How the Islamic State uses women to control women

March 25, 2015

The Islamic State's all-female Khansaa Brigade, formed in early 2014 and charged with policing the public morality of women in A-Raqqa city, has captured the attention of the Western news media with details of the group's woman-on-woman violence.

Khansaa is a famous personality from early Islamic history, a poet who embraced Islam and later lost four of her sons in battle. When Khansaa received news of their deaths, she reportedly said, “thanks to God who honored me with their martyrdom.”

Here, Abu Ibrahim a-Raqawi, the pseudonym of a founding member of the A-Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently campaign and a resident of the city, talks to Syria Direct's Ghardinia Ashour in depth about the brigade and life in the so-called Caliphate, where women are forced to wear heavy layers of clothing year-round, including two face veils, one opaque and one transparent.

A-Raqawi says that the Khansaa Brigade, mostly made up of foreigners, was initially created to frisk women at Islamic State checkpoints, after a serious of assassinations against IS rank-and-file carried out by men donning female religious garb.

The brigade, made up mostly of foreigners and Raqqa women “of ill repute,” has evolved into a harsh mechanism to invade women’s lives any time, for any reason, as a-Raqawi explains in detail. 

The enforcers, al-Raqawi says, are almost entirely foreign, British in particular. Why are girls from Britain in particular joining the Islamic State?

It is the “manipulation” by the Khansaa Brigade, a-Raqawi says, “and the people who came in the beginning from Britain and Germany.” Their goal was not to fight, “but to recruit for the Islamic State.”

For now, the Islamic State reigns with impunity, and anyone defying the group is publicly executed. Sometimes, as the execution is being carried out, al-Raqawi says, "I ask myself, 'Will there be a day when I'm standing in that man's place?'"

Q: Tell me about the creation of the Khansaa Brigade?

In 2014, some individuals from the FSA entered A-Raqqa city [disguised] in “Islamic” women's clothing and conducted a series of assassinations against IS leaders and soldiers using guns equipped with silencers. This pushed IS to think about establishing a women's brigade under the name of Khansaa, whose primary function would be to watch the checkpoints, to watch women coming and going and make sure they weren't smuggling weapons, and that they were in fact women and not men dressed as women.

All the women in A-Raqqa city wear the niqab that IS imposed on them. If IS wants to arrest a woman, it turns the matter of her arrest over to the Khansaa Brigade and does not entrust men with her arrest, because A-Raqqa is a tribal area, and men detaining women could lead to bloody problems. So by using women to arrest women, they bring the tribes over to their side.

Seeing as most of them are foreigners, they're charged with searching for wives for the foreign fighters, and recruiting foreign girls. They get in contact with people they know in Europe and America in order to convince them to join the “Islamic State."

Women in Raqqa Women in A-Raqqa.

Q: There are reports that the women in the Khansaa Brigade are former prisoners [i.e. on criminal charges]?

It's true. For example, the emira of the Khansaa Brigade in the Tabqa area formerly worked in a brothel.

Q: What are the benefits to being in the Khansaa Brigade?

Women inside the city are not allowed to drive cars or carry weapons. Women in the Khansaa Brigade can do both.

Q: What's the idea behind not allowing women under 45 to leave the city?

The main, and most important idea [behind preventing women under 45 from leaving] is so that A-Raqqa won't be declared a military zone and evacuated like Kobani, a move that would allow the international coalition to bomb it freely. This has made A-Raqqa a large prison, whereas women under 45, and also young men born in 1992 or after cannot leave for areas of regime control, but they can go to Turkey.

It's natural that the men, in general, cannot leave without their female relatives, so people are forced to stay in the city, a state of affairs that prevents the coalition from bombing.

The second idea, as far as IS is concerned, is to have women available for marriage. So they set the age at 45 and under, and as you see this is an age appropriate for marriage.

In the beginning, considering that the girls of A-Raqqa refused, outright, to marry anyone from IS, the Khansaa Brigade asked the girls who wished to marry an IS fighter to put a white hijab under their black, transparent niqab so the Brigade could arrange a marriage.

Some women with bad reputations started to act somewhat like matchmakers. The Khansaa Brigade would come to these women, who knew a lot about the neighborhood, in order to get to know those who wanted to marry an IS fighter. So Khansaa Brigade plays the role of mediator between men and women.

Some IS soldiers have started to harass women “Islamically.” So if they came across a girl walking alone they would say to her things like, “God has allowed union by marriage.”

Q: Isn't it forbidden for women to walk around the city without an escort?

This isn't true in the city of A-Raqqa. Women are allowed to walk around inside the city but cannot leave. Women are, however, forbidden from waiting in line at bakeries.

