Female Enforcers in the Islamic State

The horror of what took place in Mosul just over a week ago has stayed with me. Fifteen women in the Iraqi city of Mosul were arrested for appearing in public without a niqaab , the Islamic black face veil. Their punishment was unspeakably barbaric: disfigurement by having acid poured over their faces. And it was other women–members of the al-Khansaa brigade–who poured the acid and restrained the victims. I don’t even want to contemplate what the fifteen women look like now, for I have seen pictures of victims after acid attacks, their once-attractive faces melted or deeply scarred, their lips and noses burned down to almost nothing, their eyes blinded. The disfigurement of the women was meant to serve as a warning to all the women of Mosul, officials of the so-called Islamic State (IS) said, “so that other women in the city will never consider removing or not wearing the niqaab.”


The fifteen victims were arrested and punished by the al-Khansaa brigade, an all-female brigade set up by IS shortly after establishing its de facto capital at Raqqa in Syria. The al-Khansaa brigade is likely named after the 7th-century female Arab poet by that name, a friend of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, who wrote eulogies to male relatives who had died in combat. The women’s brigade was formed by IS initially to work at check-points. Male anti-IS fighters had been disguising themselves as females, donning abayas , long black cloaks, and niqaabs in order to pass through IS check-points undetected. The Muslim men manning the check-points were reluctant to search anyone who appeared to be a woman.

Later, the role of the brigade was expanded to that of enforcers of female morality, i.e., religious police. IS has decreed that in the ever-expanding territory under their control all women must be fully covered in public now, as well as chaperoned by a male relative. The al-Khansaa brigade has been tasked with seeing that women obey the laws. Brigade members patrol the streets, armed, scrutinizing women constantly, looking for face veils that are too thin, or not worn properly, or not worn at all. Those who break the laws are arrested and punished, often brutally, as in the case of the fifteen women.

Breastfeeding in public is also prohibited. The al-Khansaa brigade recently came across a woman breastfeeding her infant in the city’s bus station. As a punishment, the brigade attached a device called a ‘biter’–two iron jaws covered with spikes–onto the woman’s breast.

You have to wonder what sort of woman willingly pours acid on another woman’s face or clamps a torture device onto the breast of a nursing mother. It turns out: As many as 60 of these female enforcers are from Britain. In fact, it is reported that the British enforcers are the most zealous of all the women and have risen to positions of prominence within the brigade as a consequence. This is no raggle-taggle group of female misfits. To be part of the brigade, a woman must be single and between the ages of 18 – 25. Brigade members are paid for their work: They receive a monthly salary of 25,000 Syrian pounds from IS. The brigade even has its own facilities so that all intermingling between the sexes is avoided. The members of the brigade believe that they are doing Allah’s work; it is their job, they claim, “to raise awareness of our religion among women and to punish women who do not abide by the law.” What kind of god rejects a woman for failing to wear a niqaab , yet looks with favour on a woman who cruelly disfigures another woman?

And what sort of deity places more value on a piece of cloth than on a human life? This obsession with female dress is not unique to terrorist groups like IS. In March 2002 in the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a fire broke out at a girls’ school in Medina. Some of the panicked girls fled from the burning building in such haste that they left behind their hijabs, head scarves, and black cloaks behind. Men who tried to help the girls escape were prevented in doing so by the mutawaa’in, the Saudi religious police, who blocked the entrance to the school. Like the al-Khansaa brigade, the Saudi religious police patrol the kingdom’s streets enforcing dress codes and sex segregation, and ensuring that the five Islamic prayer times are observed. To refuse the order of the religious police leads to arrest, flogging, and jail time. Observers at the fire that day reported seeing the religious police beating girls back who were trying to escape simply because they were not properly covered up. Fifteen school girls died, and more than fifty were injured.

Shortly after I started writing this blog, news broke that a gunman in Copenhagen had opened fire at a seminar on freedom of speech organized by the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks. (Vilks caricatured Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in 2007, and since then has been targeted at least two times.) A Danish film-maker attending the seminar was fatally shot. The same gunman later shot and killed a Jewish security guard at a bat mitzvah celebration. Since the killings at the office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and at the kosher deli in Paris in January, the issue of freedom of expression has been foremost in the minds of many people, who are now asking: Should there be controls on what a person says, or writes, or draws? It’s worth bearing in mind that many of those who would like to curtail freedom of expression would also be quite happy to tell women how they must dress.

The young people flocking to join IS have been labeled criminal thugs, economically disadvantaged misfits, ‘mis-understanders’ of Islam. None of these labels fits one of the key women in the al-Khansaa brigade: She grew up in Glasgow, Scotland; attended private schools; and later enrolled in university with the intention of becoming a doctor. She has abandoned all that, it would seem, for a ‘nobler cause’: to assist IS in building its shari’ah-ruled, Islamic utopia. Like all previous attempts in history to create a utopia, this one too will fail. The women of the al-Khansaa brigade–themselves victims of a vile ideology–will one day be viewed with the same revulsion as those German women who stood guard in the Nazi female prisons and death camps.


