Ana SayfaÇeviriBeing a woman in ISIS: The banality of evil – 1

Being a woman in ISIS: The banality of evil – 1

NEWS ROOM – Until now it has always been ISIS men who have spoken or were made to speak; you probably came across some interviews conducted with them in national and international press. But what about the women who supported and fought for this organization? Journalist Fatma Koçak interviewed these women in the camps and prisons in North and East Syria. She examined closer why women adopted the system of ISIS which is a completely a men’s organization. They are Americans, Moroccans, they are from Turkey, Chechnya, France, Norway, Kosovo… Their age ranges from 20 to 60. Among them are those who graduated from Law School in Sorbonne University and were Journalism students in Istanbul University. They took roles related to internal security or propaganda within the organization… The first piece of Fatma Koçak’s interview series, composed of seven interviews that have also been published in Yeni Yaşam, scrutinizes women’s place within this system. The next six pieces contain individual portraits and will proceed based on the interviews conducted with these women. The subtitle of “Being a woman in ISIS” series is “Banality of evil”; it is a concept owed to the philosopher Hannah Arendt. We start with the first piece of this series…

Interviews and reporting by Fatma Koçak; translated by Evrim Şaşmaz

In her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, Hannah Arendt, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century, describes the manner that the dominant political ideologies of 19th and 20th Centuries conceived humans as a matter convenient to mold in a desired way and how humans acted in ways desired by these ideologies, which consequently resulted in tremendous nuisance and evil. ISIS, the most bloody organization of our days, confirms the accuracy of this positioning.

Until now, it has always been ISIS men who spoke or were made to speak. We read their international connections, the heavy crimes they committed against humanity and their avowals. All of what we read was real but this was the explicit face of ISIS: But what about the women who supported and fought for this organization? What do the women in black burka and children raising their index finger who were getting out of Baghuz tell us?

Based on the statistics provided by the Autonomous Administration, there are approximately 70 thousand people who got out or who previously escaped from ISIS controlled regions. 20 thousand of them are women, and more than 4 thousand men and two hundred women stay in the prison. On one hand, it is a completely different debate and solution of what will happen to and how the judiciary processes will be done for these persons who came from 27 different countries to make jihad.

On the other hand, understanding why women adopted the system of ISIS, which is completely a “man”ly organization, requires a more elaborate perspective. For this reason, the interviews we conducted with women in prisons and camps reveal how the “banality of evil” can capture human life.

It was not a movie, it was real!

In the middle of the chaos in the Middle East appeared a force that tried to capture the entire geographical region through fear.

The beheading of persons in orange clothes right in front of the cameras, burning humans in a cage along with Islamic chants, the stoning of women to death, the sale of women who were clothed in black and chained…

These were not movie scenes adapted from history; these were the truth in the era we live in. The world watched the step by step arrival of the darkness.

Women and children had to travel through arid deserts after the invasion of Mosul, followed by the genocidal attacks to Shingal (Sinjar)… Their deaths from starvation and dehydration were broadcasted almost in live footage. Based on both written and unwritten rules, a crime against humanity was committed.

Dominant powers, who raised this monster in their bosom, stood still at a step back and literally watched the genocide to see how far the monster would keep going.

On the flip side of the story, people who joined ISIS say that they joined it because it did illegal trade with oil and the stolen goods, recruited “jihadists” through this trade, and forced humans to live under a strictly totalitarian regime,  to “live by their religion”. Was this participation so innocent?

From an English rapper to French propagandist, people who came to Iraq and Syria from all around the world committed genocide against the local people. Who were these people who commited genocide in the name of religion, which is the most concrete excuse of killing humans on these lands for a thousand years? Through which stands did they institutionalize their system?

The most elementary question proceeds, then: Who were the women who joined this system with their most ordinary lives, being assigned to raise children in the ISIS system and subjugated to ISIS’ family and law system? From where and how did they come? What did they live through? And how much are they aware being part of the evil?

“Woman is made from Adam, for Adam”

The system of ISIS is based on invasion and submission under the guise of “jihad”. The invasion is a system built on “invading” not only lands but also women who are then sold in slave markets under the name of “concubines”, hence female slavery.