Some IS fighters overstep their bounds from time to time, I mean by annoying a girl and trying to pressure her [to marry]. For example, a soldier will say to her: “I'll help you out of this problem if you marry me.”

But in general, my family, friends, and all the women of A-Raqqa city leave the house unaccompanied.

They are prohibited from exiting the city—this is a different matter. Movement between A-Raqqa city and the countryside is prohibited without an escort, the presence of an escort here is absolutely mandatory, because the distance is akin to traveling, not like a short errand within the city. 

Q: What about the locals of A-Raqqa refusing to marry their daughters to an IS fighter who is, in all likelihood, going to die soon?

It's true, there are a number of girls who refuse to marry IS fighters. IS fighters desire to marry the girls of A-Raqqa for more than one reason. The campaign Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently documented 278 cases of forced marriage inside the city, where girls, most of them under 18, were compelled to marry an IS fighter.

The bigger problem these women face is as follows: When the marriage is conducted, it is done under an imaginary name. The wife's name is there, and her mother's name as well, but the IS fighter is called Mr. So-and-So. For example, Abu Dajan a-Tunisi—all you can possibly know about him is that he's from Tunisia, that's it.

So when he marries the woman, and she bears a child, and it happens that he goes off to fight and is killed, the woman finds herself faced with the following situation: she doesn't know a thing about her husband except that he is Abu Dajan a-Tunisi, and that he is from Tunisia. She doesn't know his family, which she could contact for the sake of the child.

There have been two [known] cases of suicide among those girls who were forced to marry. The first's name is Fatima, whereas the second's family has kept her name a secret.

As I understand it, in some instances fathers force their daughters to marry an IS fighter.

Q: What would push a father to marry his daughter, by force, to an IS fighter?

They're weak-willed fathers, a small minority but they exist, unfortunately. The reason why he would marry his daughter to an IS fighter, for example from the security Brigade or the Hisbeh [the religious police], is that he will receive money, first of all, and secondly will enjoy power.

This happens more often in the countryside than the city, unfortunately, because of the backwardness that exists in the countryside.

Q: What about IS and polygamy?

IS fighters will marry once or twice. Despite that, they also search for slave girls from among the Yazidi women. They have a strange infatuation with sex. Cases of sexual violence have been documented. IS fighters purchase Viagra. There was the case, documented, of an 18-year-old girl who married an IS fighter. Her family refused to announce her name—she was taken to the hospital in very bad condition.

Q: Considering that they are supposed to be acting on the basis of sharia law, is this slave-girl issue legal?

In the time of the prophet this issue existed: “Those Your Right Hands Possess” [a line from Surat a-Nisa, Aya 24: And (also prohibited to you are all) married women except those your right hands possess. (This is) the decree of Allah upon you].

The IS fighters consider these women spoils of war. So a girl who's captured in battle, she's like a rifle, he can do with her what he likes. It happens that an IS fighter marries this Yazidi woman for two or three days, and then sells her to another person who marries her and sells her to a third.

When they get bored of her, they take her to Iraq and sell her back to her family for a large sum. We documented two cases in A-Raqqa, where these women were sold [back to their families] in al-Mosul and Sinjar, in the Yazidi areas.

Q: What is the “proper” Islamic clothing that IS imposes on women?

Proper Islamic dress for them is as follows: a "shield" [black cloth] that covers the chest down to the stomach. Then they made the 'shield' cover the knees, according to what my female friend told me. The 'shield' is pretty thick, so the body's features do not show.

Then they put on the niqab, which hangs over the face. It's made of two layers, a translucent layer and a second layer that covers any facial feature that might remain visible. So if a woman wanted to talk with another woman, she raises the second, thick covering.

But it's prohibited for a woman to walk around with just the transparent covering; women are punished for that. Even showing the eyes, and especially girls with pretty eyes get exposed to a lot of harassment. They don't pay attention to old women.

Five months ago, the Khansaa Brigade stormed the Hameeda school, as if they were a commando squad, women at the main door and men at the rear wall so no one could flee. There were volunteer teachers giving courses to some girls, which are forbidden now [i.e., male teachers with female students]. They arrested the girls on silly charges, like showing their eyes or putting on makeup, or that the niqab was transparent.

Now women have started to be harassed on account of their shoes...because the shoe's color arouses desire. All this harassment is an attempt to pressure girls, to force them to marry IS fighters.

Q: How are women able to walk with all that clothing?

My sisters told me that the clothes are suffocating in the summer. I could be walking next to my sister and not know it.

There is an idea that I don't like to talk about so as not to give a mistaken impression of the women of A-Raqqa—but this niqab has led to an increase in prostitution inside the city. Seeing as it has hidden the girl entirely, she can move with more freedom. Prostitutes are a very small minority, but they exist, unfortunately.

