“You go home now and attend to your work, the loom and the spindle, and tell the waiting-women to get on with theirs,” says Hector to his wife, Andromache, in the Iliad. “War is men’s business.”
The eight-year-long conflict in Syria gives the lie to that age-old view. The twin burdens of responsibility for children and for family “honor” may still fall disproportionately on women, but their role has not been limited to keeping the home fires burning and preparing sons for battle. In Syria, women are journalists, filmmakers, and fighters. They took part in the street protests of 2011 and 2012, which aimed to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and were subsequently imprisoned and tortured—the Syrian regime practices equal-opportunity repression. It would be a mistake, of course, to think that female participation in revolution and war is in itself a good thing, or that women are inherently a moderating influence. Women were in the vanguard of the Islamic State, which formed its caliphate in western Iraq and northeast Syria in 2014. They recruited other women to lives of sex slavery and martyrdom, and cruelly enforced strict dress codes.
I have seen some of this myself. In October I went to Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria to report on the border attack by Turkey. One side effect of the assault—which President Trump had presumably not predicted when he withdrew US troops, effectively giving President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan permission to invade—was the escape of female ISIS prisoners who had been held by the Kurds. Video footage showed veiled women dragging reluctant children, running down a road away from a camp at Ain Issa, near Syria’s northern border with Turkey. After a Turkish air strike, Kurdish guards deserted their posts, and the prisoners seized the moment. Dormant WhatsApp and Telegram groups sprang back into life, providing the women with phone numbers to call for help to avoid capture.
Watching the mayhem, I thought about the women I had met six months earlier at a camp called al-Hol, in northeast Syria, near the border with Iraq. It was a bleak place. There weren’t enough tents or medical facilities. Blankets and washing that the women had draped on the wire-mesh perimeter fence flapped in the dusty desert wind. More families arrived every day, the children terrified and malnourished. A twelve-year-old girl refused to look at me until I put on a headscarf—in her eyes, my bare head was a sign of moral degeneration. The women, most of them Syrian or Iraqi, had remained for the last stand of the caliphate in a town called Baghouz. To put it mildly, they were not grateful to have been rescued by the Kurdish forces that had defeated ISIS.
“The Islamic State will last forever, and this will be proved in the coming days!” yelled a middle-aged woman wearing a black niqab, with only her eyes showing. She declined to tell me her name. It was less of an interview and more of a harangue. “I swear to God it was brilliant. There was no food, but the women were proud. All women were sisters—one heart, one religion!”
Others were less hostile. I approached a small, thin woman, hunched under her all-encompassing black robe. Through the narrow slit of her face-covering I could see that she had a squint. She told me that her name was Yasmina Haj Omar, and that she was nineteen years old. She spoke softly as we chatted in a clearing among the tents, with a few other women listening in. When she was thirteen, she said, ISIS fighters arrived in her village near Aleppo and took her with them when they moved on. Since then, she had been married four times to foreigners and twice to Syrian fighters—six husbands in as many years. Each time a husband was “martyred”—meaning killed in battle—she was passed on to another.
“How do you feel about that?” I asked.
“It was fine because I was following the word of the Prophet,” she replied, speaking as if by rote. She showed no emotion. “All of this is for the glory of God.”
Haj Omar told me that she had been unable to have children, that she felt weak all the time and suffered persistent vaginal bleeding. I asked why she thought that might be. “I was injured in the womb by bombing,” she said. In her eyes, all the ills that befell her were caused by the Americans, who had not only pursued her and her husbands from place to place with their aerial attacks but also sponsored the mainly Kurdish forces that fought ISIS on the ground. To me, it seemed more likely that being handed on from one man to the next from such a young age was the cause of her gynecological problems, but this did not appear to have occurred to her.
A few days after I spoke with Haj Omar, Kurdish-led forces—backed by US airpower—destroyed the final remnant of the ISIS caliphate. Initially, it was estimated that ten thousand civilians—mainly women, children, and old men—remained with the fighters in the last desperate weeks, but as the jihadis fled Baghouz, surrendered, or were killed, more than 70,000 emerged. In the camp, the Kurdish female soldiers, who had fought in a special brigade to defeat the caliphate, provided an arresting contrast to the black-clad women of ISIS. Much of the fury of the women in al-Hol was directed at their female Kurdish jailers, dressed in fatigues with brightly colored flower-patterned scarves tied around their heads as bandannas.
For both the Kurds of northeast Syria and ISIS, the way women comport themselves is central to their beliefs. The Kurdish leaders see women as equal to men, and after establishing the autonomous region of Rojava in 2014 they imposed a rule that any government organization must have a female as well as a male director. The jihadi distortion of Islam, by contrast, prioritizes a view of women as subservient. A young, uneducated peasant woman like Haj Omar is clearly a victim of ISIS, but other women gained status as members of the hisbah, the morality police, a role they perpetuated in al-Hol, terrorizing inmates who did not follow strict dress edicts and throwing stones at Kurdish patrols.
