Prosecuting the Women of ISIS

Credit: By VOA - Public Domain

Watching the viral video of sixteen year old Linda Wenzel’s capture in Mosul by Iraqi forces is a truly gut wrenching experience. Linda, dazed and dirty, screams before the camera as the male soldiers around her laugh and jeer at her. While many teenagers have experienced a “walk of shame,” Linda’s “walk of shame” stirs up not only distaste but pity and horror. The comments below the video are even more disturbing, with commenters calling for her execution or for her to be jailed in Iraq, as they believe she deserves.

Linda’s story is the story of many girls and women who have left their home countries to join the so-called Islamic State. At a time when ISIS is being pushed out of its territory, however, many women find themselves captured by troops and stuck between the Iraqi government and their home governments. In Linda’s case, German officials were warned by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, that she could face the death penalty in Iraq once she is of age. In Germany, Linda would face a prison sentence of up to ten years.

Women and teenagers, like Linda, join ISIS despite the group’s seemingly venomous anti-women rhetoric. Just like their male counterparts, their reasons for joining are deeply personal and involve various push and pull factors. Women in ISIS are not only “jihadi brides” or wives forced by their husbands to travel to Syria. Rather, women play diverse roles, from moral-police, to recruiters, to planners and executors of attacks. The women who join ISIS are often just as deadly as the men, sometimes even more so, as their viciousness is shrouded under a guise of subservience.

ISIS’ reputation, however, as misogynistic, as well as our own gender biases, often obscure women’s role in the group and directly affect how they are prosecuted. Though the law does not distinguish between genders, it is still more difficult to prosecute someone who is viewed as a “victim” or as “harmless.” Women are often not viewed as politically rational actors with important motivations and goals. When a woman does commit terrorism or a mass atrocity, we are quick to look for an external reason that can explain her behaviour and rob her of her personal agency. If we cannot find a satisfactory reason, the woman is deemed a sociopath and incorrigible and quickly forgotten about.

From a legal point of view, it is very difficult to prosecute someone who has no agency, as they cannot be held guilty for their intentions, only the actions that they committed. These actions can then be appropriated by outsiders, usually men, and interpreted as they see fit, thereby silencing the person who is being prosecuted. When a woman is unable to interpret her actions for herself she is victimised not only by those who do the interpreting for her, but by the judicial system which ignores her voice. Some may argue that this is not victimization, as often women are given more lenient sentences than men, however, it is important to see the large framework of oppression and silencing of women, especially of women of colour, rather than the small so-called victories.

Even after her capture, Linda herself is often described as a “brainwashed schoolgirl,” who was smitten with an ISIS fighter and who left her home in Germany to pursue a girlish fantasy. Similarly, the four British teens who left to join ISIS from east London are also described as “schoolgirls” having being preyed on by the group or malicious recruiters. Though commenters are critical of Linda, the media frames her story as pitiful and misguided, rather than dangerous and potentially catastrophic for the future of ISIS prosecution.

It must also be reiterated that as a young, white, German citizen, Linda has a certain privilege over other female members of ISIS. Her story is sensationalized because of who she is and because she is regarded with more sympathy than a woman of color would be. If Linda was a woman of color, she would be viewed as a product of her oppressive culture, not as an outlier who made a catastrophic decision. Perhaps if she were not a white woman, Linda’s story would be of no interest to us, as she would be seen as one of many women victimized by “another” culture and how and where is prosecuted would not be debated.

How and where Linda is prosecuted will set a precedent for the future prosecution of ISIS women from Germany; German officials estimate that there are about 200 German women who have traveled to join the group. If we fail to see Linda as an independent actor, despite her young age, we could potentially be setting a dangerous precedent for other young women who may be led to believe that their actions have minimal consequences. It could also allow other women to slip under the radar by playing to cultural expectations and gender biases. However, holding her completely accountable and prosecuting her to the fullest extent of the law, be it in Germany or Iraq, could be the tipping point for other youth who are on the path to radicalization.

Dealing with the women of ISIS may seem like a trivial issue, however, it cannot be discounted as unimportant. Though there is no simple answer, an ideal solution would be punitive and well thought out, as it will set an important precedent for how such cases are dealt with in the future. It is also important that the agency of these not be erased or ignored, as it does not only a disservice to them but can have consequences for our judicial systems. 

Rutvi Ajmera holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Political Science from Concordia University, Montreal. She currently works in Canadian immigration law and specializes in working with economic migrants and families. She hopes to continue working with immigrants, especially in the area of integration. She is mainly interested in how public policy shapes human experience and how state and non-state actors shape global events.