Q: Are the women of A-Raqqa very conservative in their dress to begin with?

Not at all, no, A-Raqqa is like Damascus or any other Syrian city, its people are beautiful by dint of the fact that a lot are married to Romanians, and Russians. Women would wear normal clothing, casual clothing. There were mixed-gender cafes and weddings.

There is a new device IS is using called the “biter,” which resembles the type of animal trap that closes on an animal's legs when he touches it. The biter is like a jaw, when you press on it sharp teeth emerge.

The case of a woman was documented who was nursing her child in a bus depot. When the Khansaa Brigade saw her, they gave her the choice of whipping or the biter. The woman didn't understand what the biter was, and thought that whipping would be more painful.

What they did with her was put the pincer on the exposed part of her body, and the pincer's teeth inflicted deep wounds on her. She was taken to the hospital.

This biter is a punishment for women who expose parts of their bodies.

Unfortunately, the women of the countryside especially got used to nursing their children on the streets and exposing their chests in public.

Q: What about the mixing of genders in the city?

In the case that a young man and woman are found together in a public park, IS fighters ask for their identities or anything that proves that this man is her father, brother or husband. In case the two can't prove this, or they aren't carrying ID's, the Hisbeh in the Khansaa Brigade arrests the woman and the male Hisbeh arrests the man. If proof is produced, they are released, and if it's proven they aren't relatives, usually the punishment is whipping.

The man is whipped and then released. As for the woman, they don't whip her until they contact one of her male relatives, and give him the choice of having her whipped or him being whipped instead of her.

Before whipping the [offenders], the father writes an apology and pledges that the matter won't happen again. If it does happen again, the girl is jailed for a month or less, where she works on memorizing the Quran. These courses usually occur in the schools or mosques. If she misses a course, they extend the period of punishment.

Q: How do people respond to these behaviors from IS? Do people think that IS really represents God's law?

The people of A-Raqqa city will explode in anger in the future. They can't stand the existence of IS, but they are simple civilians and were always like that, and have no desire to pick up weapons.

In the beginning, when IS took over, people tried to stage protests and conduct civil disobedience. But IS faced them with intense violence, with bullets, by closing stores and threatening to burn them down and confiscate goods. So people got afraid and backed down.

Also, IS undertook a number of executions in the beginning, and a number of arrests, crucifixions, and decapitations. They shocked people, and people started to fear them a dozen times more than they fear the regime. People, even in private, do not dare to talk about them out of fear. Even if a son asked his family how things were going, they would say, “perfect.”

The regime arrests you, and you might get out with connections (wasta). But here, there is no one who jokes around with them. Things are really bad, people avoid problems with IS as much as they can.

Q: What's your personal motivation for running this campaign?

I'm a citizen journalist against the Assad regime and against the Islamic State. I work for a humanitarian documentation campaign whose goal is to get rid of IS.

My friend Muataz worked for the campaign and they killed him. My initial motivation [for starting the campaign] is freedom, the second is because the Islamic State is occupying my city.

Muataz was a friend of mine, we worked as media activists against Assad. Afterwards, when IS occupied the city, we started the campaign Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

IS captured Muataz when he was trying to flee the city. He was killed in public. Muataz was captured April 2014, and executed in May 2014.

Q: Are you afraid at the moment? Or do you feel a sense of security?

There is no one [in A-Raqqa] who isn't afraid. We're human beings at the end of the day. I'm always afraid, but not for myself. If I'm killed it's no big deal. I'm afraid for my family.

Q: I mean, is there additional fear because you're documenting these stories?

As I said, we're human beings. There's always fear, you walk down the street and look behind one's there. You're afraid that your identity will be discovered. You're afraid of being taken by IS.

Everything I'm documenting is execution by crucifixion, or decapitations. Sometimes, as the execution is being carried out, I ask myself, 'Will there be a day when I'm standing in that man's place?'

Every day, I wake up in the morning and hope that all that's happened with the Islamic State in A-Raqqa, that it's all a nightmare. But then I see it's reality. So we keep fighting, that's our situation. No life. No school. No future. Nothing. We simply want to be done with IS and with Assad.

I don't want to become famous or anything like that. As soon as this is done, I'm deleting my account.

Q: There are some foreign women who have joined IS and say that the media is lying about the group. What do you have to say?

The truth is there are two different pictures of life inside A-Raqqa city. There's a big difference between foreign fighters and ordinary people.

Ordinary people pay taxes. All the stores inside the city pay SP1,500 ($8) for water and electricity, SP800 ($4.20)  for phone service, all considered a luxury tax—not counting Zakaat. There is a cleanliness tax, even houses are charged SP800 ($4.20) for phones, water and electricity, or SP1,000 ($5.30), according to the house.

