Mothers, Brainwashed Wives and Tomboys: Muslim Women in Armed Conflict

In the past few years, images of Muslim women in war settings have become increasingly common, from depictions of Syrian female rebels to all-American girls being compared to Chechnya’s so-called “Black Widows.”

Last year, while writing an article on the “Black Widows” I started reading reports about Muslim women’s participation in armed struggles and noticed that female violence is often attributed to the loss of male family members, emotional distress (which often goes unreported for their male counterparts) or brainwashing by male Islamists, especially when it comes to Muslim  female converts or young Muslim brides.

“Black widow” Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova and her husband Umalat Magomedov- Via CBC News.

Muslim women involved in conflict are often categorized as desperate mothers, brainwashed victims or as tomboys. Mainstream media sources usually refer to these women’s families, irrational emotions and love stories.

Back in April, for instance, Feature Shoot and Time World  showcased “portraits” in black and white of an all-female Free Syrian Army unit that portrayed women posing with their weapons and babies (I am still waiting for the pictures of male rebels carrying their offspring).  Similarly, “Guevara” a female Syrian rebel fighter has been despicted as a cold-blooded woman seeking revenge for the death of her children, rather than being seen as politically-motivated, like her male counterparts, who have probably also experienced personal loss.

Motherhood and marriage seem to legitimize Muslim women’s presence in armed conflicts, and allows mainstream Western media outlets to “make-sense” of shocking images of Muslim women carrying weapons and babies. It seems much of the mainstream media prefers mothers in black caring for wounded men, like Samuel Aranda’s award winning picture, which I discussed last year. Femininity does not belong in the struggle and when women are involved in conflict it has to be explained away through tying women back to the domestic sphere.

If the motherhood card cannot be played, we are faced with a problem… why are Muslim women fighting? And why are Western Muslim

Free Syrian Army’s 30-year-old Amal. – Via Feature Shoot.

converts getting involved in Middle Eastern/African conflicts that are not their own? The answer is simple… they must be manipulated by men. Not only did media reports point at Katherine Russell, widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as being brainwashed but recent reports of the death of Nicole Mansfield, a Muslim convert, refer to a “misguided” link to Syrian rebels. Curiously, the process of brainwashing seems to require male influence, particularly that of a husband, boyfriend or lover, as if convert Muslim women married only strangers with secret agendas for their new-to-Islam wives.

There are some stories that do not link the women to their children or husbands, but these often fall back on the women’s appearance. In an article by ynetnews, for example, on Ayesha Farooq, Pakistan’s first female fighter pilot, we are told that her “slim frame offers a study in contrast with her burly male colleagues”.  In an article by Time World, Em Joseph, a female Syrian rebel, we are told she “doesn’t really look like many of the women in this socially conservative stretch ofSyria‘s Idlib province, and she certainly doesn’t act like them.”

Although Em Joseph is called a “lady” in the same article, the author goes on:

“Perhaps her only concession to femininity is the pattern of maroon and creme swirls on her loose, floor-length beige robe, but if it weren’t for the swirls, the garment could easily be a man’s galabiya. And then, there’s her Kalashnikov rifle.”

Ayesha Farooq.- Via India TV News.

Both women’s femininities are reduced to the authors’ perceptions of their looks, their clothes and their weapons, while highlighting how unique they are given their “socially conservative” milieu. Em Joseph, for example, is described in the article as “a rarity.”

Muslim women have to fit cookie-cutter notions of motherhood, victimization and femininity, or be deemed aberrations while their agency continues to be denied. Their decisions to engage in armed conflicts cannot be explained away by placing them into the arbitrary categories of vengeful mothers, brainwashed wives or trigger-happy tomboys.

Has anyone considered that perhaps Muslim women as individuals have their own reasons for participating in armed struggles? Describing these women’s physical appearance or marital status does not help us understand why any of them, as individuals, rather than as a representative of “Muslim women” decided to grab a gun or to become a fighter pilot.

  • Tec15

    What’s new? There would be more positive portrayals however, if the women in question were fighting on behalf of Western forces (The US, Israel, etc.) against the eeevil “Islamists”. Then we couldn’t get enough of how “brave”, “liberated” and awesome these women were, similar to the fawning, praise reserved for ex-Muslims in the West.

