In the years since it emerged from the ashes of the militant group al-Qaida in Iraq in 2010, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has revolutionized the art of jihadist messaging, producing propaganda on an industrial scale. In place of the grainy videos and stagnant speeches of Islamic insurgencies that came before (think back to a seated Osama bin Laden threatening the West with a blank wall in the background), ISIS has brought its mission firmly into the 21st century with professionally produced newspapers, glossy magazines and stylized videos and photos. Designed to shock and inspire in equal measure, they depict in graphic detail the Islamic utopia the group promotes.
Charlie Winter, senior fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, has spent the past several years examining ISIS propaganda in both English and Arabic. He says the way women are referred to in the material gives vital clues to understanding the function women are expected to play in the group.
Central to this issue is the question of female jihadists taking on a combat role. Images on social media of women wielding guns or taking part in military training in Syria and Iraq have been pounced on by the mainstream media as evidence women are being encouraged to fight. But, according to Winter, those images are not produced or disseminated by the official propaganda channels. In fact, they contradict the clear policy lines from the group’s leadership that women should not be involved in violence, unless there is no other option.
Women & Girls spoke to Winter about how radical jihadist propaganda speaks to and about women.
Women & Girls: What kind of propaganda have you analyzed?
Charlie Winter: In the vast majority of instances, I am looking at Arabic-language propaganda. The Islamic State relies on Arabic material that is easily translated or is very visual, so as many people as possible can absorb its message.
While there is a lot of violence in propaganda, the violence is always retaliatory or retributive. Mostly media is designed to give a holistic idea of what life is like in the caliphate, even if it bears little or no resemblance to the reality. Whether it’s the conducting of village affairs, the social welfare system, or markets or agriculture – the idea is to create a picture of a utopia. They sometimes feature pictures of big sunset vistas, animals or kids playing in theme parks. The message is quite clear: “You come here to live, not to die.”
A very important part of that same utopian message is images of gay people being thrown off buildings, and people having their hands cut off and being beheaded. Even though this stuff is unpleasant, it’s geared toward presenting and emphasizing the utopian ideals they propagate.
Women & Girls: Is any of this propaganda directed at women?
Winter: The English-language ISIS propaganda magazine Rumiyah in particular has had some interesting articles that have approached the issue of gender from a typically Islamic State, misogynist perspective. Mostly they’re encouraging women to make sure they get married and make sure they bear lots of children.
In the last issues of Rumiyah, there was an article titled: “I Will Outnumber the Other Nations Through You.” Essentially, it was saying the best thing women can do for jihad is have children, as that will aid and abet the conquest of the world. The month before, there was an article about marrying widows. The article says women have a duty to remarry after their husband dies, even if it happens a hundred times.
Women & Girls: Does any of the propaganda encourage women to take up arms or fight?
Winter: There was one video in 2014 or 2015, emerging from central Syria, where a Syrian army tank commander was brought out to be executed. It was said the man was responsible for the death of an ISIS fighter. For that reason, they said they were allowing the man’s widow to execute the tank commander. You never saw her or heard her, but someone off camera shot him in the back of the head. That’s the only time I have ever seen a woman feature – although she was never actually on camera – as a protagonist in a propaganda video.
What’s very clear is there has been no directive issued by [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his Sharia counsel saying that it is permissible for women to kill, or fight even. A good example is an article mentioning the recent incident in Kenya, where three female supporters of the Islamic State attacked a police station. The letter the women allegedly wrote in English [pledging their allegiance to ISIS] was appended to the end of a foreword, titled: “The Message from East Africa.” While there was kudos given to the three women who carried out the attack, the underlying message was, “We don’t really want you to be doing that. Really, it’s men who should be carrying out these attacks.”
Women & Girls: How does that sit with groups like Boko Haram – said to be official ISIS affiliates – who have widely promoted their use of female suicide bombers?
Winter: The West Africa province of ISIS is essentially Boko Haram and that’s a particularly strange relationship. I think the Islamic State only recognizes and only publicizes a tiny minority of attacks that are carried out by Boko Haram and certainly it never, ever comments on anything when a female suicide bomber is alleged to have been an attacker. While they still refer to West Africa province as a province of the Islamic State, I think that’s just a label and it’s nowhere near as coherent a relationship as we might think.
Women & Girls: What about the images we see on social media of women in Iraq and Syria holding guns? Are these just for recruitment purposes?
Winter: Photographs have certainly surfaced of women said to be in Syria or Iraq training with AK-47s or pistols. Some military training has clearly happened, but I think it is more about self-defense than anything else. The images of women with guns are certainly never put out on official ISIS media channels. They are more likely to come from Western sympathizers of the group – either women themselves or people trying to recruit women. It is possible this may have been a source of disappointment to some women who traveled to IS territory to join the cause. However, the organization is very good at controlling messages from within their territory, so dissenting voices are never aired.
Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the coming months, as things do get really desperate for the Islamic State, women begin to play a military role, or at least a more outwardly supporting military role. I translated a manifesto written by someone in the al-Khansaa Brigade – the female policing unit in the caliphate – and there was a little section dealing with the issue of whether it’s permissible for women to fight. In that manifesto, it said it wasn’t permissible unless the caliph declares it to be, and that would only happen if the situation was really desperate, if it’s something akin to Chechnya in the 1990s, or Iraq in the 2000s. So there is an overt recognition that women can sometimes play a military role. Jihadists are masterful at finding loopholes.
This story is part of our special series “Women and Jihad.”