To common knowledge, the first ISIS fatwa toward women was issued in June 2014. In the days Mosul was invaded, two separate fatwas were issued in al-Taqwa which was the media branch of ISIS.

The first one read, “Muslim women from all over the world, come for jihad”. This call proceeds with such sentences as “serving mujahideen who make jihad is desirable in the eyes of Allah and these women will be deemed to have entered through the doors of heaven…”

The second fatwa was issued in relation to the women taken as prisoners during war. In the fatwa issued by Abu Hammam, known to be the organization’s Sharia Qadi, it was argued that women were seen as properties to be looted during the jihadi wars could be taken as “concubines” based on the hadiths, that those who committed themselves to jihad had many reasons to take Kafir (disbeliever) women as “halal”.

Subsequently, the news on people who joined ISIS from all over the world were published in newspaper headlines.

Here is the system of ISIS that women joined…

Modern slave markets: Maddafehs

AFP/Getty Images

In places where the organization ruled in Syria, hosting house systems, namely maddafehs (women guesthouses) were set up.

In almost each of the battalion communities (katibahs), there was at least one maddafeh. In each maddafeh, fifty to one hundred women were staying. When the number of women surpassed one hundred, the katibah was warranted to open a new maddafeh.

The operation of these places remind one of modern slave markets. Any woman who is not under the custody of a husband, father or brother, hence of a man, loses her right to stay at home and has to stay in the maddafeh.

Women could get out of these maddafehs only when they got married. If the man to whom she is married allows it, the woman could practice nursery, translation or teaching for girls.

The main roles constructed for woman are described in the manifesto of Al-Khansaa Brigade as “The woman is made from Adam, for Adam. Beyond this, her creator commanded that she has no greater responsibility than being a wife to her husband”.

As such, the woman’s main role is built upon serving the man and continuing the bloodline. Any act outside this frame, any counteract or desire is seen as “servitude to the devil and immorality”.

Marriage and the shaping of family life

Looking at the information provided by the women we interviewed, the written rules, fatwas and references about ISIS, we understand that a kind of court, namely Sharia Qadi managed marriage related issues.

Women who stayed in maddafehs and who are not under the custody of any man are married to men who came to fight or those who wanted a second or third wife, through the intermediacy of the women who are responsible from these guesthouses.

According to many of the women we interviewed, marriage was an obligatory choice to get away from the maddafehs that they described as “very troublesome, with very difficult conditions”.

The women whose husbands died on the battle had to go back to the maddafeh until they got remarried, in case they were not with their father or brother.

Divorce is the man’s right

Divorce, too was under the regulation of Sharia Qadi. When a man wanted to divorce, he could go to the court and easily divorce his wife based on pretends such as “she can’t breed”, “she is immoral”, and “she disobeys me”.

The ISIS women we interviewed told us that the woman, too was given “the right” to divorce; however, they added that in this case, unlike with men, the woman is asked for very heavy and tough requirements and that this generally turned against the woman asking for divorces. As one of them put this into words: “When we were blamed with immorality and if they found witness to this, let aside getting divorced we were being punished; therefore, we didn’t go to the court unless we really urgently had to”.

In ISIS texts related to marriage and divorce, the statement reads, “It is lawful to marry a nine-year-old girl”; for a man, the age limit is set to 20. The grounds for divorce are tough for women and glossed over with unclear statements such as, “if the man cannot enact his manhood” or “if the man does not give the woman’s share”.

Forbidden to work

According to the written ISIS texts, women are forbidden to work (except under specific circumstances). Based on our interviews and the documents from the organization, we learn that women could work on limited jobs, and only when the man who “owns” her allowed it.

For instance, we see that the statement “Getting a job is a duty reserved only for the man; he was given body and mind so that he tends to look after his women, wives, daughters and sisters, depending on the situation” was frequently emphasized in ISIS media channels.


Almost all of the women we interviewed said that they did not work outside and raised their children at home instead, while some others added, “we got Koran education”. On the other hand, some women reported that they got training in sewing, translation and midwifery, and that they worked in segregated spaces, such as child delivery, patient care and Koran education.

