Recently I wrote about the British Court of Appeal’s decision to allow the return of Shamima Begum to fight the Government’s ruling to remove her British citizenship. Begum lives in a squalid Syrian refugee camp. Before that, she spent more than three years under Islamic State rule. We refer to Begum and women like her as “jihadi brides”, which takes away their agency as active participants in the violence and ideology to which they subscribe.
The media tends to stereotype and fetishise female terrorists, often characterising them as mothers and carers. We view these women as abhorrent and unnatural and they are rarely considered to be either as violent or ideological as men. Under the Isis occupation, women had fundamental roles as Sharia enforcers, which included the torturing of recalcitrant women and the preparation of Yazidi sex slaves for rape by their Isis husbands.
We have a gruesome fascination with women who commit brutal crimes, like Irma Grese, the warden of the women’s sections of Auschwitz and Belsen, who was executed at Nuremberg and was infamous for her sexual violence against Concentration Camp inmates. It’s no surprise that women who are part of these terrorist cells are as cruel as men, and as devoted. In 2016 it was estimated that 40 per cent of all French migrants in Isis-controlled territory were women. Both men and women are compelled by the same propaganda when it comes to narratives, beliefs, and grievances. The same factors that appeal to men appeal to women. The women of Isis were part of the propaganda machine.
When I corresponded with international lawyer Jela Keyany, she said, “let’s start by ending the phrase ‘Isis brides’. It should be “female Isis member.” Keyany worked in Kurdistan and is one of the legal coordinators of the Yazidi Legal Network which tries to obtain justice for the survivors of the crimes committed by Isis.
In the case of Begum, the former east London schoolgirl, Keyany points out that she was not married when she entered Syria and that by calling the women who joined Isis “brides”, “it presumes that there was no membership or participation. Isis is not only a violent organisation but also a terrorist organisation. Meaning, they know how to create theatre, and they have an understanding of its addressees. They know that there is sympathy or empathy towards women, specifically Muslim women, as there is a perception of weakness in the Western patriarchal mindset.”
Women have played an essential role in the denial of genocide. Like Begum, many are now diminishing their role in the Yazidi genocide which began in Sinjar, Iraq in 2014. “They are successfully minimising their crimes to terrorist acts instead of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” says Keyany. Many Isis female members claim are they did not witness any violence against locals and have created a victim perspective for themselves.
Denial is the tenth stage of genocide, according to Dr Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch. It begins with classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, extermination and finally, denial. “Not knowing” has been used by women in almost all genocides.
Six years on, the Yazidis are still waiting for justice. Keyany is not necessarily against the return of Isis female perpetrators, but she wants accountability. “National courts are in the process of collecting evidence or have difficulties in getting the evidence. That’s why we have the Yazidi Legal Network. Keeping the Isis women and men in Syria and Iraq is not a solution, especially for the locals as Isis still poses a danger for the survivors and witnesses.” The next generation of Isis fighters, Yazidi boys, in particular, are indoctrinated by women as Cubs of the Caliphate.
David Haines was beheaded in Syria by Isis in 2014 by the cell knows as “The Beatles”. The daughter of the British aid worker Bettany Haines said of Begum, “she knew what she was getting herself into. She needs to live with the consequences. From what I gather, Begum still has a strong hatred of the UK. She’s a ticking time bomb.” The women of Isis were part of the propaganda machine. Now, the narrative needs to change, and we should begin by acknowledging women’s agency.