The “Brides” of Terror: The Women of ISIS and Layered Intersectionality

Muslim women are once again making front page news for all the wrong reasons. Since the inauguration of the War on Terror, various sorts of stories about women have surfaced periodically. At first, it was the story of the woman victim who had to be rescued from her barbaric culture/religion and her violent male family members. Then, less frequently, it was the simmering worry that women were espousing radical, illiberal ideas and hiding these anti-Western sentiments under their hijabs presenting one face to the public and while hiding their true intentions. And now, we have the stories of the ISIS brides seeking to return to their homes in the West. A figure that oscillates between the first two characters–victim and threat.

A Flawed Victim

What do we make of a child who purposefully and resourcefully takes herself off across multiple borders into a war zone in order to join what is clearly one of the most reprehensible groups on Earth? After all, she is only 15 or maybe 19. She is old enough to make elaborate plans but not old enough to fully think them through. She is old enough to not be driven by impulse alone yet susceptible to the romantic allure of religious purity and devotion. Does this change after a few years when she turns 18 or because she is already 19? When can we attach responsibility?

In the United States, we are familiar with charging children as adults. We disproportionately charge children of color, black children in particular, as adults. But to assume that a Muslim girl could act in an adult capacity to join a murderous enemy of the state conflicts with cherished tropes of victimization at the hands of Muslim men. While we haven’t seen many attempts to defend these girls on the basis that they could not have acted without significant pressure from ISIS recruiters, we have seen a number of writers underscoring their age and vulnerability. In particular, some liberal analysis has been quick to point out that we might not treat other children as fully culpable. Yes, they traveled to ISIS-held territory but they were hardly on the front lines. They were hardly killing and raping. In fact, once they arrived and the honeymoon was over, they might have wanted to return. They may even have been trafficked.

The problem is that an unalloyed narrative of victimhood may explain how a young ISIS bride was lured but it does not account for the fair amount of willpower it takes to travel from the UK or the US to a war zone. Moreover, once in situ, such a narrative puts her on par with the women who were held as sex slaves, held in captivity, killed resisting.

A Reluctant Threat?

An emerging narrative complicates the picture by suggesting that an ISIS bride may be a real threat. Yazidi women have been quick to point out that these women and girls recruited as brides became “mistresses” overseeing the servitude of captives. They are not “innocent.” Perhaps we can consider them as analogous to the slave-owning white woman. Constrained by structural patriarchy, subordinate to and/or fearful of the men surrounding her, and/or participating actively in upholding the hierarchies of power and domination over other men and women. In this role, the ISIS bride is seen by her female victims as having more in common with ISIS men. Sisterhood doesn’t stretch across torture and slavery.

We are told to be wary of their return. Not to take their tales of suffering and disenchantment at face value. To remember that they actively joined and then carried out the program of ISIS against other women, true victims. (And, of course, one can understand the desire on the part of former sex slaves to see all those connected with ISIS punished.)

Liberal experts, particularly those emerging in the Women, Peace, and Security field, argue that while these women may be a threat, they also have valuable information that the state can use to continue to wage the War on Terror. That these women aren’t the cringing victims that the early WoT narrative had advanced. Rather women are increasingly becoming active terrorists both in places like Syria and Iraq as well as in San Bernardino, California. ISIS women are, therefore, neither innocent victims in need of saving, nor the kind of threat that ISIS fighters are but a vital source of information that might advance our security agenda.

There are others with similar reductive stories which obscure more than they elucidate. And here we might consider extending the theory of intersectionality in a new direction.

ISIS Child Brides And Intersectionality Extended

Intersectionality, as theorized by Kimberlé Crenshaw, has been used to help us think about how multiple identities can lead to subordination greater than the sum of its parts. Much has been written about the theory and increasingly, it has become unmoored from the legal literature that Crenshaw analyzed and used to describe social and legal subordination.

But intersectional thinking can also help us grapple with the difficulty of multiple roles that sometimes appear paradoxical as they inhere in one person. The girls who left to join ISIS ought to be understood as being both victim and perpetrator who cannot be reduced to any one set of actions. They cannot be reduced to the child lured from home or the young adult wife who supports a jihadist husband and a rogue state. Nor is she simply the handmaid to torture or even the torturer. Just as Yazidi women are resisters, fighters, victims, survivors, so are their counterparts. This is not to suggest that women who joined ISIS ought to be viewed as equal to victims; rather, it is to argue against reductive assumptions and constructions.

