According to Soufan Group, men and women from 81 countries have joined the Islamic State (ISIS). Among the women who have joined ISIS, those from Iraq and Syria are the most numerous, followed by women from other Middle Eastern states. According to Tatyana Dronzina, professor at the St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia (Bulgaria), women from Central Asia and Russia are the third largest group in ISIS, followed by women from European countries and the United States.
Based on 2014 and 2015 data, there were around 1,000 women from Central Asia in Iraq and Syria’s combat zones. According to Indira Dzholdubaeva, prosecutor-general of the Kyrgyz Republic, there are over 120 Kyrgyz women in Syria and Iraq. Chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB) of Kazakhstan, Nurtay Abykaev, has said there were 150 Kazakh women in ISIS ranks in Syria. The authorities of Uzbekistan, meanwhile, have said that up to 500 Uzbek women are in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan with various groups.
The Ministry of the Interior of Tajikistan claims that over 200 Tajik women have gone to the war zones in Syria together with their husbands. However, the website of the Ministry of the Interior has published the names and photos of only five Tajik women who are wanted due to their membership in ISIS. The head of the State Committee for Women and Family Affairs, Mahfirat Hidirzoda, said that 12 Tajik women have gone to war to Syria and Iraq. This difference in the number of Tajik women that have allegedly joined ISIS is evidence of non-coordinated operations between the ministries and state agencies. In January 2016, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon reported that over 1,000 nationals of the republic have participated in the military operations in Syria and Iraq. In this regard, the information provided by the Ministry of the Interior about 200 Tajik women in the ranks of the Islamic State seems more credible.
There is practically no information about Turkmen women in Syria. This is due to the closed political regime of Ashgabat, which totally ignores the problem of Islamic radicalism among women. Moreover, the government pursues discriminatory policies regarding women. The first president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, is remembered for the decree of 2002, in which he ordered that every foreign man wishing to marry a Turkmen woman should pay $50,000 to the state treasury. The spirit of this decree has deeply penetrated into Turkmen society, which makes it difficult for Turkmen women to travel abroad. That said, according to International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) in London, 360 Turkmens were fighting for the Islamic State in 2015 — it is logical that some women have gone along with their families.
The Female Face of Islamic Jihad
Analysis of ISIS activity has shown that Central Asian women in Syria and Iraq hold various social positions and perform diverse tasks within the Islamic caliphate. Some have reached a relatively high status in the managerial structure of the Islamic State. The all-women unit, the Al Khansaa Brigade, created at the initiative of the chief jihadist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is known to have two Central Asian women as members. Both moved to the territory of Iraq and Syria accompanied by their husbands and children in 2013-14. According to research by the Middle East Institute in Washington, the Al Khansaa Brigade, formed in early 2014, is an all-women religious enforcement unit or “moral police” that operates in Raqqa and Mosul. The Brigade practices and seeks to preserve the strict regulations imposed by ISIS. Any woman who fails to do so may be subject to punishment. The Al Khansaa Brigade serves as a model for female ISIS fighters all over the world, including female fighters from Central and Southeast Asia. Usually, Central Asian women serving in the Al Khansaa have Arabic language skills, are respected among colleagues, and are known for their severe temper. They need to demonstrate good knowledge of the Quran and demand strict compliance with the sharia laws in the caliphate from others in order to withstand competition from the Arab women.
However, not all Central Asian women have been “lucky” enough to get into the Al Khansaa Brigade. Many widowed Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh women who had accompanied their husbands to Syria have been then forced to marry other Islamic militants after their husbands were killed. These widowed women have no choice in the matter.
Jamolbi Hamidova, a 30-year-old national of Tajikistan who escaped from Syria, said that her husband was killed in Raqqa in summer 2014. “In a while, I had to marry a militant from Dagestan. They treated us violently in the caliphate and we had to wear a burqa. If we didn’t wear a burqa, the Al Khansaa Brigade moral police battered us,” she said. Unable to tolerate the violence, she and some other women from Turkey and Chechnya in June 2015 managed to escape from an ISIS camp. Hamidova made it to Tajikistan and surrendered to law enforcement bodies.
Due to military defeats resulting from the American airstrikes, the Islamic State now violates sharia laws itself. According to sharia laws, a widow should wait for four months and ten days before remarrying, to make sure she’s not pregnant from her former husband. But today ISIS makes widows marry other jihadists rapidly. Usually, after the death of their husbands, women in the Islamic State are given only one week to mourn. In course of research about Central Asian women in the caliphate, we learned of an Uzbek woman from the Aravan region of Kyrgyzstan who has been married to more than 15 men. Each of the militants that married her died in battle; therefore, she became known as a black widow.
