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Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars
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Last week, the world’s attention returned to a years-long drama about three British schoolgirls who left east London to join the Islamic State. One of those girls, now 19-year old Shamima Begum, was found by a British journalist scouring a Syrian refugee camp. She was pregnant and unrepentant.
While the UK government decides if it will help Begum and her days-old son leave Syria, much discussion has centered on how Begum — and others like her — should be treated upon their eventual return. (The UK government subsequently stripped Begum of British citizenship).
What are fairly complex legal and moral debates can be broken down into two core arguments. On one side, proponents of a rehabilitative approach argue Begum was only 15 at the time of her departure for Syria and is still a teenager. Her youth and the horrific conditions she experienced, including the reported deaths of her two other children, mean that she too is a victim of ISIS. She should be reunited with her family as swiftly as possible. On the other side, those arguing for a more punitive approach contend that she was complicit in ISIS’s crimes and should be returned home and brought to justice if evidence of misdeeds is found.
These perspectives miss a critical point. Begum is the contemporary equivalent of a “girl soldier,” a phenomenon that generated similar debates over age, agency, and culpability in the early 2000s. But, in this instance, Begum’s actions in joining ISIS are evidence of her crime: terrorism.
Under the Paris Principles, UNICEF defines a “child associated with an armed group” (formerly “child solider”) as:
“any person under 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to… fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.”
If we extend this definition to laws governing designated terrorist organizations, then Shamima Begum is a terrorist irrespective of whether or not she committed terrorist acts.
ISIS women should be taken seriously
There are many reasons why women like Begum should be treated as terrorists. Begum had no family ties to ISIS when she absconded to Syria in February 2015, and no evidence has emerged that she was compelled to join the group. Once there, she voluntarily married a Dutch ISIS fighter, Yago Riedijik, who is linked to a terrorist plot in the Netherlands. Begum has repeatedly expressed her desire to be reunited with her terrorist husband, who is currently detained in another Syrian camp.
Despite the media’s portrayal of ISIS brides as naïve and the repeated use of that narrative by women in detention, women were crucial to the initial success of the Islamic State’s “caliphate.” Though very few women actually took up arms, some served in quasi-military roles, including the al-Khansaa Brigade, which acted as a morality police. More generally, women played key roles as doctors, educators, recruiters, propagandists, and money launderers. Women’s importance is demonstrated by the distressing fact that ISIS fighters shot and wounded wives and family members attempting to flee the group’s last stronghold in Syria.
My own research on female combatants suggests that women may be among the most ideologically committed to ISIS. Similar evidence exists for women in Boko Haram. Begum’s recent media interviews show how deeply she bought into ISIS’s ideology and accepted their horrific use of violence, stating that “Yeah, I knew about [ISIS beheadings and executions] and I was okay with it. Because, you know, I started becoming religious just before I left. From what I heard, Islamically that is all allowed. So I was okay with it.”
The difficult reality of reintegrating returnees
A much smaller share of women have returned home from ISIS-controlled territory in comparison with men. This is despite the higher fatality rate of ISIS men. It is surprising, then, that many think these women will be less difficult to rehabilitate than their male counterparts. In an interview with Sky News, Begum said of her own rehabilitation that, “yeah, it would be really hard. Everything that I’ve been though. No. I am still, I’m still in kind of, in the mentality of, you know, planes over my head, having an emergency backpack and starving, all these things. It would be a really big shock to go back to the UK and start life again.”
As the hundreds of women currently held in Syria and Iraq begin returning to their home countries, often with children, countries should treat these women as a significant terrorist threat. Given the vital roles that ISIS women played and the significant threat posed by women in other terrorist groups, there is little reason to welcome them back with open arms.
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