Several thousand women made a choice to join the cult of ISIS. According to Azadeh Moaveni, a journalist and academic, in her book Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS, they included “educated daughters of diplomats, trainee doctors, teenagers with straight-A averages, as well as low-income drifters and desolate housewives.” Reliable numbers are unavailable, but one report she quotes suggests that 17 percent of Europeans who joined between 2013 and 2018 were female. “Many of these women were trying, in a twisted way, to achieve dignity and freedom through an embrace of a politics that ended up violating both,” she writes.
Moaveni, who has covered the Middle East for nearly two decades and has written on youth culture in Iran, wanted to get beyond the stereotype of “jihadi brides” to find out why so many women had embraced a patriarchal and oppressive ideology. She follows thirteen women from different countries, including Nour, a sensitive, searching young woman from Tunis; Emma, a German convert who follows her husband to the caliphate; and Asma, who stayed in Raqqa after ISIS made it the capital of the caliphate and found herself drawn into their cruel system. Over a period of years, Moaveni interviews these women, some of whose names have been changed for their protection, apparently becoming something of a confidante. The stories of others she pieces together from family interviews, news coverage, intelligence reports, and WhatsApp messages revealed by friends. The most notorious among the women she did not meet, but whose story she tells, is Shamima Begum, who left her home in the East London suburb of Bethnal Green at the age of fifteen along with two friends. Interviewed by journalists in a Kurdish-held camp in February 2019, Begum appeared unrepentant about joining ISIS, even though she had by then lost two children to disease and malnutrition and soon lost another.
Moaveni suggests that Muslim women join ISIS for much the same reasons as men: anger about the plight of the Palestinians, resentment of the US invasion of Iraq, and anguish over the merciless campaign waged by President Assad against Sunni Muslims in Syria. Women from Europe say they felt reviled at home for their religion, while those in Western-backed Arab countries such as Tunisia found that “being religious became a language through which to demand freedom from the state’s intrusion into daily life.” Moaveni has come to believe that Western security agencies and counter-radicalization programs such as Britain’s Prevent initiatives fail because they underestimate women’s intellectual engagement with such issues. “Most policy papers, public discussions, and security initiatives dealing with gender and extremism seem wholly disconnected from the lived experience of women in the Middle East,” she writes. “It is more politically expedient to suggest that women have been bewitched than to acknowledge the overarching wars, conflicts and authoritarian repression that have created the grievances and space for extremism to thrive.”
In many cases, personal disappointment or tragedy fuels anger about politics and international affairs, propelling women to look for meaning outside their family, work, and country. Religion provides a haven, or at least some kind of vessel into which they can pour their frustration and pain. ISIS, like all cults, draws in the lost and the vulnerable. Lina, a Lebanese-German, escaped cruel in-laws and a violent husband in Weinheim. Fearing for her life, she left her children in their father’s care—he had never hit them—but felt increasingly guilty and lonely. “She knew she was prone to depression, and had to fight all the time to keep herself from its grasping fingers,” writes Moaveni. Ever more devout, she is, unsurprisingly, targeted by extremists at the mosque she attends in Frankfurt. Eventually, Lina flies to Istanbul, and on to Gaziantep, from where she is smuggled over the border to Raqqa.
At times, Moaveni struggles to keep her chronology straight while advancing multiple narratives. For example, we learn on page 149 that the Bethnal Green girls, including Shamima Begum, left for Syria in December 2014. Yet the ISIS murders of the American journalist James Foley and British aid worker David Haines are not mentioned for another thirty-five pages, even though they occurred and were widely reported four months before the girls set off. Did Begum and her friends not know about the killings, or had they chosen to disbelieve the news? Or did they know but not care?
When Moaveni asks her subjects why they went to Syria despite reports of cruel punishments and repression of women, they say they didn’t believe what they heard. Nour, the Tunisian, provides some of the most detailed testimony. Suspended from school for wearing a hijab, she is drawn to an extremist mosque and becomes close to young men who seem to respect her and who provide her with a theological justification for ISIS ideology. When the Islamist political party she favors is banned, the obvious answer is to go to Syria, where she and her husband hope they can live by their religious beliefs. To her, “the crucifixions and sex slave markets were the fanciful propaganda of the group’s opponents.” According to Moaveni, Nour regarded the media as the tool of an oppressively secular Tunisian state, while Islamist women in the West filtered out information from news sources that they saw as anti-Muslim—in other words, most media. Like those Americans who discount everything from sources deemed “fake news,” they simply dismissed information that contradicted what they wanted to believe.