    It’s the “cause” that the women are fighting for that determines how the Western media will show them. Since none of the women discussed here are fighting for a Western, non-Muslim force, it is only natural that they are described as “brainwashed”, a familiar trope also used to describe males fighting for causes that the West does not unequivocally approve of.

    • Patrick Elliott

      If its a conflict over religion, then it is brainwashing. I don’t really give an f if its for Jesus or Allah. If your justification is, “Those other people need to be fought, because they threaten my religious way of life, and I refuse to find a middle ground with them.”, then its not based on rational thinking, and acceptance of reality. And, yes, the westerners giving this as their cause *are* exactly the same. The ones fighting for the American way of life are not, in general, a) trying to impose it on other people by force (unless clueless about what they are really doing), or b) attempting to get themselves, and others, elected, so they can pick apart the very things they claim to be defending, based on those ideas being dangerous, evil, communist, or what ever racist, bigoted, delusional excuse they have this month for it.

      The problem, if you want to find one, is that the same media that is quite happy to point out how distorted some outsider’s point of view is, either a) actually agree with the local distorted view, or b) rarely, if ever, so much as imply, never mind call someone on, the same sort of dogmatic, self deluded, I am better because I follow one of many, often among the darkest, and least humane, versions of a fable that is several thousands years old, and only changes, when its politically convenient to do so, justifications for fighting wars.

      The saddest thing, really, is that, based on the sort of stupid BS they are trying to pass in the US, every place these “saving America from sin” types are in power, the only real difference between the ones toting guns in the Middle East, against Western “Imperialism”, and the locals, railing against gun laws, while praising decisions to not, at least, license guns, they same as you do a car, never mind even milder solutions, praising the end to voter rights, and passing bans on women’s medical choices, is that ours don’t, “yet” want to go quite so far as seeing their wives denied the right to dress in anything other than a shapeless robe. Otherwise, even some of the dimwits that “are” women, and have senate seats, have said they don’t think **they, themselves** should have even been allowed the right to vote, or have jobs outside the home, but that, since they where, they will use their position to fight against it.

      In any case, I have no problem, for example, seeing some ignorant fool like Palin standing out there with a kid strapped to her chest, and gun in hand, railing against “liberalism”, and the “end of the true Christian America.” All it would take is some nut case militia to crop up, which looked like it was willing to truly “fight for the cause”. Heck, maybe they can fight against the “War on Christmas”, based on the insane stuff out of her new book. They can leave IEDs, in the shape of wrapped presents. lol Er.. Well, not actually funny, really, but… yeah.

      • Tec15

        Your long, meandering comment doesn’t have much of anything to do with what I said, but okay.

        Also, ” The ones fighting for the American way of life are not, in general, a) trying to impose it on other people by force.” What? Did you forget about Iraq? What do you think happened there anyway? Seeing as most American troops in Iraq were under the impression that they were retaliating against Saddam’s role in 9/11, I’d say that if fits the textbook definition of “brainwashing” without “religion” having anything to do with it. http://0xtc.com/2006/03/01/85-of-us-troops-in-iraq-believe-in-saddam-911-connection.xhtml/

        You would never hear any American news media refer to the US troops as brainwashed dupes fighting and slaughtering innocent people based on the cynical lies of their political masters however, which was my main point. No, American soldiers of whatever gender are “heroes” or “patriots”, while the ones who expose what the war actually represented, (Like Manning) are “traitors”.

        • Patrick Elliott

          The people fighting there may have “believed” they where doing so, but the people that sent them there are precisely the sort of people who want to erase much of what America actually stands for. I.e., paranoid, anti-immigrant, war mongering, unwilling to use negotiation to solve problem, or, at least not until they kill/imprison/deny rights to the people that won’t “choose” their sides version of the truth, in the negotiation, and so on.

          That is what I meant. The people that saw war as a solution, to rid us of Saddam, don’t stand for what this nation currently believes itself to be. Though.. They would have probably done quite well, in the south, prior to the civil war, or marching Indians around, during the trail of tears. If such people can claim to be “upholding the ideals of this nation”, then, maybe its not the nation we wish it to be.

