North Africa, West Asia

The problem with the 'women of ISIL'

Deeply problematic media narratives on Islam and women go unchallanged, distracting from the difficult questions and warping perceptions directly involved in justifying western military intervention in the Middle East.

Janine Rich
7 August 2015
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The startlingly swift rise of the terrorist group self-titled the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has once again fueled the fire of the endlessly futile and reductive debate in western media about the “real” nature of Islam (Is it peaceful? Is it evil? Shall we ask Bill Maher again?).

As this hopeless tug-of-war match rages on, another deeply problematic media narrative has once more risen to the surface and gone largely unchallenged: Muslim women, and particularly the “women of ISIL.” The terms “ISIS Bride”, and “ISIS sex slave” scream hysterically from the tickers of Fox News and grab readers by the collar in 36-point font from MSNBC online. They are meaningless terms, useful only to tantalise and titillate viewers into reading past the headline.

If one googles the term “women of ISIS”, some of the first words that pop up in the headlines of stories written by the likes of Vox, Buzzfeed, and The Guardian, are “jihadist”, “sex slave”, “rape”, and so on and so forth. For example, in the English version of Al-Arabiya, a recent headline reads, “UK female jihadists run ISIS sex-slave brothels.” Leaving aside the verbal equivalent of cardiac arrest that is the headline, the tone in the body of the article is one of bafflement, quite understandably. It is certainly not in question that ISIL’s treatment of women is appallingly inhumane, and the idea that women themselves are playing an active role in perpetuating this brutality seems beyond all logic and reason.

In a recent story covered by CNN on western women leaving to join the fight for ISIL, the reporter speculates on the phenomenon of ISIL using images of kittens and Nutella to appeal to young women and lure them into fighting for ISIL. Leaving aside the blatantly sexist assumption that women can be easily hoodwinked en masse into joining a militant Islamist group by chocolate and Grumpy Cat, this stance touches on a number of fears and assumptions currently running through western media coverage on the issue.

During this report, the newscaster interviews Nimmi Gowrinathan, a visiting professor at the City College of New York, for her opinion on how it is possible for western women to “choose a life of oppression.”

Gowrinathan helpfully points out what is perhaps the most commonly ignored piece of the puzzle of what could possibly appeal to women “from here” about this group: namely, that these women are not joining to fight for women’s rights. They may in fact be fighting for political rights that they believe have been taken away from them. They may see the current threat to their religious identity, and to the society they wish to create, as greater than the oppression that they face as women in this envisioned society.

This explanation is a good start, but it is frankly insufficient. Perhaps, rather than pontificating on the efficacy of Internet memes in encouraging terrorism, we should be examining what aspects and elements of our own societies have caused these women to feel so deeply marginalised, and subsequently, what has caused them to choose violence as an answer to this marginalisation.

Why do we not look at these women’s lives critically, rather than making shallow statements about their dangerously misguided silliness? Why has there not been any serious research done, outside of the insular world of academia, about the myriad forces acting on these women that bring them to this point? Simply having problems with ‘the West’ by no means causes women to join extremist groups, so what does?

Talking without actually saying anything has become de rigueur for mainstream news outlets, but as the death toll skyrockets, as the US debates yet another military intervention, we cannot allow this type of vapid pseudo-analysis to continue—the stakes are simply too high.

The western self-censorship that allows for this kind of willful blindness is the real crux of the matter. Whenever we talk about ‘terrorists’, a term that has become synonymous with Muslim extremists, we talk about them in absolutist terms. That is, we automatically assume an absolute difference between ‘them’ and ‘us.’

If these people are the opposite of us, the antithesis of western values, then by definition they must originate in a place wholly different from ours. The fact that they sometimes come from here, and that they are women no less, becomes impossible to fathom. It does not fit within the carefully constructed framework by which we understand our own society, and it flies in the face of the lies we tell ourselves about the world: that things are great ‘here’ and terrible ‘there’, and that it is even possible to describe ‘the West’ and ‘the Middle East’ as two separate, inherently conflicting civilisations.

And so, faced with this discomfort, we turn to the media to entertain us, to shock us with the stories of ISIL’s brutality and of the women who partake in it.

The images that accompany any and all stories about female jihadists are telling: regardless of the angle of the story, the image is one of a fully veiled woman, usually wearing a black niqab, sometimes carrying a gun or a copy of the Qur’an, or both. Sometimes they are wearing the white letters of the shahada that ISIL has appropriated as their symbol, but more often than not they are pictured unmarked, as if their actions fall outside the male-gendered violence of ISIL and remain in a category of their own, one which is even more terrifying and unfathomable. 

This type of perverse fascination with Muslim women and their potential violence has its roots in colonial history, and European fascination with “the Exotic Orient.” The prominent critical theorist Edward Said labeled this type of attention as “Orientalism”, and deconstructed the process by which this portrayal of the “Orient” as a mystical and paradoxical place of both sexual indulgence and sexual repression have historically been used to justify European colonial projects, as well as ongoing US military intervention in the region.

