couldn’t happen now!” they agree, thinking of the sex-segregated affairs that weddings have become since they settled into houses.

Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘Migdim: Egyptian Bedouin Matriarch’, in Edmund Burke III, ed. Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris 1993) 271-289 (284,285).

There have been cases of western women, who married Muslim and went with them to live in their country. They then found themselves subject to the same traditional restrictions as virtually prisoners in their own homes. The three British Muslim girls, who ran away from their homes to become Jihadi brides for ISIS clearly enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom in this country. Their parents seem to have allowed them to spent a lot of time away from them, including travelling unaccompanied to London, trusting in their own common sense to ensure their safety.

It was unfortunately misplaced. And it’s also clear that, no matter what the girls thought awaited them when they joined ISIS, they’re going to get a real shock when they find that freedom of movement taken away.

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