By Eleanor Beevor
Despite the fact that women have been involved in combat and terrorism ever since these phenomena have existed, the world is still not sure how to treat female members of terrorist groups. Nowhere is this more contentious than in the case of ISIS.
Especially in western eyes, stereotypes of female disempowerment in Islam clash with the real and disturbing crimes that women have committed in the group’s name. And the usual story is one in which women tend to have their responsibility for crimes downplayed, or even excused.
Part of the ISIS women, these are Russians, being tried in Baghdad. (AFP)
But now that Iraq is deciding the fate of over a 1000 women suspected of being members of ISIS, the tables seemed to have turned, although not exactly for the better.
It is no surprise that Iraq, having suffered as it did from ISIS’s violence, is taking a hard line on suspected members. But the 1000 or so women, captured in the towns where ISIS experienced defeats, are being tried in the courts of Baghdad with chilling uniformity.
The Guardian reported that these women, but particularly foreign women who had travelled far to join ISIS, were being “…processed with an uncompromising efficiency rarely seen in other parts of Iraq’s judicial system.” And being “processed” usually meant receiving the harshest possible sentences. Death penalties were reportedly handed down within the space of 10 minute hearings.
This is a disturbing development for human rights. But it is also a stark departure from the more common tendency to treat women involved in terrorism much more leniently. And during the time of the exodus of foreign fighters leaving their western homelands to join ISIS, the nature of women’s involvement in the movement was one of the most hotly debated topics, in the media, and among researchers.
Kadiza Sultana, a Jihadi Bride, one of the three Bethnal Green girls (Twitter)
The level of public shock at these three straight-A students swapping school for a war zone was matched only by the splits in public opinion. Whilst some women had already joined ISIS, the three girls from Bethnal Green were the first to travel to Syria alone.
The girls were minors when they were left, which begged the question of how they should be treated before the law. Should they be seen, it was asked, as victims who had been groomed by online recruiters, in a similar manner to how sex offenders target children online?
There were stiff arguments that the girls must have known what they were doing - they had carefully executed their own departure, and could hardly have missed the news about the horrific violence that ISIS was committing. However, some counter-extremist practitioners argued that ISIS used targeted, sanitized propaganda to recruit women. This propaganda emphasized promises of romance and marriage, alongside theological arguments for why they must join the jihadists.
Though notions of romance and marriage are strong in ISIS propaganda directed at women, public discussion of the group’s female members became almost obsessively fixated on it. And this fixation risks the assumption that women in terrorist groups have little or no agency beyond their relationship to a man. Dr. Jennifer Eggert, an expert in women’s participation in Islamist extremism at the University of Warwick, told Al Bawaba:
“This focus on marriage was (and still is) a huge problem in the coverage of women who went to join ISIS. I particularly dislike the term "jihadi brides". For every woman who gets married, there is a man - yet I have never heard anyone speak of "jihadi grooms".
The term also stresses that women were supposedly mostly motivated to join ISIS by romance and their ties to a man. While we know that this played a role in some cases, it is often not the whole story. Instead, existing research on the topic stresses that women and men largely went to join ISIS for very similar reasons, such as feelings of isolation and marginalisation in their home countries, the war in Syria, the belief in ISIS ideology and so on.”
Nevertheless, this perception of women as in some way less culpable for their actions than men has continued to inflect their treatment at the hands of the law, in one way or another. For instance, the Metropolitan Police announced that should any of the Bethnal Green girls succeed in returning home, they would be treated as victims and would not be tried. Here Dr. Eggbert points out that gender stereotypes as constructed in the United Kingdom may not be entirely helpful when forming policy.
"I think it is important to deal with all suspected ISIS members on a case by case basis. That should be case for both men and women. There is a risk of women being treated more leniently - not because there roles were indeed less important in ISIS, but because of dominant gender stereotypes, according to which women are less threatening, more innocent and less prone to violence. We know from other conflict contexts that women do get disproportionally less often convincted for their involvement in political violence, because of these gender stereotypes, and that can be a problem."
ISIS women not victims
Yet in Iraq now, the opposite seems to be proving true. And perhaps that impression that women will be let off lightly in comparison to men is exactly what the Iraqi courts are trying to fight.
Iraq is understandably desperate to deter people from joining terrorist groups, and it sees the stiffest possible sentences, for both Iraqis and foreigners, as necessary to send a strong message. Yet in the process, basic tenets of a fair hearing are being lost. Defence lawyers for those accused are either unavailable, or too overwhelmed with cases to be able to study each case with care.
Djamila Boutoutaou attends her trial in Baghdad, April 17, 2018 (AFP)
French citizen Djamila Boutoutaou was sentenced to life imprisonment in April. With her during the sentencing was her two-year-old daughter. The little girl is one of 820 infants belonging to the women on trial, and no one seems to know what will happen to them all.
There may be more hope for children born to foreign parents. European and central Asian countries are struggling to work out how much to try and defend citizens accused of joining ISIS. Most nations have not tried to stop those citizens facing local justice. Letting Iraqi courts handle the matter would certainly relieve them of the thorny question of whether or not to bring these suspects home. This is not only a lightning rod for public anger, but also raises security questions.
And yet for those countries to leave their suspected citizens to an overwhelmed justice system, one that is liberally using the death penalty, is also a neglect of their responsibilities. Dr. Eggert continued:
“I think foreign countries have a responsibility towards their citizens, regardless of which (suspected) crime there are on trial for in Iraq (or elsewhere in the world). In my mind, the same assistance that would be provided for citizens who are on trial or in prison for other offenses abroad should be given to them. That involves bringing them home, whenever possible.
Of course, a careful assessment of the security risk would need to take place. Especially in the case of women, we shouldn't assume that just before they are women, they are innocent and non-threatening and non-violent. But there are huge concerns with the regards to children, and especially orphans, who are stuck in Syria or Iraq at the moment. These children didn't choose to join ISIS, so we should do all that we can do get them out of there and provide them with the support they need.”
Whether the foreign suspects and their children get substantial help remains to be seen. But for Iraqis on trial, there is little respite to be had, and any innocent parties swept up in the arrests are now at serious risk of losing their life.
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