Complexity should not be glossed over. And the contexts in which these girls-now-women acted should not be forgotten. First, no one who joins ISIS from the West was raised in isolation. These women, like their male counterparts, were raised in a milieu of suspicion and surveillance in the height of the War on Terror. Their identities are shaped by and through their resistance to the prescriptive identity foisted upon them by a state desperate for a visible risk group, a discernible population that Countering Violent Extremism or Prevent could target. This is not to say that counterterrorism or the War on Terror radicalized them but societal conditions must be taken into account. Families must also be taken into account. The experience of peers and the experiences of acceptance and rejection in school and bullying must be considered. The ongoing barrage of Islamophobia through media and state policy as well through both casual and more intentional discrimination must be factored into the alienation of these girls. None of these factors are dispositive on their own even if counter-radicalization efforts do not acknowledge this fact.

While we often go out of our way to understand white mass murderers who commit horrific acts of domestic terrorism, humanizing them, we are unable to hold the complexities of people of color–particularly women–in our mind. We may understand intersectionality as a meeting place, a junction of axes of subordinated identities but can we also understand it as the coexistence of subordinated and dominant identities. An interpretation that stretches the concept then makes it available to many more people not just people of color. Intersectionality is a term that invokes spatiality, movement, traffic. In keeping with this idea, complex dominant and subordinated identities can be viewed as axes layered on each other like pick-up sticks and fly-overs, a knot. In a state-run by ISIS, we can see how some of these women may have been subordinate, perhaps fearful of the consequences of disobedience, self-subordinating, and the wielders of both their own and reflected power. Layered intersectionality allows us to imagine a much thicker relationship among multiple identities without requiring one to dominate over the other.  Moreover, rather than being an entirely horizontal concept, it allows movement along more than one dimension including verticality.

Convenient and simple stories of how these women were lured, victims of Islamophobia looking for a place to fit in, products of Western imperialism, crushed by their barbaric families and religion, evil perpetrators of war crimes or at least enthusiastic supporters of the ISIS state may comfort some, but they are in the long run unhelpful in preventing the loss of young people to radicalism. And they flatten out the reality of these lives making them more vulnerable to criminalization justified through opportunistic national security narratives that sublimate structural Islamophobia.

Furthermore, men who have left to join ISIS have all been repatriated. This gender discrimination is unacceptable. It harkens back to the days when women’s citizenship followed that of her husband. A woman in the United States who married a foreigner would lose her citizenship, a fate no male suffered. This suggested that women experience an intersectional discrimination along both gender and religious lines which, for some reason, makes them more threatening than their male counterparts.

Returning Home: Beyond the Law

Indeed, national security has already become a preeminent concern with regard to the return of these women. In the UK and in the US, state officials have suggested that they be sent back to their country of origin by which it is meant the country from which their parents emigrated. This could only be possible if these women held dual citizenship of there was some legal basis on which to deprive them of their citizenship. Both Shamima Begum form the UK and Hoda Muthana from the U.S. were born in the country from which they hold citizenship. Shamima Begum, one of the UK brides, has been rejected as a Bangladeshi citizen because at no point was she a dual national. Both the UK Home Secretary and the US Secretary of State wish to render these women stateless contravening international law.

A number of scholars have already weighed in on the legal aspects of the attempts to strip ISIS brides of citizenship. The law, for the moment, does not allow the US executive branch to render Hoda Muthana stateless and, furthermore, citizenship stripping would have some consequences for her child. Yet, there is also a moral argument to be made on the basis of the fact that this woman was born, raised, and radicalized in the US. We are not absolved from our part in creating her and must now bear the consequences by allowing her to return. None of this means that she should be allowed to escape the consequences of her actions. But what it ought to mean is that we consider her on equal terms as the white supremacist or the confederate soldier. And as no worse than the number of males who have taken up arms against their cohorts in schools, movie theaters, and malls. If we can see humanity and conflict in these children and young adults, we should be able to extend that in fairness to people like Muthana and Begum.

To deprive Muthana and Begum of citizenship would solve our problem about what to do about these “traitors.” It would allow the state to side-step any process of establishing Muthana or Begum as a threat. But at the same time, it would send yet another message that people of color, those born of immigrant parents, regardless of whether born here or naturalized are second or third class citizens who cannot rely on the state to secure their legal rights. It would demonstrate in stark terms that the only way that anyone can truly be secure is to never make a mistake, never break the law and even then, as we know from the death of countless African Americans, it may not be enough.

We should remember that there have been other countries who have sought to deprive people of their citizenship stripping them down to one identity marker: Nazi Germany and Myanmar come to mind. This is not company that the world’s oldest liberal democracy with a self-professed commitment to human rights should seek to keep.