What ISIS has done to the lives of women

World Economic Forum

By Zainab SalbiNov 17 2015

According to Edward Lorenz’s chaos theory, the butterfly effect is defined as the “sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.”Well, you may ask what does that have to do with ISIS and women in the Middle East. Consider ISIS as the small change that is impacting the larger system of how women live their lives in profound and turbulent ways.

Less than 0.001% of the world’s Muslims

The continuous terror of ISIS activities throughout Europe and the Middle East – from Baghdad to Beirut to Paris – has dominated not only world news, but also intimate discussions amongst the majority of Muslims. Although ISIS members do not exceed 0.001% of the entire Muslim population of 1.5 billion people around the world, their loud, aggressive, and very particular claims of what they believe is Islam are prompting a disproportionate and varied reaction.

There are those who are attracted to ISIS ideology and are joining them. The number of young men and women from all over the world who participate are not high in numbers, but their involvement is very alarming nevertheless.

Middle Eastern newspapers cover stories on a daily basis of parents reporting the escape of their college students – from those studying engineering to medicine – to ISIS camps, and disowning their parents in the process. This is publicly discussed from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to the Sudan. This trend also includes young Muslims in Sweden, where the recruitment of young people is such a serious risk that there is a hotline to support parents whose children have fled.

A sense of belonging – and $1,000

No one can claim with authority why young people are really drawn to ISIS. One can only guess from what ISIS is providing in terms of clarity of vision – however warped – and roles for men and women alike.

At a time when many Muslims are grappling with their identity, ISIS offers a sense of belonging in a place where “Muslims” who reject all current definitions of national states and current political leadership and systems around the world rule.

In addition, they provide a sense of stability, with jobs that pay $500 to $1000 per month to each male member. For women, this stability is expressed through “sex jihad,” as articulated by ISIS themselves, where women’s role is the explicit sexual service of ISIS members as their wives.

Radical, extremist, patriarchal

What ISIS is doing is introducing a very particular implementation of Islam: radical, extremist, and patriarchal, with sexuality and men’s power over women at the core of it.

Although many in the West may have negative stereotypes of the religion, in reality Islam is known amongst Muslims to have produced very powerful women throughout its history, starting with the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, who was 20 years his senior and a wealthy businesswoman marrying at a time when he was a humble merchant. Muslim women have gone on to contribute to Sufism, poetry, science, engineering and, recently, to take to the skies as fighter pilots.

Moreover, the Quran has beautifully equalized women and men in front of God not only in the way they are expected to behave and to be treated, but also in the constant references to women and men, him and her, when it addresses humanity. ISIS, however, has limited its interpretation of Islam to a narrow view where a woman exists merely to provide sexual service to men. And when she is not doing that, she must be covered head to toe.

Stability, at a cost

No one knows the fate of these male and female recruits to ISIS. What is reported from those inside ISIS territories is that they provide a sense of stability despite the extreme and rigid implementations of their rules.

A young man named Hatum, who fled to Turkey from Syria as ISIS advanced, told me about a phone call he’d had with a friend who was living under ISIS’ control. His friend told him: “On the one hand, we have to do all the things they say we must do, from women covering up face to toe to men having to leave their stores and pray upon hearing the call for prayer. On the other hand, we see no theft and no crimes and with that we feel more secure and safe.”

Hatum tells me this as he takes a puff from his cigarette in the street of Istanbul. “I just love cigarettes too much and they don’t allow smoking. To be honest with you, that is my main reason for escaping to Turkey upon ISIS’ arrival.”

“He knows my address and that is scary”

But not all Muslims are like Hatum or his friends, or the young people who are being recruited. The very vast majority of Muslims are talking a different talk. They are horrified at what ISIS is claiming to be Islam. But that terror is also manifesting itself with doubt, discussion, and even disorientation.

In processing the news, one young Libyan woman I know summarized it all by saying: “The Islam I grew up with is so beautiful. But these people are saying something else. So which one is the truth? The Islam my mother taught me about or the one ISIS and all these militias are claiming it to be?”

This questioning is not an easy process, though. For one, most people are scared. ISIS has already issued death threats to anybody who criticizes them publicly, from Saudi comedians who made fun of them to activists.

Because their threats are taken so seriously throughout the Middle East, many are self-filtering themselves and no longer dare to talk. A young woman comedian in Dubai told me, “I can’t tell you how much I want to poke fun at ISIS craziness in my comedy. But when my hairdresser escaped to join them, I don’t dare say a world. He knows my phone and my address and that is already scary enough.”

The darkest days of Islamic history?

Despite the fact that ISIS represents a very tiny fraction of Muslim society, the fear it sows has rippled out into self-censorship, with people simply too afraid to challenge their tenets. But silence is rarely neutral, even if it is driven by self-preservation. In that way, the rise of ISIS is impacting not only the definition of the role of women in Islam, but the broader trends of Islam.

Many in the Muslim community are calling these days the darkest days of Islamic history. And although there are indeed many voices criticizing their interpretation of Islam, these voices have yet to seriously see women and the treatment of women as perhaps one of the most pivotal issues for the past, the present, and the future of the religion.

When women’s equality becomes part of the Muslim cultural narrative, as I believe the religious doctrine clearly states, and then hope can spark.

For now, ISIS is curbing the progress of religious interpretation even beyond the territories they control. Never in Muslim history have Muslim women been as violated as they are today.Taliban controlled Afghanistan was an exception – the vast majority of Muslim countries did respect women and allowed them to participate in all sectors of society. This is not to deny that there continue to be challenges to women’s rights in Muslim countries, but these challenges are no different than those faced by other countries and regions, from Latin America to Africa and even Europe and the US.

Challenges to women’s rights are a global issue. For anybody to call it a Muslim challenge is as bad as calling it Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist challenge. The struggle between patriarchy and equality is long-established. The expression of that struggle in Muslim countries is no different.

Having said that, many Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East, now face a particular challenge with the growth of ISIS and other extremist militias who claim to represent the religion. A red line has been crossed with many women in the region. From the kidnapping and assassination of politically active or vocal women in Iraq and Libya to a new trend where women are publicly criticized for what they wear or even shaking a man’s hand – something that has never been an issue in the past.

Patriarchal men feel a new sense of entitlement, and they are using the image and behaviour of women as a way to demean them and deny them their right to contribute to society. Sexist, insulting statements about women in the political and public sphere have increased, and this is the most dangerous ripple effect of the ISIS ideology.

The day Muslim women stop worrying that what they wear will prompt a political firestorm is the day we know that we have liberated ourselves from ISIS and extremist interpretations of Islam. The day when respect for women is prioritized on a national, cultural and public level, when women’s voices are incorporated into the decision-making process in Muslims countries, is the day when we can say that the extremists have lost and the moderates have won the battle to protect our religion.

Author: Zainab Salbi, Founder, Women for Women International