There's a cleanliness tax, and any person who throws garbage in a non-licensed location pays SP5,000 ($26.40).

They are trying to put pressure on the residents, so they closed down the Red Crescent and confiscated all the warehouses, and cars, and closed down all medical aid organizations.

Q: How do they justify shutting down these humanitarian organizations?

Considering that most of these organizations are foreign, they say that they're apostate organizations and supported by the apostate West.

Despite that, they confiscate the warehouses and everything in them, including food, and distribute it to the soldiers. They even distributed Zakaat from goods taken from these organizations.

The main goal is to impose a policy of starvation inside the city. Since the Islamic State arrived, they have closed down the schools and universities, put lawyers out of work and interfered in all work positions. This puts pressure on residents, and has pushed them into poverty.

They used these tactics to recruit children, considering that children don't go to school and don't have anything to keep them busy.

Men joined IS for money, and some women married IS fighters in order to improve their families' circumstances. IS strategy relies on economic warfare. When the aid organizations were open, residents were receiving aid packages.

When they stopped the aid, the going got rough. We, thank God, are from a well-off family, and we suffered. So what do you think happened to poor people?

Most of the poor people go to the A-Raqqa Aid Kitchen. It's been open since 2011 and is run by a pharmacist from A-Raqqa city. Expats from A-Raqqa send money to the kitchen, which distributes one meal a day, every day. There are more than a thousand families who depend on that food. IS leaves the kitchen alone because it's local, and because if it closed the kitchen down, a famine would occur, so it's in their interests to keep the kitchen running in order to keep people's anger under control.

Q: How do the lives of IS fighters differ from the lives of ordinary people?

IS pays very close attention to its fighters, particularly the foreigners. They make sure that the foreign fighters enjoy a decent amount of comfort. No doubt their situation is much better than the residents.

The fighters' salaries range from $700-$1,500, according to the fighter, his importance and position, e.g. if he's a doctor, engineer, or ordinary person. IS helps out its fighters in general, for example by giving them houses, and if there was a surplus of cars, by giving them cars. Their lives are wonderful compared to that of the residents.

The houses they give their fighters are luxurious. Most are houses that they confiscated from people who fled during the liberation of the city, or people who fled under different circumstances—FSA fighters, activists, and Christians.

You, for example, are someone who owns three houses. They will say, “it's your duty to be satisfied with one,” and they make you choose between them. So you take a house and they take two in order to house their foreign fighters.

The foreigners have priority and you can't resist, for if you resist that means you stand against the Islamic State's plan and your punishment can reach all the way to execution. A lot of people have suffered this treatment.

Anyone who leaves his house empty has it confiscated immediately. Locals fear leaving the city because of that.

Q: What pushes girls from Britain to join the Islamic State?

Unfortunately, this is due to manipulation on the part of the Khansaa Brigade and people who came in the beginning from Britain and Germany. Their main goal is not fighting, but rather to recruit new people and bring them to the Islamic State.

It's most probable that those three girls from Britain had a fourth friend who came in December, probably, and this fourth friend convinced them to come. They are young girls, who range from 15 to 17—it's easy to mess with their minds.

What's happening is a type of trickery. A lot of the foreigners who come, whether from London or New York, come hoping to live in the shade of the Islamic State, not hoping to fight or to conduct suicide operations. But when IS needs new fighters, it's forced to take these foreigners. So the fighters get upset, seeing as they came just to live under sharia law—they consider these rules sharia—and because this state is the Islamic State, therefore they flock to A-Raqqa.

The problem is not how they enter A-Raqqa, for entering is very easy, but how to leave if they want to defect.

IS confiscates your passport. You live in A-Raqqa and can move around in the city as you like, but you can't return home.

Another issue concerns foreign fighters when they come from advanced European countries to A-Raqqa. The city of A-Raqqa, even before the revolution, was a relatively boring city, without action.

There are 24 hours of nothingness, with two hours of no electricity and 20 hours without water every day. Add to that the cold—the fundamentals of life are totally different than what they're used to.

The has caused a lot of discontent, and constant thought of defecting among some of the foreigners. Except that if IS catches any defector, they execute him immediately.

But it's in IS's interests to show the foreigners that A-Raqqa is heaven, and that it's the Islamic State. So it pays very close attention to the media. We're against IS and sometimes are enticed by what they show in their videos—so what do you think about those who believe in them? IS portrays A-Raqqa especially as heaven in order to recruit more foreign fighters.

Q: What's the percentage of foreign women in the Khansaa Brigade?

Around 75 percent. The vast majority are British women, the remainder, unfortunately, are women of ill repute from A-Raqqa.


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