This might concern the Arab women who contributed to Our Women on the Ground, a new collection of essays edited by the Lebanese-British journalist Zahra Hankir. Several of them have reported bravely on the conflict in Syria and the travails of women living under ISIS rule. In recent years, increasing numbers of Arab women have joined Western media as reporters and photojournalists. Their political backgrounds vary, but they provide a perspective and a range of contacts and ideas born of experience that had previously been largely missing. Essayists here include staff writers for The New York Times, Bloomberg, and the BBC, as well as freelancers contributing to a variety of Arabic and English-language outlets. Arguably, they have something in common with women who rejected their families and societies to join ISIS—they too rebelled. As Hankir writes in her introduction, “To be a woman war reporter in this part of the world can sometimes mean you are defying not only the state but also your society, family, and the role you are expected to play within your home.”
Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist, writes that in the 1990s, at the age of fifteen, she rejected the hijab, which her conservative family in Idlib insisted she wear. Later she supported the uprising against Assad, hoping it would bring democracy, but jihadis took control of the part of northern Syria where she was working. At first, she refused to cover herself up:
I fought the battle again and lost. I had tried to resist. I had thought: I am not a foreign journalist who’s in Syria for a short trip to do some reporting before heading back home. This is my home, and I should force these people to accept who I am.
In the end, she realized that her life was in danger, so she put on a long dark coat and headscarf. “The only way I could challenge those dim colors while living in Syria was by wearing bright underwear and colored pins on my scarf. They were tiny dots of color, yes, but they made me feel better.”
Any female reporter who covers the Middle East is asked if it’s a disadvantage to be a woman, but Westerners rarely ask about the advantages, which often apply even more to Arab than foreign women. In countries like Syria and Iraq, you can disappear into the background and are rarely seen as a threat in the way men may be. Wearing the hijab is useful because you look like other women, so you can get through roadblocks where you might be stopped if the gunmen suspected you of being a reporter. But there are techniques you need to learn. “Running in an abaya was a special skill that we honed each time we had to take cover,” writes Hannah Allam, an Arab-American journalist who reported for McClatchy Newspapers during the Iraq war. “You use your left hand to hold the silky fabric under your chin to keep it in place and your right hand to hike up the bottom to free your feet. Then you run in a zigzag pattern to avoid giving a clear shot to the snipers.”
The disadvantages of being a female correspondent include sexual assault and harassment, as the Egyptian photojournalist Eman Helal explains in distressing detail. In December 2010 she persuaded her editor to let her travel to Juba to cover the referendum on independence in South Sudan. During the trip, she came across a male colleague: “He harassed me—he was drunk and touched me inappropriately,” she writes. She decided to say nothing to her editor and colleagues: “Telling them might justify their initial reasoning for not allowing a female reporter to travel. They might use my experience to prevent other women photographers or reporters from traveling.” She also worried that they might not believe her. Soon after, when Helal covered a protest during the Tahrir Square uprising in 2011, a policeman broke her camera and punched her in the face. Helal’s family forced her to leave Cairo to prevent her from covering the revolution. She writes, “Watching the demonstrations at Tahrir Square on television from the comfort of a couch rather than being there with my camera made me feel helpless and useless.” She felt guilty because she was making her family worry, but in the end she persuaded them to let her return.
Such anecdotes are unusual in that journalists are often reluctant to lay bare the obstacles they face. Their job, after all, is to tell the stories of others. But this generation of female reporters in the Middle East faces specific problems that no visiting foreign correspondent does, because they are often living with their families while the combatants they report on may be relatives or boys with whom they went to school. “In the middle of war, you investigate and you write story after story after story. But you lose your own story in between the explosions,” writes the Palestinian reporter Asmaa al-Ghoul, who lived and worked in the Gaza Strip during the Israeli invasions of 2006 and 2014. While dodging Israeli shells, she was also fighting the Hamas authority, which was trying to restrict women. As a twice-divorced single mother of two, she wonders whether she should blame her career for her personal problems. Eventually, she decided to give up journalism and go into exile in France. The anguish of motherhood was a crucial factor. “I constantly wavered between my job and my family—wanting to ensure my family’s safety on the one hand, and wanting to cover conflict in a distinguished way on the other,” she writes. “I was caught between being a mother soothing a son’s and a daughter’s fears and, at the same time, writing about other women’s children who were being killed by the hundreds.”
The film For Sama demonstrates that dilemma more dramatically than any book or essay can. As a twenty-two-year-old student at Aleppo University in 2011, Waad al-Kateab* joined the uprising against the Syrian regime. She fell in love with a young surgeon, Hamza, and they went to live in rebel-held east Aleppo with a group of like-minded friends. Her role, she decided, would be to chronicle their lives, so she got hold of a video camera. For the next four years she rarely turned it off. “I keep filming,” she says in voice-over. “It gives me a reason to be here.”