The veil itself has become deeply politicised, and has been imbued with so many different potential meanings that it has become an empty signifier. In western media, it has come to symbolise a status of otherness, of total difference from western values, and of a woman’s apparent helplessness and victimhood at the hands of her own religion.

This image of the ‘veiled Muslim woman’, however, has shifted slightly since the golden ages of colonialism. Initially, this image was either explicitly or implicitly used to demonstrate the supposed total removal of Muslim women from society, their complete lack of agency and the apparent evilness of the tradition that would imprison women in this manner.

But now, the same subjects are being viewed by a western audience in socially active, politically charged atmospheres. They are pictured walking through the crowded streets of Middle Eastern cities, taking part in politics and social organisations, casting their votes alongside the men who have supposedly oppressed them for so long. The notion of the veil as a signifier of the sexist oppression of Islam has not been challenged; rather, the newly-politically active Muslim woman is now one who is assumed to have chosen her own oppression.

It is a dangerous, narrow, and ultimately dehumanising portrayal, and it serves precisely the same function that images of veiled Muslim women served during the height of colonial domination in the region: to justify violent intervention, and to paint a black-and-white, good vs. evil image of the relationship between western powers and the Middle East.

It is relevant to mention that women who are not active supporters or militants for ISIL, but are victimised by ISIL’s practices fare no better under the spotlight of western media. A CNN video titled 'Prisoner, Maid, Sex Slave: ISIS bride shares her story' recently covered the story of a Syrian woman, forced into an arranged marriage with an ISIL militant, who ultimately managed to escape with her family to Turkey. It is a “to hell and back” narrative that is utterly irresistible to the target audience, and the author chose to devote an inordinate amount of print space to her veiled appearance, which he describes as “a suffocating black fabric.”

The coverage and reporting that these stories receive are not intended to respect the lives and experiences of the women they talk about, or to complicate the conversation around these issues. Their intention is, first and foremost, to appeal to a western audience. They are intended to shock the reader with the brutality of “Islam”, to excite people with the scandal, intrigue, and hint of sexual perversion, and to perpetuate the image of the oppressed, veiled Muslim woman, a two-dimensional character who can only be saved through the kind-hearted intervention of the enlightened west.

The disturbing reality is, whether it is for political reasons or merely entertainment value, these stories are geared towards achieving a reaction of shock, horror, and enjoyment from a western audience, one which has increasingly become guilt-free about viewing the violence and pain of others.

We have become so deeply entangled in the pornographic consumption of these images that we have become incapable of seeing past them, of asking real questions about why some women are joining militant groups. Any nuanced analysis of the causes would require more demographics, such as age, social class, education, and a nuanced examination of the myriad complex factors that drive any individual to act in any way.

We should be demanding this of our media, but we do not, for the simple reason that we do not demand it of ourselves. Reductive stories of the violence and/or victimhood of Muslim women, of the brutality of rape and the horrors of religious extremism are published because we cannot get enough of them. The images and narratives of women combatants are framed through such a vapid, pointless lens that we have become unable, or unwilling, to expand the conversation or to learning anything new or useful.

This points to something significantly more disturbing: we are in no way just inactive observers of violence. The stories that get published do so because there is an audience waiting hungrily. Consumption is an activity, not something we do passively—we consume violence and rape, and thus we support the industry that publishes it, that gives us the stories that we want to see rather than the ones that we might be challenged by.

Not only are we consumers of this violence, but we also create it—let us not forget that we voted, twice, for the architects of the invasion of Iraq, that we’ve voted countless times for policies that have endangered the lives of millions and irrevocably destabilised entire regions of the world.

So why does any of this matter? Because these stories, of violence and rape, and of the ridiculous portrayal in western media of Muslim women as either dangerously unhinged extremists or desperate, helpless victims are not merely stories. They feed public opinion and warp perceptions that are directly involved in justifying western military intervention in the Middle East.

This is in no way to suggest that these media narratives caused the invasions and ongoing political involvement in the region. If the Middle East did not have an abundance of coveted natural resources, and if weapons production was not such a lucrative business, there would be little reason for the west to bother with the region at all.

But justifying a war requires more than simply telling people that we are going to invade sovereign territory, destabilise the region and secure resources that are not ours to begin with. American wars require a moral justification, which has become embedded in the bodies of women. They require us to see ourselves as heroes, and everyone else as distantly removed enemies who stand opposed to “Our Values.”

The same media tropes that were used to justify the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the disastrous “war on terror” are still being used to not only rationalise immense violence, but to justify the type of American self-censorship that has ruled media outlets since September 11th, 2001. The way that stories are covered and presented, and the details that are included or omitted, are always tilted and adjusted towards the biases and desires of the audience they are intended for, to entertain rather than to examine.

We blanket ourselves with stories of titillating violence and the scandal of female extremists because it is easier than asking difficult questions about what motivates these women, and what our own role might be in all of this. The dominant coverage of “the woman of ISIL” has been a politicised simplification of women’s lives and stories for the sake of a western audience that is eager for more, that refuses to face itself in the mirror and see its own complicity as consumers of violence. 

When looking for signs that the next American intervention in the Middle East is already being constructed, one need look no further than this.

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