How a Woman Joins ISIS

Whatever the terror group’s propaganda, women are chattel to ISIS.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Colleagues of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook are alleging that it was his wife, Tashfeen Malik, who was the spark for radicalization.

CNN reported Friday, citing a U.S. official, that Malik pledged allegiance to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on her Facebook page. While no U.S. governmental body has publicly confirmed these details yet—indeed, some are cautioning against any ISIS connection, as the post was made by an account under a different name than Malik’s—one aspect is quite plausible. The dynamic in which a woman is the source of radicalization is not new. For example, we saw this after the death of Ahmedy Coulibaly; Hayat Boumedienne was the more radical of the two.

For ISIS, women are a valuable commodity. Judging by the stories that have emerged in the 14 months after the Yazidis fled Mount Sinjar, we know how the organization systematically exploits women, who can be bought, sold, and traded with official sanction.

ISIS likewise abuses the women they pretend to defend—Sunni women who have emigrated to their self-proclaimed caliphate. ISIS uses these women to retain its male members as the movement’s leaders worry about the loss of troops and defection. One simple way to ensure that fighters do not leave is to create anchors to ensure they stay: a salary, a house, a wife, and a child. ISIS has instituted a payment system wherein you are paid a stipend for every child you have in the Islamic State as well as a monthly stipend just for couples.

ISIS “ranks” the women, considering foreign women and converts to be especially “valuable.” According to French journalist Anna Erelle’s recent exposé, ISIS foreign fighters prefer foreign women and converts because the jihadists find Syrian women “uppity and unaccommodating sexually.” Stressing the fact that their participation in ISIS’s jihad is best made, to quote the Manifesto from the all-female al-Khansaa’ Brigade, through sedentariness, stillness and stability—marriage and motherhood—the group rewards these women to the most-prized male recruits.

Aqsa Mahmood—the teenager turned ISIS propagandist from Glasgow—is explicit about what women who come to Raqqa are expected to do. Mahmood stresses that the only role for women in the caliphate will be as a wife.

And Mahmood’s vocal Internet presence is testament to the fact that, for ISIS, emigrant women are also important disseminators of their propaganda, especially to other women curious about life in the “caliphate.”

Mostly in their late teens or early 20s, current ISIS members can prey on the curious through social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, Telegram, and Kik, where they exchange verses of the Quran, propaganda, speeches of English- and Arabic-speaking radical preachers, news about the Islamic State and, critically, shower women with friendship. Inevitably, being teens, they do so in what’s emerged as an ersatz of jihadist-cool patois, using slang and emojis mixed with a handful of Islamic phrases.

Some of the most ardent among them, like Umm Ubaydah (@al_Khanssaa, like the name of the all-female brigade) and her friends—Umm Layth, and Umm Haritha, a Canadian immigrant whose online moniker is @bintladen—took their online adulation offline, moving from Europe and North America to Raqqa to find ISIS husbands and encouraging other women to follow in their footsteps. The women believe that joining ISIS, and participating in its jihad, will secure their place in paradise and give them the opportunity to take part in the construction of a utopian society.

ISIS recruiters principally target young women living in the West. Aqsa Mahmood, for example, targets young women and girls in the U.K. The three girls who disappeared from Bethnal Green Academy in February were in communication with her before their departure. Huda Muthawny (from Alabama) is said to be luring American girls, and one woman, named Bushra living in Saudi Arabia, regularly posts in Italian to encourage Italian women to move to the “caliphate” and become ISIS brides.

The women of ISIS appear to have established networks across social media platforms, which they use to connect with—and recruit—one another. They conduct a hard sell, promising new recruits four things: empowerment, participation, deliverance, and piety. More often than not, marriage to an ISIS fighter is the executor of these four promises. On Twitter, Mahmood described the joys of being a wife: “Only after becoming the wife of a Mujahid do you realise why there is so much reward in this action.”

From social media, it is possible to glean a lot about the logistics of ISIS’s cottage matchmaking industry. First off, it’s possible to break with the jihadist norm and travel to Syria without a mahram, or male chaperone. Second, upon arrival, there is a carefully rigged process of selection. As Umm Anwar explains, single women are obligated, at first, to live in an all-female dormitory, known as a maqar.

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At the maqar, male ISIS members are able to come and select their brides-to-be. Allegedly, some female emigrants claim that they are able to choose whether to say yes or no to any given proposal but the reality might be very different. Assuming all goes to plan, ISIS’s women are soon married off, so they can begin their “fundamental roles” as mothers. The caliphate’s cheerleaders regularly sing the praises of marriage in this way, claiming that obvious concerns like, say, language barriers are to be cherished, not worried about.

What is not broadcast to potential recruits is that, if and when their new husbands die, they are usually sent back to a maqar similar to the females-only “dorm” where they lived when they first arrived. This maqar, though, is a place reserved for the widows, a “shahada’s maqar.” (Shahada means “martyr.”)