During a conversation with The Diplomat, Arslan Kapay, a Kyrgyz historian and researcher of Islam, explained, “If a militant dies in Syria, he’s considered a suicide bomber who has given his life for faith and Allah supreme. And the status of the suicide bomber’s wife increases sharply. Even if she’s a mother of many children, many jihadists try to marry her. They don’t live much, two or three months only, and then the militant dies, and the next man wants to get this status.”
A matrimonial agency for men and women operates in the caliphate. Analysis shows that widows from Central Asia usually want to marry men with their same ethnic background or from their region. However, women from Europe or the United States that have privileged positions are in demand. Western women have better educational backgrounds compared to the nationals of Central Asia and Arab states.
However, there are some among the Central Asian women in ISIS who have graduated from secular universities, worked in civil service jobs, and lived well back home. In February 2016, 43-year-old Humairo Mirova and her four children followed her husband Gulmurod Halimov, former commander of the Special Police Force of the Ministry of the Interior of Tajikistan, to Syria. She had been the chief of the press center of the Customs Service and had worked in the Ministry of the Interior of Tajikistan for a long time. In August 2016, the U.S. State Department offered a $3 million reward for any information about the location of Halimov.
The case of Mirova disproves statements by the Central Asian authorities that only uneducated, unemployed and poor women join ISIS. Many women go to war in Syria, following their husbands or fathers for their own ideological reasons.For many Uzbek and Tajik women, the desire to join ISIS is related to their feelings of violated social justice and prosecution of their relatives by law enforcement bodies. The caliphate promises a “fair system of values that they have failed to find back home.” The key aspect of recruitment is not socioeconomic factors, but religious aspects.
Living Under the ISIS Manifesto
On January 23, 2015, ISIS developed and introduced to the Caliphate an official document named “Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade.” Quilliam, a British think tank challenging radical extremism, published a translation.
This document has an ideological nature and idealizes the life of women in the Caliphate. It serves as a kind of “constitution” regulating the daily life of women in the Islamic State. According to the Manifesto, a woman is forbidden to leave the house unaccompanied and without the husband’s consent. The Manifesto permits the marriage of girls as young as nine years old. The main duty of a woman, according to the document, is to get married, to give birth for the sake of the Caliphate, and to take care of her husband.
Today, ISIS is suffering defeat in Mosul and Raqqa. The Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, has stated that over 300 Tajiks have died during the fights in the Middle East. According to the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, more than 70 Kyrgyz citizens had been killed in the past few years while fighting on the side of Islamic militant groups in Syria. Representative of the State Committee for Religious Affairs of Kazakhstan Zhanbota Karashulakov said that 80 percent of Kazakh jihadists who traveled to Syria and Iraq have been killed in the fighting.
Given these numbers, it’s logical to assume that the majority of Central Asian women when traveled to Iraq and Syria have become widows. Many widows have become “human slaves” who are being raped, sold as slaves, or killed for disobedience. According to our study, the practice of rape in the Islamic State has become standard. In jihadist magazines, such as Rumiyah, al-Naba and Dabiq, ISIS ideologists cite the medieval Islamic legal scholars Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab on a case-by-case basis in order to justify cases of rape and sexual slavery, considering the victims as the spoils of war. The leaders of the Islamic State refer to the history of Islam, surahs in the Quran, and hadiths not only to justify and substantiate these crimes against humanity, but also to prolong the existence of the Caliphate.
The endless cycle of marriages has become the main factor of disappointment in the Islamic State for some Central Asian women. As noted earlier, some have managed to escape. On February 24, 2016, the court of Tajikistan sentenced a 34-year-old resident of Dushanbe, Zarina Sardorova, to 13 years in prison for her participation in the Syrian war. According to reports, she characterized her 8 months in the Caliphate as “hell.”
ISIS has been known to use the “promise of marriage” and provision of slave women as an incentive for young men to join the ranks.
The U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report in 2016 noted that some women from Tajikistan who traveled to Syria or Iraq with promises of marriage were instead sold into sexual slavery. The critical need for “women” and their obvious shortage in the Caliphate have sparked an increase in sexual violence.
Despite the hardships, it may be concluded that corruption, state abuses, and inefficient state administration will continue to push ordinary women toward Islamic radical groups. Repressive measures taken against members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the absolute oppression of Kazakh Muslims after the tragic events in Aktobe and Almaty in summer 2016, and the excessive use of force by the Kyrgyz law enforcement bodies against the faithful have recently increased the flow of women to Syria. External players capture the signals conveyed from Central Asia. Recently Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser with Gulf State Analytics who tracks relations between the Middle East and Central Asia, thinks that “there is a major strategy by Islamic State to push into Central Asia.” The risk of destabilization in Central Asian states from within is far more real than the possibility of direct military clash with radical Islamists from outside.
Due to the catastrophic situation of women in Syria, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on December 20, 2016 on ensuring accountability for perpetrators of sexual violence committed in the territories held by ISIS. However, the efficacy of the UN decision remains to be seen.
Uran Botobekov has a Ph.D. in political science and is an expert on political Islam.