ANALYSIS: What role do women play in extremism and terror groups?

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Images of a female suicide bomber who blew herself up while carrying a baby as she pretended to be a civilian fleeing from ISIS controlled area in the old area of Mosul shocked the world. Those images have reopened the debate on the significant role women play inside the currents of political Islam, both Sunni and Shiite movements alike, and the radical branches that might spout from these organizations.

The path of women in the mazes of political Islam began with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, Hassan al-Banna. The first women's group was initiated in 1932, called the "Muslim Sisters' Group" led by al-Banna himself before Zainab al-Ghazali, an Egyptian activisit, accepted to be the leader of the group and dedicated a day each week on lecturing the female members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1993, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a decree forming a female band for the “Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” monitoring group which called the "Zainab Sisters", a special force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

In 2014, ISIS formed from the Syrian city of Raqqa what is now known as the “Khansaa” or “Al-Hesba” women's battalion, which is considered a security force.

How did the leaders of al-Banna, Khomeini and Khalidiya al-Baghdadi all meet in the project of establishing the sisters' teams, each carrying its own program in harmony with reference to their own ideology?

The Meeting Point

While the "Sisters of Zainab" practiced the function of Hesba, which is not so dissimilar to those played by ISIS women, they are similar in dress codes too. But the difference is that the Iranians played an official role given their affiliation with the government in Tehran.

The Khansaa Women's Battalion of ISIS composed of mixed elements of Tunisian, European, Chechen and other foreign nationalities and has played a major role in monitoring and arresting women who violate the extremist organization's orders. They also receive religious, physical and combat training, including in the use of combat weapons.

The battalion started as a group that go on the streets, markets and enter the houses in order to promote “virtue and prevent vice”, but their jurisdiction surpassed that when they began applying punishments like flogging, imprisonment, and torture. They also became part of the battalions participating in the fighting and military operations in addition to their basic work. The battalion also play a huge role within ISIS’ electronic army.

The battalion took over the task of pursuing women who violate ISIS’ rules and regulations in the region, before they trained women's groups to use weapons in special camps, surrounded by a lot of secrecy and ambiguity, and the influence of the European element in the battalion is clear, especially the British and the French women.

The leader of the battalion is called “Umm Hajar”, or “Umm Ryan”, a Tunisian responsible for overseeing the flogging of women who break the rules in the city.

“Sisters of Zainab”

In 1993, Khamenei issued a decision to establish a group known as the "Organization for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice", of which “Sisters of Zainab” sprang from.

An Iranian lawyer in the Kurdistan region's capital, Erbil, who asked to remain anonymous, informed Al Arabiya said the group recently declared its administrative independence. It is a private stand-alone organization, with an independent budget that is financed through the Basij. The salaries of associates are not known nor are they presented with specific financial statements.

The Zinabian women's groups follow the task of nominating and training the special forces of men and women who wish to join the organization, which is divided into two branches (regular and voluntary) and then appoints a special supervisor for each group, often the imam of the mosque.

Sisters of Zainab – usually wives of religious leaders and authorities – are distributed according to Khamenei's religious reference office, and the imams of the mosques consider themselves the representatives of Khamenei in the cities.

Special patrols

During special patrols, the Sisters of Zainab groups take tours in Iranian cities with men to advise the public and check the headscarves of the girls, giving them the power to arrest, investigate and write up pledges for those who violate the rules prior to informing their families and, if they had a previous record they would be transferred to the court.

They usually carry out their inspection tours, equipped with various riot weapons from iron and wooden sticks and electric detonators, as a means of defending themselves in case of any disobedience by any violator.

The tasks of the Sisters of Zainab are not limited to the authority of changing what they see as a violation of the loose laws and regulations by “hand". The list of prohibitions and irregularities is not limited, but also to other spying tasks as they are allowed to enter women gatherings on special occasions, and writing reports on some women, in preparation to be submitted to the Basij reference.

Committee of the Muslim Sisters

Since Hassan al-Banna established the Muslim sisters' sect has been active in 1932. Al-Banna himself was leading the group, the agent of the group was called Labiba Ahmed, who was the link between leader and the sisters.

Among the tasks of the "spreading the call for religion" committee - according to the regulation - is to "guide the women's community by spreading the call for religion, encouraging virtues, fighting vices, Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, prevail Islam in the society and win supporters.”

In 1944, Al Banna launched the first Executive Committee of the Muslim Sisters, which included 12 members, which reflects the social and religious role of Muslim Brotherhood women from the beginning of the establishment until the end of the crisis in1965 in taking care of the poor families through the House of Muslim Sisters. And focusing on acquiring women to the group in public places, institutions and government bodies.

The sisters' section generated a deep and powerful network of sisters that the group benefited from when it clashed with the ruling regimes, where the women of the group were able to move more freely in collecting funds, donations and spending on the families of detainees or fugitives.

Military work

At the beginning of the 1990s, the department was supervised by Muhammad Abdullah al-Khatib, with the help of a group of wives and daughters of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, such as Wafaa Mashhour, the daughter of the former leader Haj Mustafa Mashhour, and Makarem al-Diri, the wife of late Muslim Brotherhood leader Ibrahim Sharaf.

The group sought to employ the Muslim sisters in the field and military work and to abandon religious work. This was manifested by the participation of the sisters in a battalion in the 1948 war, in addition to the role they played during the so-called "Crisis" of the Brotherhood in 1954 and 1965, and its clash with the regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser at that time,Through the participation of Zinab al-Ghazali in the establishment of the special organization 1965, as well as the so-called "organization of military art" in 1972, which was established to assassinate the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

In August 2011, the brotherhood agreed to establish the first open sisters’ camp in Cairo, Giza, Beheira and Alexandria governorates, as per what was published on “Ekhwan online” website, in response to the demands of Muslim Brotherhood women to give them the right to establish educational camps open and closed at the level of regions and sectors, and their right to organize and manage it, which highlighted their role in incitement and violence during what is known as Rabaa and Al- Nahdaa sit-ins in 2013, and its consequences.