ISIS 'Manifesto' Spells out Role for Women

The doctrine envisions an education system in which girls complete their formal schooling by age 15.

The Atlantic/March 8, 2015

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Marriage and motherhood—not college degrees and careers—are the paramount goals for young girls living in the territory controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the fledgling terrorist organization known as ISIS. And girls need not wait until they’re in their 20s or 30s to attain either goal. That much can be gleaned from a "manifesto" on women that was recently disseminated by the group.

"It is considered legitimate for a girl to be married at the age of nine," the manifesto says. "Most pure girls will be married by sixteen or seventeen, while they are still young and active."

As accounts continue to surface of young women from around the world trekking to ISIS-controlled territory—including the three British schoolgirls believed to have recently crossed the Syrian border to join the jihadist group—the manifesto provides critical insight into the organization’s doctrine as it relates to women. "It allows us to look past that which is banded about on social media by Western supporters of IS, enabling us to get into the mind-set of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women who willingly join its ranks," reads an analysis of the document by the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counter-extremism think tank.

Though statistics on the group are notoriously difficult to confirm, the U.S. intelligence community believes that roughly 20,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq since the Islamic State took control of large swaths of the region last year. And it’s widely believed that as many as 550 of those members are "Western" women. As those numbers continue to grow, the manifesto adds to the emerging picture of the group’s ultimate aims.

The manifesto—which is formally titled "Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study"—was translated from Arabic to English by the Quilliam Foundation’s Charlie Winter shortly after it surfaced online earlier this year. It was purportedly developed by the media wing of Al-Khanssaa Brigade, an all-female military unit of the Islamic State, as a recruitment tool.

The translated version of the document—which including the analysis is 41 pages long—extols the virtues of motherhood and promulgates the idea that the best place for a woman is in the house, living a life of "sedentariness" and fulfilling her "Divine duty of motherhood." It portrays Western civilization as a godless, materialistic society that has caused women to depart from their God-given roles as wives and mothers.

It doesn’t put women on "equal" footing with men because the two sexes have distinctly different roles under Islam: "Women gain nothing from the idea of their equality with men apart from thorns," the manifesto states. "Under 'equality' they have to work and rest on the same days as men even though they have ‘monthly complications’ and pregnancies and so on, in spite of the nature of her life and responsibilities to their husband, sons and religion."

And while the document puts a premium on being a housewife, it still encourages education—provided it is religious-based. "Yes, we say ‘stay in your houses,’ but this does not mean, in any way, that we support illiteracy, backwardness or ignorance. Rather, we just support the distinction between working—that which involves a woman leaving the house—and studying, as it was ordained she should do." However, should a woman have to work outside of the home, doing so should come with certain accommodations, the document states: "If a woman is forced to work outside the house, we must reward her for this service and look after her household and children in her long absence." The manifesto stipulates that a woman’s work should be no more than three days and should not involve long hours.

Among the manifesto’s other guidance:

        A woman’s job should take into account "necessities," such as a child’s illness and a husband’s travel. A woman’s job should have "holidays."
        Mothers should be given a minimum of two years maternity leave to "rear and feed the child, and only resume if the child has started to be able to rely on himself for the most important things."
        Once children become more self-reliant, "There must be a place to put the children at work until they reach school age" so that children are not left home alone.

It also envisions an education system in which girls complete their formal schooling by age 15.

When it comes to higher education, the manifesto portrays Muslim women who seek "worldly" knowledge—instead of knowledge of the Shari'ah, or Islamic law—as being dupes of Western civilization. "Because of this, a woman studies these worthless worldly sciences in the farthest mountains and the deepest valleys," the manifesto continues. "She travels, intent upon learning Western lifestyle and sitting in the midst of another culture, to study the brain cells of crows, grains of sand and the arteries of fish!" It would be more appropriate, the document says, for Muslim women to study fiqh: Islamic jurisprudence and understanding of the Shariah. "Hence, there is with no need for her to flit here and there to get degrees and so on, just so she can try to prove that her intelligence is greater than a man’s."

Only under "exceptional circumstances," the manifesto says, should women pursue things outside of the home. Such circumstances include jihad, as long as religious leaders issue an edict for women to do so and there are not enough men around to protect the country from enemy attack. In some cases, women may also leave the home if they are doctors and teachers—or if they are leaving to study theology—but only if they "keep strictly to Shariah guidelines."

Ultimately, "It is always preferable for a woman to remain hidden and veiled, to maintain society from behind this veil," the document states. "This, which is always the most difficult role, is akin to that of a director, the most important person in a media production, who is behind the scenes organising."

The manifesto also includes a portion in which it looks at "case studies," scenarios that paint positive pictures of life as a woman in ISIS-controlled territory. It shows, for example, how women have the right to sell their wares in the marketplace and voice their concerns on matters of divorce and inheritance in the courts. It also demonstrates that women enjoy access to monies from ISIS coffers by means of a "Zakat chamber" in order to ensure livelihoods for themselves and their children. (Zakat is the Arabic word for alms or charity and is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam.)

Criminals do not assail women, the document says, for fear of the consequences from ISIS enforcers: "Now, women can wander in souqs and go on pilgrimage without falling foul of criminals, because the perpetrators would face painful punishments." On a similar note, the manifesto also encourages men to criticize and "vilify" other men who beat their wives.

But Quilliam’s Winter—the researcher who translated and analyzed the manifesto—says it must be seen as "a piece of propaganda; the portions that deal with the "reality" of life in the Islamic State are "undoubtedly exaggerated," he writes. "They are designed as recruitment tools for women, specifically for those living within the region."

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