In the last email it sent to journalist James Foley’s parents, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) mentioned one person by name: Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. “We have also offered prisoner exchanges to free the Muslims currently in your detention like our sister Dr. Aafia Siddiqui,” it said, “however you proved very quickly to us that this is NOT what you are interested in.” Days later, Foley was beheaded. More beheadings—gruesome, grotesque, and professionally filmed—have followed, drawing the United States further into the conflict in Iraq and Syria.
Siddiqui, a Pakistani neurophysicist, was in prison in Carswell, Texas, when ISIS proposed a deal to free her. the militants had not forgotten her, although it had been years since her 2008 capture in Ghazni, Afghanistan, and her January 2010 conviction in New York for the attempted murder of federal agents. For ISIS, as for many other jihadist groups, Aafia Siddiqui is a heroine.
A small but growing number of young Muslim women have joined an estimated 20,000–31,500 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. About 10 percent of foreign recruitsfrom Europe, North America and Australia are women. Of these approximately two hundred women and girls, the majority are believed to be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Seventy women are thought to have come from France, sixty from the United Kingdom, and scattered numbers from other European nations and from Canada. Two American women from Denver and Minneapolis have probably joined the group as well.
Why is ISIS drawing women, particularly from Western countries with supposed access to secular freedoms, to heed the call of an extremist group well known for its misogynist ideology and its violent treatment of women?
While Aafia Siddiqui herself was never a member of ISIS—she was convicted and imprisoned before the group was formed—she is an example of a “Muslim woman warrior,” an ideal celebrated by jihadists around the Islamic world. As a highly educated Muslim woman who rejected what she viewed as Western freedoms, she represents an alternative, if highly controversial, portrait of empowerment that groups like ISIS use to appeal to other women. Consider how a female ISIS blogger,Umm-Layth, seeks to attract recruits: “Our role is even more important as women in Islam, since if we don’t have sisters with the correct Aqeedah [conviction] and understanding who are willing to sacrifice all their desires and give up their families and lives in the west in order to make Hijrah [migration] and please Allah, then who will raise the next generation of Lions?”
Picture: Haghal Jagul [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons