Shoot the Women First, Part 3


In Part 1 and Part 2, Jolande Withuist compared Muslima (female Muslim) terrorism with some examples of Leftist and Christian female terrorism; and examined the radicalisation of modern Dutch Muslim women.

The mixture of sexism and sectarianism in the radicalisation of young Muslimas in the Dutch Hofstad Network  is a dangerous one.

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In order to be allowed to participate in the male domain for example, jihad the Muslimas must rid themselves of the gentleness that is traditionally considered part of the female ‘job description.’ Balance is retained by placing more emphasis on other aspects of traditional femininity. To make up for wanting something they should not want, they will excel at submission, obedience, and loyalty. This is apparent in their choosing the most misogynistic interpretation of Islam, including burkas and polygyny. This bitter pill is gilded with a feeling of superiority.

Superiority is the sweet reward that places the radical women above not only the non-believers, but also their families who lead less extreme lives. Above their uneducated or even illiterate mothers, for example, who are ‘respected’ but who are actually helpless and definitely not able to address Allah or study the holy Koran. Or above their fathers, who command no respect in matters relating to the faith or in their social position. They think they have chosen their own submissive position, which implies a higher state of existence.

To less religious or non-believing females, these Muslimas will stubbornly maintain that their subservience to their husbands is not subservience to these men, but rather to their own convictions, and it is ‘therefore’ a form of emancipation.

It is a certainty that the radical Muslimas of the Hofstad Network become alienated not only from Dutch society, but also from their own environment. They feel that their families do not live according to ‘pure Islam’ and confuse faith with Moroccan culture and tradition. Family members, on the other hand, are not happy with a daughter who is hidden inside a burka, whose husband refuses to sit down to dinner at the same table as her mother.

The ‘compromise’ I outline is effective not only with regard to the Muslimas’ husbands and religious brothers, but also with regard to the parental environment. Even though the girls are doing something that is undesirable, the transgression is in line with the parental religious beliefs. Their godliness knows no bounds, so how can their parents possibly object?

The fact that this strategy both elevates them and cancels out any loyalty problems, adds to the appeal of this pathway. With their desire to join the jihad, giving lectures and studying the Koran, the women defy gender traditions, but they compensate for it by making extreme adjustments in other areas. So, although they do struggle with the limitations of the domain allowed to women by Islam, their commitment is not accompanied by any criticism of traditional femininity unlike the women from Eileen MacDonald’s1991 book Shoot the Women First,  which examined radical Leftist female terrorists from the 1970s and 1980s. On the contrary, the Muslimas profess the most orthodox version of the faith and echo sexist notions: women must cover themselves and may not shake a man’s hand.

The wife of one of the Hofstad Newtwork, Samir Azzouz, recently supported in the press his demand to be taken outside of his cell for exercise separately, not together with female prisoners. Her husband, she said, ‘was about to explode’ a primitive notion of sex seldom heard these days. The wives agree that men are allowed to have four wives, and among themselves they pretend not to mind. They close informal marriages, solely for the purpose of making sex possible, that offer no protection at all. Their basically promiscuous way of life, which also breaks with the tradition that a marriage only takes place after consent has been given by at least the parents and the family, makes it more difficult to return to the family. This makes women even more dependent on those pseudo-husbands and their fellow believers.

At the same time the women take every opportunity to humiliate their husbands if they are less radical or not decisive enough. The fact that the rule of separate male and female domains makes them a relatively steady group will sometimes turn this competing with and humiliating of the men into a party game for girls. Knowing Arabic and the holy Koran enables many of them to make contact with Allah directly (rather than through a man), which is an innovation that preserves their illusion of emancipation. At the same time this illusion stimulates their radicalisation and isolation, because it is an emancipation that consists of obsessively studying the ‘pure’ doctrine (which still comes to them through men).

Finally, these women, like their radical predecessors, will be inclined or feel compelled to challenge the male prejudice that they are too weak, frightened and ignorant, by taking their religious fight further than they perhaps want to. Because they must prove their equality (in decisiveness and religious conviction) as well as their subordination (as a gender), I see a risk that they will be willing to carry out gruesome assignments. Their ambiguous situation makes them vulnerable to recruitment.

The women around the Hofstad Network display a mixture of assertiveness and sectarianism. Sect and gender aspects meet in the one thing every sect focuses on: living according to the doctrine and purification of the group. Here also, rivalry with and submission to the men go together perfectly.

More than with the contents of the Koran, however, I have addressed the possible functions of Islam and the social and psychological dynamic that makes and keeps the women radical. We should not overestimate the importance of the ancient texts in order to understand what is going on around us. The answer is not in the texts of Islam, but rather in how they are interpreted and in how they are used. It would be an illusion to think that we can find answers by studying the Koran, and a misunderstanding that we cannot comprehend anything without studying it. As a person radicalises, the pure doctrine unmistakably becomes an obsession, but never without mediation: it always requires opportunistic interpretations and teachers. Women do not have enough power to push through a new interpretation as pure doctrine.

According to emeritus professor of sociology Bram de Swaan, the literal content of a religion is not very relevant, because one can take whatever one wants from any religious doctrine and from any holy book. Exegetists through the ages have done exactly that: they have taken whatever suited their needs.

The contents of religions, De Swaan states in his essay ‘De botsing der beschavingen en de strijd der seksen‘ (‘The Clash of Civilisations and the Battle of the Sexes’) are determined by social relationships. And he regards the battle for Islam as a worldwide battle for the preservation of male power. Muslim men are confronted in the West (and by globalisation) with totally different relations between the sexes, while their self-respect is traditionally based on their masculine ‘honour.’ A man’s ‘honour’ depends on the behaviour of his wives, daughters and sisters, and he therefore sees it as a right and a necessity that he can impose his will on these women. Masculine honour implies the idea of male superiority as well as the concrete power of men over women. Both have diminished considerably in the Western world.

Muslim fundamentalism is gender fundamentalism. Muslima terrorism is complex in that it concerns a faith that focuses on the global (and also smaller-scale) preservation of patriarchal power, while at the same time there are women who want to use this patriarchal faith to emancipate themselves, and who are even willing to resort to acts of terrorism.

Based on the same ambiguity it could be appealing for their male brothers to ‘allow’ their ‘sisters’ to participate in the jihad, that is, use the women to aid terrorists or even for suicide attacks.

Submission, in the guise of emancipation, or even more serious, emancipation that implies submission, can be very dangerous.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Dutch newspaper Trouw, and was translated into English for by Maggie Oates.

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