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.