Flogged for Blogging in Saudi Arabia

When I heard about the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud on 22 January at age 90, I wondered how the leaders of Western liberal democracies would respond. What sort of tributes would they pay to the late Saudi king? How does one praise the deceased monarch of a country where people are still publicly beheaded and flogged; where all religions except for the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam are officially banned; where Jews are denied entry; where women are not allowed to get behind the wheel of a car? Here are a few of the things that were said. In his tribute to the late Saudi king, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that “[h]e will be remembered for his long years of service to the Kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths.” Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called him “a staunch advocate of interfaith relations.” Queen Elizabeth cited the late king’s work for “peace and understanding between nations and faiths.”

He worked for “understanding between faiths”? Tell that to the two million Christian foreign workers in Saudi Arabia where all churches are banned, where Christians have to meet in private homes, secretly. But even there they are not out of the reach of the Saudi religious police. A home church was raided a while ago. Bibles were seized, musical instruments were confiscated, and 27 people, including women and children, were arrested. Their offence: holding a Christian prayer meeting in a private home.

When David Cameron, Tony Blair, and Queen Elizabeth praised the late Saudi king’s commitment to interfaith relations, they weren’ t talking about interfaith relations in Saudi Arabia. No, they were no doubt referring to the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural dialogue (KAICIID), brainchild of the late Saudi king (I discuss KAICIID in my June 2013 blog.) The centre was founded jointly in 2011 by Saudi Arabia, Austria, and Spain, with oil-rich Saudi Arabia “picking up the bill” and agreeing to finance the centre for the first three years. The Holy See joined at that time as a founding observer. KAICIID is headquartered in Vienna, not Saudi Arabia. The late Saudi king was an advocate for interfaith relations, true, just not on his ‘home turf’.

I can understand why Western leaders paid tribute to the late Saudi monarch: It was a political necessity. The West needs Saudi oil and continued Saudi participation in the military coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL). What I can’t accept, however, was the response by Westminster Abbey which flew its flag at half-mast as a “mark of respect” for the late Saudi king. Even more reprehensible, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, gave his approval to the flag flying at half-mast, citing King Abdullah’s role in helping to bring faiths together. He said this, knowing that Christian churches are not allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia, and that leaving Islam and converting to Christianity is a capital offence. Building an expensive interfaith centre in some distant European country, even while denying religious rights to those in one’s own country, makes his advocacy for interfaith relations a sham.

World leaders may find it harder to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the lack of fundamental human rights in the Kingdom, however, now that the appalling treatment of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has come to the world’s attention. Badawi’s offence: He maintained a blog, “Free Saudi Liberals,” that encouraged debate about religion and politics. He was arrested in 2012 for posting articles on his blog critical of senior religious figures in Saudi Arabia. Badawi was charged with setting up a website that “undermined general security, of ridiculing Islamic religious figures, and of going beyond the realm of obedience.” And for this, the blogger was sentenced to ten years in jail, a fine of $260,000, and 1000 lashes, with 50 lashes to be given at one-week intervals. It is the idea of 1000 lashes for simply maintaining a blog site that has so incensed people worldwide.

The barbaric practice of flogging as punishment–long given up by civilized countries–continues in many parts of the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, flogging is almost always a component of any sentencing. Moreover, no part of the court-ordered flogging is left to chance. At the sentencing, the judge specifies the number of lashes to be meted out; the location of the flogging, whether in the prison or in some public place; and what portions of the lashes are to be administered at one time. Women are usually given 10 – 30 lashes a week; men, 50 – 60. Usually, floggings take place at intervals of 1 – 2 weeks. A doctor examines the prisoner beforehand to determine whether or not he or she is able to withstand the scourging. A police officer administers the lashes with a bamboo whip about seven feet long. The one administering the flogging will often hold a copy of the Qur’an under one arm to regulate the power with which he wields the whip. (I wonder: Does anything happen to him personally if the Qur’an happens to slip from underneath his arm?) The victim is often allowed to wear one layer of light clothing. Anyone caught taking pictures of the flogging is himself punished.

On 9 January Badawi received the first 50 lashes before hundreds of spectators in front of a mosque after Friday prayers in the port city of Jeddah. The lashings he was to receive on the 16th and 23rd have not taken place, however, because his wounds from the first lashing haven’t healed adequately yet, doctors claim. (Badawi is a diabetic, which may explain the slowness to heal.) Or could the delay be that–stung by world criticism–the Saudis are reconsidering the blogger’s punishment? Badawi’s lawyer Waleed Abu al-Kair has also been charged and sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up a human rights organization.

One wonders what King Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, will do–if anything–about Badawi, now that the eyes of the world are on the Kingdom. The new king, like his predecessor, is unfortunately constrained from making substantive changes by the fact that Saudi Arabia’s legal code is shariah -based. Punishment by lashing, moreover, is commanded in the Qur’an (Surah 24)–for adultery, however, not blogging. I suspect that, whenever and however Badawi’s case is resolved, or when the blogger’s case is no longer ‘centre-stage’, things will go on in the Wahhabi Kingdom much as they have for centuries. After all, why change things, when you can be regarded as a staunch advocate for interfaith relations simply by financing the creation of an interreligious centre somewhere, preferably nowhere near Saudi Arabia.