Rather than fear their husband’s demise, women are openly encouraged to consider the death of their prospective jihadi husband as an honor and privilege to become a martyr’s widow. Twin teenage sisters from the U.K., Zahra and Salma Halane, journeyed together to Raqqa and within weeks were married off to foreign fighters. Zahra Halane married Ali Kalantar, a 19-year-old of Afghan descent from Coventry, who was killed in Iraq on Dec. 4, 2014. Zahra proudly announced her husband’s martyrdom on social media and a week later, sister Salma made a similar announcement about her husband. They even celebrated it online—though one could be forgiven for thinking that they were excited not by their husbands’ deaths, but by the prospect of seeing each other in the maqar again.

Salma tweeted: “He was a blessing from Allah swt [heart] please make dua [prayers] Allah accepts him and I will join him very sooooon:’)”

Zahra tweeted: “My twin sister husband got shahadah too the same time as mine LOOL we both made hijrah [migration] together now both iddah [widows] together too.

So right now!? Like right, right now! My husband is probably with his hoor al ayns [virgins]? :0”

After the loss of a husband, there is a requisite waiting period called ‘idda. Islamic tradition is explicit and clear; the waiting period is four months and ten days. ISIS, as it does with most theological conventions, throws the orthodox period of ‘idda out of the window, and, instead of waiting three months, ISIS widows are returned the maqar and meted out to foreign fighters almost immediately.

According to a profile in The New York Times, the women marry ISIS fighters “to assuage the Organization [ISIS] and keep their families in [good] favor; joining the Khansaa Brigade [that patrols the streets of Raqqa] to win some freedom of movement and an income.” Whether or not they join the female brigade, though, it is abundantly clear that a woman’s status very much depends on the status of the men to whom they were married.

Aqsa Mahmood chastised women on her tumblr blog (now taken down) that “You already know you wanted to marry a mujahid so why did you not read up on what will be the rulings for you after his departure?” She explains that seeing as the husband’s primary aim in jihad is martyrdom, wives need to gear up for the “hefty reality” that is their deaths. They will “most probably have to sooner or later hear the news of our husbands success, which is his shahada,” so they need to be prepared for it.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue report “Til Martyrdom Do Us Part” asserts that the traditional period of ‘idda lasts even longer than three months. During this time a widow is instructed to avoid being seen in public unless necessary. On her ask.fm page Zehra countered that she did not mind living alone and was not lonely because “[Praise be to God] I have my sisters whom I love for the sake of Allah always at my house.” Regardless of different interpretations of ‘idaa length, none permit women (or require them) to remarry days or weeks after their husband’s death.

Three women recently profiled in The New York Times left when the organization tried marrying them off so soon after their husband’s deaths. When Dua’s husband was killed in battle, she was visited 10 days later by a member of her husband’s unit expecting her to remarry. This violated the terms of ‘idda, which is as much a period of mourning as it is a time to ascertain whether a widow might be pregnant and to establish paternity.

Not long after Dua was widowed, Aws was faced with the same predicament, to remarry after her husband was killed: “They told me that he was a martyr now, obviously he didn’t need a wife anymore, but that there was another fighter who did. They said this fighter had been my husband’s friend, and wanted to protect and take care of me on his behalf.”

The women are judged, ranked, and allocated to the male foreign fighters based on the men’s status. Emirs come first, then foreign fighters, and, on the bottom rung, local fighters. The quality of the women’s lives will depend on the status of their husband. “As I say to all sisters," wrote one ISIS bride, "it depends upon the man whom you marry. Whether he wants a simple house wife whom he can just lock in doors or a brother who is more outgoing and wants for his wife more than that simple life.”

Thus the more important the husband, the better the house, and the more material possessions the women will have. As widows, women are not so desired as they were before. Since the next husband after widowhood is likely to be lower ranked (as the woman herself is not as prized) this means a downgrade in lifestyle, amenities, and benefits. New husbands tend to be less important and less influential, an inevitable outcome of the fact that, as widows, the women will no longer be virgins, and are not nearly as valuable as young “pure” girls. In the words of the al-Khansaa Brigade manifesto translated by one of the authors, “it is considered legitimate for a girl to be married at the age of nine. Most pure girls will be married by 16 or 17, while they are still young and active.” Evidently (and inevitably), a woman’s youth and virginity are key, desirable attributes for ISIS men.

It is often at this point that women who were once fervent supporters of the organization have a change of heart and begin to question their purpose and role in the Islamic State, as was the case with Aws, Dua, and Asma. They all experienced their change of heart precisely at this juncture.

The majority of women who have managed to escape the Islamic State have done so when they experienced a severe disconnect between what they expected life in the caliphate would be like and the reality of what it was actually like. This is something that holds true for why people (both men and women) leave terrorist organizations. But not all the women who endeavor to leave are as successful.

The two Bosnia women who left Vienna for Raqqa became poster girls for female emigrants, Samra Kesinovic and Sabina Selimovic, are reportedly dead, having failed in their escape attempts. Samra is reported to have been beaten to death for trying to escape.

In many ways, ISIS is no different from any other jihadist group when it comes to women—fundamentally misogynist. Like all other jihadist organizations, within its interpretation of Islam, the role of women is “divinely” limited. However, what makes ISIS different is its unmatched preoccupation with trying to tempt female supporters into emigrating, to lure in fresh candidates for marriage with promises of empowerment, deliverance, participation, and piety. Despite what its propagandists claim, though, women are first and foremost chattel in the caliphate.