The stories we tell about ISIS and women

Political and popular discussions about strategies to confront ISIS are doing women in Iraq and Syria a disservice, and playing into the hands of ISIS.

Yifat Susskind
5 December 2014

Something about the way that we are talking about ISIS is playing right into their hands. It feeds into their media strategy, obscures women’s resistance to their violence and promotes the Islamophobia that fuels the very war with “the West” that ISIS craves.

ISIS is a violent extremist group, aiming for the creation of a Sunni Islamist state. Like their former affiliate, al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS came up after the 2003 US invasion of that country created a breeding ground for right-wing, anti-occupation militias. But even al-Qaeda couldn’t stomach ISIS’ ruthless attacks on civilians and political rivals. Fearing that the group was giving jihadism a bad name, al-Qaeda broke with ISIS, creating a new, even more reactionary point on the political spectrum.

ISIS has shown no hesitation in eliminating anyone it views as a threat to their social vision, including whole communities of ethnic and religious minorities and anyone who doesn’t conform to their strictures. ISIS attacks on women are not random expressions of brutality, but a targeted part of this strategy. Like fundamentalists of other religions, ISIS’ social vision rests on male supremacy. With every gender-based attack, ISIS fighters enact that social vision, using violence and the threat of violence to strip women of their freedoms, autonomy and basic human rights.

In areas of Iraq and Syria it controls, ISIS has barred women and girls from going to school, holding jobs or even being in public without male "guardians." Iraqi women have been taken to make-shift markets and literally sold as property to ISIS fighters. Some of these women have been trafficked to Syria as sexual slaves for militants there.

Unsurprisingly, ISIS has dominated headlines and policymaking debates for months now. That is their exact intent, as they supply world audiences with bombastic propaganda and a horrific and recurring display of gruesome beheading videos.

There is no doubt that ISIS works to manufacture their ruthless image. Any effective media strategy must know its audience and craft messages and images that will resonate. We have to ask why ISIS has managed to capture worldwide attention. What is it about the narrative that they present – and that global media and public discourse have built around them – that has such currency?

Like many beloved narratives, this one is familiar to people in the US and Europe. It's a story at least as old as European colonialism, a tale of brown men as dangers to brown women who need to be saved by white people. That the story is simplistic and racist does not negate the reality of women’s oppression. But it does seem to leave Western audiences unable to listen to any other stories, particularly those narrated by Muslim women and men. When your hearing is that selective, you miss a lot.

You miss, for example, the multi-faceted solutions that women most directly threatened by ISIS are forging. In Iraq, the dust from the arrival of ISIS jeeps was practically still hanging in the air, and women had already begun to mobilize. For instance, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq created an underground network of safe-houses and escape routes for women in ISIS-controlled territory and a network for providing humanitarian aid and trauma counselling.

Syrian women have a two-pronged strategy to defeat ISIS: contain them by getting humanitarian aid to communities that might otherwise accept ISIS rule out of desperation for the food aid that the group supplies; and end the war fuelling the rise of ISIS by restarting peace negotiations. Those talks, the women say, must give a real voice to the Syrian civilian population, most of whom have no interest in living in a Sunni Caliphate.  The best way to do that is through an independent women’s and civil society bloc at the peace table.

Women confronting ISIS face victimization, but they are also survivors, leaders and activists advancing key strategies. Yet, this story is barely audible through the din of media accounts that endlessly echo the old tropes of Muslim women as victims of Muslim men. Stories of women’s leadership and ingenuity are discordant with those tropes.

What are not discordant are the drumbeats for military intervention. Militarised “solutions” are in perfect harmony with the story of going in to “save the women.” Proponents never seem to adequately consider that bombing campaigns endanger the people they’re purporting to save, destabilize communities and make it harder for women’s movements to gain traction and win rights. Of course, in reality, armies are not dispatched to protect women but to benefit states. The fairy tale is intended for US and European audiences as a distraction. It keeps those audiences from hearing the truth about military interventions designed to ensure the exercise of Western power in economically strategic regions like the Middle East and Central Asia.

And where ISIS is concerned, military escalation is just what they want. It is their single greatest tool for recruitment, as fighters from across the region seize the chance to go to battle against a foreign invasion.

The old racist tropes of brutal Muslim men and oppressed Muslim women are also fuelling Islamophobia. Too many people have been all too willing to accept ISIS’ distorted version of Islam, rather than hearing the peaceful claims and values expressed by a worldwide Muslim community. It is unsurprising to hear it on the right-wing Fox News, where one commentator said, “You can’t solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It’s the only thing these people understand.” She made no attempt to distinguish between all Muslims and extremists like ISIS.

This rhetoric is also echoed by purportedly liberal media personalities like Bill Maher, who cast Islam as a religion that will “kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” A religion cannot kill anyone, but a minority of extremists can draw twisted interpretations of a religion to justify their violence.

ISIS fighters are overjoyed to have this kind of cachet, in which they can assert a depiction of Islam and have it taken at face value. Every time people ignore the ways that Western intervention and Arab governments’ sectarianism helped create fertile ground for ISIS to take root, and instead default to racist generalizations about Islam, it strengthens both ISIS’ hand and Islamophobia.

Attention to brutal violations by ISIS is much-needed, and women’s rights activists are demanding it. When activists sound this alarm, we are, in fact, asking people to side against ISIS, creating an us-versus-them dynamic. But this is not a clash of civilizations, where Islam is the enemy. No one is predestined to be on one side or the other by virtue of her culture, religion, or nationality. We choose our position based on our principles and our actions.

So how do we address Islamist violence against women without endorsing the racist idea that gender-based violence in the Middle East somehow derives from Islam? We start by recognizing that in the US and Europe, discussions of gender-based violence in the Muslim world occur in a climate of hostility towards Islam and Muslim countries. Granted ISIS (like fundamentalists of all faiths) condones brutality against women in the name of their religion. But why side with ISIS in their claim to Islam? Why not support the millions of progressive Muslims who reject violence, including violence against women?

Standing against ISIS and in defense of women’s rights does not mean condoning Islamophobia. We need to simultaneously confront extremist violence, denounce the violence of a militarised foreign policy, condemn Islamophobia in policy and popular culture, and resist the conscription of feminism into military interventions.

If this sounds like a juggling act, that is because multifaceted problems demand multifaceted approaches. And grassroots women’s rights activists in Iraq and Syria are already crafting these strategies. Our task as allies is to support them. The answer is not to choose between the threats of religious fundamentalism and militarism as the greater assault on women, but to understand the way that these realities intersect with each other.

Read more articles in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender- Based Violence 2014


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