From the organization’s media channels, in the section of “women’s education”, we read that there is “no need” for women to tend toward social sciences and that this is not well perceived.

The education curriculum for girls is then described as follows: “Fiqht and religion as well as Korani Arabic will be learned from seven to nine. From ten to twelve, further focus on religion and fiqh, specifically fiqh about women, marriage and divorce will be put. In addition to these two topics, the basics of sewing and cooking will be taught. From thirteen to fifteen, the focus will be further on sharia laws”.

Travel and communication

In ISIS, where the woman was subjugated to the man’s needs and governance, his permission was also needed for traveling.

The passports of women who came from around the world are taken away and given to the responsible authority in the maddafeh. Women can change cities only when accompanied by a man.

Getting out (to the streets) for shopping is also considered to be inappropriate. Women were allowed to shop only when “husbands stayed in the war region for too long”.

Women were also forbidden to watch TV, to use phones or to connect to the internet. According to the women we spoke to, only the women who were assigned to propaganda tasks and who were the system executors had the right to use the internet or phone. They further explained that they were allowed to watch TV between 2014 and 2015 and that TV was forbidden to women afterwards.

The fact that most of the women were unaware of the global news also confirms their accounts.


Many women we interviewed told us that they had children and gave birth at home because women are forbidden to go to hospitals. Men go to hospital to fill an application and to take a queue number; following this, women trained in patient care visit homes and examine them.

When I asked what they did in emergency cases, they responded: “We had to take a queue number for patient care, we were not allowed to go to the hospital”.

Crime and punishment

When we look at the written texts, it is almost impossible to get a clear conclusion about what is crime and what requires punishment for women in ISIS. However, the accounts of the women we interviewed sufficiently summarize the situation.

For instance, a woman taken into custody by the municipal police on the street because she “committed a crime” by not conforming to the hijab can receive ten to one hundred lashes.

A woman who goes outside without permission from the responsible party at the maddafeh, namely “mama” (generally older women can be mama), or a woman who does not comply with the rules of the maddafeh is sentenced to a minimum of ten times of falaka (lashes to the feet).

A married woman’s “irresponsiveness” to her husband’s needs (i.e. resisting rape) means a sentence of divorce and a minimum of six months imprisonment.

A woman who works without a man’s permission is subjugated to a minimum of twelve months imprisonment combined with various amounts of lashes depending on the Sharia Qadi’s judgement.

A woman who does not want to marry, who rejects five men’s proposal during her stay in maddafeh is perceived as kafir and her punishment can be to stay imprisoned until she accepts to be married to a man who lost a limb in the war.

If a divorced woman is facing the accusation of “immorality”, her children are taken from her and she is prevented from seeing her children for the rest of her life.

If a woman is detected to stay alone or only with her children in a home without a man’s custody, her children are taken away and given to another family, and the woman receives whipping as much as Sharia Qadi sees appropriate along with imprisonment.

If a woman (married or not) is seen together with a man and three men witness to this, it is accepted as “adultery” and her punishment is death by stoning.

If a woman is detected to put make up on when her husband is not around and someone witnesses it, the woman receives whipping as much as Sharia Qadi sees appropriate.

Why did they choose darkness?

But why did these women opt for this system in which even their basic necessities cannot be met without the presence of a man who “owns” them? We asked this to the women who “chose the darkness”.

Listening to the women whose lives and ISIS experiences bear similarities, we realize that the answer is not that simple. When we see that humans starting with different adventures get used to this darkness in which they met and that their only aim is to survive, we become puzzled.

On one hand, some of them give responses that “made them appear innocent” such as, “I came here to live my religion, I came to wear my hijab freely”, some others tried to respond with explanations rooted in childhood traumas. And some others made a list of reasons such as poverty, spiritual hollowness created by fragmented society, being drifted away and following the man with whom they married based on traditions.

On the other hand, many of them had one common point: They did not see the system to which they serve as the slaves of their “owners”, ISIS, as committing crimes against humanity.

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