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Armed women are patrolling the streets in the al-Raqa province, suggesting a worrying new direction for extremist groups
10 days ago, in the northern Syrian province of al-Raqa, the hushed atmosphere of a school classroom was interrupted by the sound of 10 girls screeching. The girls, who were all aged between 15 and 17, were beaten for failing to adhere to a dress code. This was nothing to do with skirt length – they were beaten because their eyebrows were poking out from underneath their veil.
“Cheap prostitutes and suicide bombers”, is how the Syrian Free Press Network describes the new female recruits that have joined an Al-Qaeda splinter group: “Brainwashed and molded to the wishes of the leaders of these groups of mercenary terrorists.” The amount of influence these women possess is unclear, but there is no uncertainty in saying, this new development is extremely disturbing.
In late January, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) announced, for the first time, that it was opening its doors to women. ISIL is an Al-Qaeda splinter group active in Syria and Iraq. Two all-female battalions were formed – titled Al-Khansaa and Umm Rayyan – composed of single women aged 18 to 25.
The group’s formation coincided with the announcement that residents in the province of Syria must adhere to a new set of rules. The first restricts the movement of women and enforces a new female dress code, the second banned music and photographs of men or women in shops, the third banned the sale of cigarettes and shish. These women were tasked with ensuring these regulations are met.
Halim Moatez, a retired teacher and local resident, told Central Asia Online that the ISIL women can be seen in the city “patrolling commercial areas on foot, or conducting patrols in white vans camouflaged in mud”. They also monitor entrances to the city, carry out surveillance at checkpoints, and are particularly on the look out for opposition activists disguised as women.
Through very rose-tinted spectacles, this could be seen as a breakthrough for female emancipation. This is a part of the world where women are traditionally only allowed to perform domestic tasks. However, these women work full-time for 25,000 Syrian pounds a month, equating to little more than £25 a week. This isn’t all. According to the Syrian Free Press Network, these single women are required to perform “any type of sexual performance with adult members of ISIL… in the name of Sex-Jihad”.
Numerous terrorist organisations are beginning to employ the services of women. On 12th February, the Lebanese Army arrested three women in an explosive-laden car and since 1st March, they have been searching for four women who were rumoured to be wearing explosive belts to be used as a suicide attack on a religious building. Strategically speaking, it makes perfect sense for women to be used in such a way. They arouse less attention at army checkpoints than their male counterparts and their personal privacy is usually observed, meaning they are able to conceal explosive belts underneath their hijab. Ethically speaking, this is all sorts of wrong.
This tweet sent by a Syrian citizen demonstrates that the idea of an ‘all-female ninja fighting squad’ is nothing short of hilarious for somebody who’s become de-sensitised to such shocking developments. But for the rest of us, female battalions are part of a worrying development in the Middle East. Although the ISIL is not directly under the control of Al-Qaeda, according to CIA director John Brennan they are one of many groups “throughout the region that may have an ideological affinity with [Al-Qaeda but] do not follow their direction and guidance.” Which in simple terms means that Al-Qaeda has metastasised.
The fact that women can join the British armed forces in all roles except those whose “primary duty is to close with and kill the enemy” means that it almost looks like the ISIL is carrying the progressive lantern in terms of gender equality. But it is doing so for entirely the wrong reasons. This is not an indication of the emancipation of Middle Eastern women. This is a terrifying development and a sign that there’s little that extremist terrorist groups won’t resort to.
Featured image: twitter via Bashar Isham AlAssad. Inset images: Twitter via @JuanMSacristan.