The result is an intimate portrait of a distinctively female experience of war. Everything that happens is punctuated by explosions and yelling, the camera jolting as al-Kateab hurtles for cover, her breath coming in gasps. The film goes back and forth in time, which adds to the confusion, one day crashing into another in a welter of noise and smoke. Everything feels chaotic: sometimes people wail and other times they laugh, intense friendships are forged, lives are lost and saved, the rice is infested with insects, a man writes “I love you” in the snow, blood is smeared all over. “Even when I close my eyes I see the color red,” says al-Kateab. “Blood everywhere. On walls, floors, our clothes. Sometimes we cry blood.”
Somehow al-Kateab got hold of a long white dress, a veil, and a bouquet, and Hamza found a shiny mauve tie. Their wedding party takes place in a room in the hospital where Hamza works—red balloons have been tied to the blacked-out window, and someone plays “Crazy” by Willie Nelson on a phone as the young couple do a slow dance. A few months later, we look at a pregnancy test kit: it’s positive. Al-Kateab giggles as she gives her husband the good news, and we see them peer in wonder at an ultrasound like any young couple. But the strain of living in a warzone shows a few weeks later, as a terrified-looking al-Kateab films herself tearfully talking to the camera: “I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to give birth. I want Hamza to be with me.”
The daughter she gives birth to in December 2015—yes, we see some of that too—is the Sama of the title, who gives the film its framework. “Sama, I made this film for you,” al-Kateab says after a scene in which she briefly mislays the baby during a bomb attack on the hospital. “I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did. What we were fighting for.”
This is not an impartial account of war. There are often weapons lying around, but we see little of the armed men who control the neighborhood, presumably because they were not keen on being filmed. Al-Kateab’s continued presence in eastern Aleppo is an act of defiance against the regime—she and her husband start a family as a way of asserting their belief in revolution and life. “In rebel-held Aleppo we lived in a free country,” she says.
While she dislikes the jihadis, who eventually begin to oust the moderately religious rebels, the Assad regime is the real enemy, and she is not in the business of weighing the balance of evil. She realizes that her own choices—including the decision to take her baby back into rebel-held Aleppo after visiting Hamza’s father in Turkey—are questionable: “I don’t know why. The truth is I can’t believe we did it even now.” The dilemmas she explores are personal, but making the film was a political commitment. “I want you to know that we fought for the most important cause of all,” al-Kateab tells Sama, then one year old, when they are eventually forced to flee at the end of 2016. “So that you and your children would not have to live as we lived. Everything we did was for you.”
The stories of women at war in Syria rarely have happy endings. Many of those who joined ISIS were killed. The negative reports they had spurned as propaganda, it turns out, were true, and many women suffered at the hands of brutal men they had expected to be virtuous Muslims. Some, whether still supporters of the caliphate or not, remain in camps like al-Hol, which have grown violent as the hisbah have become more powerful and Kurdish guards have been diverted into fighting Turkish forces. The killing of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in late October did nothing to diminish the fervor of the true believers. Few countries have accepted the women back, so escape is their best option. Moaveni’s central subject, Nour, managed to return to Tunisia but is under constant surveillance by the anti-terror police, who sexually harass her, pretending it’s all part of their investigation.
Some of the Arab female journalists have advanced their careers, while others have changed profession as they were forced into exile or found that the pressures of reporting outweighed the rewards. President Trump said his October decision to withdraw US troops from northeast Syria was meant to “end the endless wars,” but it has instead created a new front line. Turkey has trained and paid the remnants of Arab militias that once fought Assad to fight the Kurds instead. ISIS sleeper cells have taken advantage of the renewed chaos and started to set off carbombs in Kurdish-dominated towns. Vastly outgunned, and understanding that the US would no longer provide protection, the Kurds turned to Assad and his Russian backers. Journalists cannot operate as easily in northeast Syria as they did when the Kurds were in charge, for fear of being arrested by regime forces. There is plenty to report, but the dangers are more acute than ever, and editors are tired of the war in Syria.
Waad and Hamza al-Kateab, plus Sama and her younger sister Taima, born just after the family left Aleppo, have been granted asylum in the UK. Hoping to regain control of the entire territory of Syria, Assad’s regime and the Russians continue to bomb and shell Idlib, the last rebel-held enclave, where three million civilians remain trapped. Al-Kateab’s story is specifically female, but war leaves its mark on men and women alike. At twenty-eight, she is having to come to terms with survivor guilt and the end of the most intense, terrifying, and essential experience of her life. Like veterans from other wars, she will have to adapt to peacetime, with its comforting routines and merciless tedium.
Waad al-Kateab works for the same British TV news program I do, Channel 4 News. ↩