          As for Saddam himself.. Those troops who where actually gullible enough to not smell a rat, at the claim he was connected to 9/11, had to be seriously bloody gullible (or, being lied to, on even more levels that the public was). There was one, and only one, argument ever given that made an ounce of sense, and which there where not people everywhere, from the intelligence community, to the press, to the military itself, wasn’t questioning the believability of – “Lets finish what Bush Senior wasn’t allowed to.” And, it didn’t take long to realize that, as laudable as *that* goal may have been, the method, timing, and likely outcome, was going to be, at best, seriously bad, but, hopefully, not a complete bloody disaster.

          I would say, at this point, we have something half way between, “Why the F did we do this, without thinking it through.”, and, “Complete cluster fuck.”

          But, no, no one that was paying attention thought, for one moment, that a) Saddam was involved with 9/11, or at least not unless they where already convinced that everyone in the ME that we didn’t like where all in some big conspiracy to do so, or b) the outcome would be to make Iraq the 51st state of the US. At best, we hoped to get rid of one, just one, nut, who, at one point, caused us some problems in the past.

          Never the less, brainwashing goes being being ordered to go to war, and being lied to about the reasons. Brainwashing is about driving that point so completely that you continue to believe it, even after there is evidence to contradict it. And, yeah, there are some people around who you can find who still “do” believe on that level. Few, if any, of them, however, are military.

          The sort of people fighting, “against the west”, on the other hand.. tend to show all of the symptoms of people that have been convinced, beyond reason, of their cause, and are unlikely to change their minds, even if we dropped everything we are doing over their tomorrow, and left them all alone. And, they fail to recognize, much like our own war mongers, that “violent solution”, devoid of any sort of negotiation, can’t, and won’t either a) end the conflict, b) change minds, or c) make the other side come to any sort of agreement, on anything at all. Its, to quote a line from “Undiscovered Country”, the theory that, “The opportunity here is to bring them to their knees. Then we’ll be in a better position to dictate terms.”

          And, that last bit is the whole point – dictatorship, not negotiation, mutual respect, or even a willingness to admit wrong doing in the first place, or correct it, save, by trying to bomb the opposition out of existence. Oh, and, of course, the “default” assumption, in contradiction of all reality, that either terror, or mass murder, will “work”.

          And, that is part of the brainwashing – that only, “your chosen solution”, will work, even when it fails, over, and over, and over again.

          So, yeah, you can get brainwashed without religion. Thing is.. we are not talking about people in a “secular” world. We are talking about, in the case of the article, people “steeped” in religion, and, that… has been dedicated to teaching people, “incontrovertible, unapposable, ‘truths’, which we may even kill you over, if you don’t conform”, pretty much some someone first got the idea of using such ideas to control other people. Its a scaffolding, if you will. Its still possible to build, say, a bridge, without such a thing, but, if you put up the scaffolding first, the result will last longer, be more effective, and stronger, regardless of whether or not the result is useful, or not, or whether its a bridge (or, say school), a prison, or an abottoir (slaughter house). Oh, and.. it also means that, when/if you need it to change, it will be that much harder to do so later.

  • Andreas Klein

    here however, I would wish this discourse would be aware that with (righteously) calling for an acceptance of independent decisions of women to ‘participate in armed struggles’ one also implicitly depicts the latter as standing ‘over’ formerly ‘female properties’, that is, being a non-armed mediator in conflicts. If there are still no men adopting this latter role, these discourses just prepare for a totality of violence that is probably unprecedented in history. These decisions for a long row of revenge and death are just wrong, just as their male counterparts are.

  • Jim Davis

    This column is thorough in exposing the media stereotypes,
    but it’s short on explanations. Why *do* some Muslim women like to be photographed with a baby in one hand and a rifle in another? And why are they being increasingly photographed with guns at all? Is it a p.r. ploy of jihadis to counter the
    western accusation of oppressed women? As long as this piece is, it doesn’t go far enough.

    • Tec15

      How many are “some”? One, two out of what nearly a billion Muslims women worldwide? The problem remains the Western predilection to make far reaching extrapolations from a handful of cases in order to identify a (usually imaginary) trend.


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