By: Rafia Zakaria
THE Syrian city of Raqqa was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate under the reign of the Harun Al Rashid. In the past several months, the city, located to the east of the historic Syrian city of Aleppo, has been taken over by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham — recently renamed Islamic State.
Under the reign of the self-declared ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the place has now become the prototype of what the group imagines will be a transnational Islamic state spread across the region.
Like the Taliban before it, ISIS was quick to realise that one of the easiest ways to make a political statement in war-torn lands is to crack down on the women in a region — as did the Afghan Taliban when they marched into Kabul. A public sphere devoid of women is crucial to their re-imagining of an authentic Islamic state. In oppressing women, the denizens of the Islamic State have decided to go farther than the Taliban.
Soon after ISIS took control of Raqqa, it announced the creation of Al Khansaa Brigade. According to a spokesman, the Brigade was created to “raise awareness of our religion among women and to punish women who do not abide by the law”. There are only women in Al Khansaa Brigade, and to prevent the “mixture of men and women” they have been provided their “own facilities”. Like the male members of ISIS, the women of Al Khansaa Brigade are all armed.
This strategy of using women to discipline other women is not a new one. It has been previously employed by Saudi Arabia and Iran.
One of their first arrests was of a woman called Zainab. Her crime was walking unescorted through the streets of Raqqa after the ISIS takeover. Suddenly, a car stopped next to her and a swarm of armed women from Al Khansaa Brigade swarmed round her, yelling and shouting insults. Before long, the teenaged Zainab had been arrested. She was taken to an undisclosed location and locked in a room without being told why. Finally, one of the members of the Brigade came towards her. At gunpoint, she tested Zainab’s knowledge of prayers, fasting and the hijab. She was told that she had been arrested because she had been walking unescorted in the streets — something that was now a crime in Raqqa.
Zainab was eventually released, but not without the dire warning that she would suffer even worse punishment in the future. In the days since the Brigade was created, its members have been busy patrolling the streets, harassing women, raiding schools and arresting female students and detaining them for questioning. The message to all women is clear: any diversion from the ISIS interpretation of Islamic law will have dire consequences. Reportedly, few women can now be seen on the streets of Raqqa.
This strategy of using women to discipline other women is not a new one; it has been previously employed by Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which have various brigades consisting of all-female morality police members.
In a state where women are largely powerless, giving some of them a modicum of power over others creates dissension within their ranks and eliminates opportunities for protest. Simply put, women’s anger is directed not towards the patriarchal oppression imposed by men (in this case via the use of religious distortions) but towards other women who have just a little more power than themselves.
In this way, women stand divided, separated in the case of the ISIS-controlled Raqqa by divisions created by men. The chosen women deemed pious by the ever superior judgement of men are recruited into Al Khansaa Brigade. All other women are automatically demoted, left open to the judgements of the ones chosen by men, to policewomen.
In the days since ISIS has come to the fore, much has been said about its project of creating a re-envisioned Islamic caliphate and its hodgepodge resurrection of a pre-colonial Muslim kingdom. As several analysts and ISIS fighters (and those of their ilk) have pointed out, the attempt is to create a world untouched by Western influence, which by definition would be more authentic, even utopian.
For all its ire towards the colonial era, however, the ISIS tactic of using women to watch women borrows directly from it. As those familiar with colonial history will recognise, the task of empowering a few members of an oppressed group in order to have them carry out the policies of new invaders was a trademark of those times. The women of Al Khansaa Brigade hence fulfil a particularly colonial function: harassing, detaining, judging and oppressing their sisters to please the conquering men of ISIS.
Like the colonists of old, the power that ISIS has actually invested in the female Al Khansaa Brigade is vacuous and largely superficial. While the women are left to squabble over whether walking around unescorted is okay and the lengths of permissible head coverings, the men continue to perpetuate oppression on women. They cannot be questioned by Al Khansaa Brigade.
Last week, Al Jazeera reported that a woman had been stoned to death by ISIS in Raqqa. While the male spokespersons asserted than an ‘Islamic trial’ had taken place, there was no evidence that any such thing had happened. In the lone mobile phone picture of the event, no women from Al Khansaa Brigade were in sight. When women are being persecuted, then, Al Khansaa Brigade is nowhere to be found. Its parameters and its Islamic duty to justice and fairness do not extend to that realm.
Eliminating women from the public sphere is an easy way to make a statement; streets devoid of one-half of the population are a testament to the power of an invading extremist group. At the centre of the strategy of using women to oppress other women is the former’s willingness to be the pliant political instruments of men.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org