Levant & IraqLGBT+Non-Muslim+Social Minorities +

An Attempt at a Gender-Based Analysis of ISIS


Ilham Bint Sirin
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A photo of ISIS fighters taken from one of their propaganda videos, MPC Journal
A photo of ISIS fighters taken from one of their propaganda videos

The way in which masculinity is constructed around the world puts pressure on men to correspond to an idea of masculinity sometimes impossible to fulfil, not because of qualities inherent in men, but because of outside influence. Violence is seen as a resolution to that predicament that corresponds to that same construction of masculinity.

The question why locals in Syria or Iraq join ISIS is not as great a mystery as it may seem from a western vantage point. It must be understood that fighting is also a job, and in a wartime situation often the only really viable one. On the ground in Syria and Iraq the reasons for joining are often quite tangible. The local men have to survive, and IS pays well, a lot better than other groups, especially in Syria (where estimations suggest that IS initially paid around 200$ a month). Many locals also join IS simply out of fear.

At first, the Islamic State actually had (and had to have) a strategy in Syria. There was a defined set of rules of conduct to which they initially stuck. In the beginning they clearly set themselves off from the rampant looting of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and were actually “welcomed as saviours”, as one journalist, who worked throughout the entire war in Syria, told me.

When Iraq was entered this strategy changed. It must be said that from a certain point on those who went knew they were going to live in great luxury amid all the looted goods. Yet, obviously especially for foreign fighters who travel from afar, there is another dimension to their motivations. It comes as little wonder to anyone that they are not motivated by faith. It has been on the news that UK recruits bought “Islam for Dummies” and “the Koran for Dummies” on Amazon before leaving.


They go, because to be feared is better than to be non-existent. They go to join something bigger than themselves, something that will write history. Risk and danger are also associated with masculinity, as is competition. Those who go to ISIS feel like they are going on an adventure. Certainly, the knowledge of belonging to the “most extreme” group holds a lot of prestige in the psychology of those who feel they need to assert their own self-worth by joining the mass-slaughter.

Although other journalists were embedded with ISIS in Syria before, the German journalist Todenhoefer, an elderly and very well known right-wing journalist in Germany, was the only western reporter who spent time with ISIS in Mosul. During his ten days in the city Todenhoefer documented an “almost ecstatic enthusiasm” among the hundreds of new jihadists coming in: “[w]hen we stayed at their recruitment house, there were 50 new fighters who came every day. And I just could not believe the glow in their eyes. They felt like they were coming to a promised land, like they were fighting for the right thing.”

Poverty, inequality, discrimination, and looking for a place to belong are terms often named when discussing why men of Tunisian, French or Senegalese origin leave to join the extremists. What doesn’t get much discussed is gender. That men commit the majority of violence, and certainly more than 95% of extreme violence in the world is seen as a given, as a normality. But this extreme propensity to violence we see here is undoubtedly connected with what unites the way masculinity is constructed in many cultures around the world.

You could say there is something so obvious here, that it is little talked about. In reality of course there is a reason that we talk so little about the fact that violence is predominantly male. It is because of the patriarchy. That is to say implicitly “all men” profit in an indirect way from the near-monopoly males have on violence, and the fact that we still somehow pretend it is gender-neutral. I’ve been told this point needs further elaboration and factual examples. The phrase “don’t go out, it’s too dangerous for you there” has been used since the dawn of patriarchy to keep women in the home and kitchen as personal servants.

Take an anecdote that happened to a good friend of mine. During a break-up her ex-boyfriend said to her, “you have nothing to reproach to me, I never cheated on you and I never raped you.” Here it becomes clear how one man profits by the violence perpetrated by others. If you already “get points” for not raping someone, there are still myriads of ways of not treating the other person as a full human being and exploiting that in your own favour. And these, apparently, are troubles against which women have no right speaking out.

While some boys are explicitly raised into believing themselves superior (siblings in Pakistan are often told by their parents that the brother is always right, for example), this idea is implicitly propagated in a lot of cultures. There is now a lot of research and documentation to show that, to give but one example, in many cases if a woman expresses herself emotionally, she is perceived as silly and exaggerating. If a man expresses himself emotionally, he is called passionate. What percolates down from all of this is that when men grow up into desolate conditions of racist societies and/or poverty, they feel they are not given what they deserve. Men feel they are owed a certain status in society, just because they are men. Even though women suffer under racism and poverty, too, this feeling of entitlement can be different.

In situations of poverty or political oppression, everyone suffers. But a special psychological strain is exerted on men because of not being able to assume the normal role of the “sole” provider, which partly gives a man a direct controlling power over the people surrounding him, especially women, and otherwise is constructed as indirectly justifying his control and domination of others. Men grow up being socialised to believe that they inherently have this control of others. That their masculinity means they should have a higher societal position (relative to women), even that their masculinity is prestigious by itself – if only it is validated and asserted by “manly” actions. The frustration and anger at loss of control and power aggravate the strain of the uncertainty about the future.

While women can also get aggressive in situations of hopelessness, it has been proven in studies that violence is a way of re-affirming specifically one’s masculinity if the person feels it has been thwarted (see also the “hair-braid test”). Whereas femininity is constructed as passivity, masculinity is constructed as action. Boys are raised to be actors; they are taught that they must “make” their masculinity. And so when there is no other recourse anymore violence is the last resort to assert one’s existence, and one’s masculinity. And if it’s not the last resort, it can simply seem as the easiest way to assert oneself, a short cut to “being a man”.

Please also refer to Middle Eastern Tales.


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