The IS Woman as Anti-Development Agent? An Analysis of the Postcolonial Feminist Critique to Modernization Theories in the Context of the Status of Women in the Islamic State

Seminar Paper, 2022

20 Pages, Grade: 1.0



1. Introduction

2. The Gendered Barriers to Development
2.1. “Western” Femonationalism
2.2 IS Gender Apartheid
2.3 Constructed Differences

3. The Drivers of Female Agency

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper is set out to explore the nexus of development1 and gender equality from a critical per­spective on the postcolonial feminist critique to modernization theories. It is in international sources that we find that “the empowerment of women and their full participation on a basis of equality in all spheres of society is fundamental for development" (UNDP) with gender equality featuring prominently in the 2030 Agenda attempting to leave no-one behind. Also, some authors from the south, such as Qasim Amin, even more specifically, link the status of women as insepara­bly tied to the status of a nation. (in Fleischmann, 1999, p. 175) Gender equality is, thus, stipulat­ed as a “creating condition” (UNDP) for development.

While none of the theoretical strands of development discussed in course of the seminar (GM3) would deny that development is something desirable to obtain, they differ in their conceptualiza­tions on how best to realize it. While modernization theory has earned heavy critique for its universalizing and neoliberal character, dependency and world system theory, structural approaches, anti-colonial perspectives and post-development approaches offer alternative views on development. However, gender equality has remained somewhat a blind spot in all of them necessitating a critical feminist perspective on this subject. I, therefore, like to work with the postcolonial feminist perspective on development in this paper by applying a critical lens to it.

Focusing on the status of women in the Islamic state (IS) in this context, I believe, will shed light on the points of contention between the postcolonial feminist perspective on development and the liberal feminist perspective, yet add a further dimension to the debate – namely the issue of non-development. This derives from the thesis that the actions by IS women stand in opposition to modernization theories and development theories in general, and that IS women were not only victims in need of aid but also perpetrators. So, they cannot be reduced to the status of victim alone adding to the complexity of the issues under debate.

Choosing to concentrate on IS women in this context is interesting for two large reasons, in my opinion: First, their large share (18%) in the number of recruits (around 3,000) from “Western” parts of the world to help establish a global caliphate compared to their share in other terrorist groups (Pooley, 2015, p.18) gives reason to wonder what enticing vision of a good life the Islamic State has to offer that the “West” seems to fall short of. And second, the current national security debates with regard to their repatriation have sparked risks of rendering them stateless so that “Western” countries don't have to take them back leaving them in a state of limbo in UNHCR camps in the face of deteriorating camp and living conditions as a problem the international com­munity should now deal with. (cyrachoudhury, 2019)

With regard to the literature, it can be observed that a lot has been written about IS women from a security and liberal feminist perspective particularly with view to counter-terrorism aspirations and the broader “Women, Peace and Security” (WPS) agenda addressing also women’s right’s concerns including Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in the Islamic State. But hardly anything has been written about them from a development or critical feminist perspective on development. Thus, by adding the dimension of Islamic fundamentalism to the gender equality and development nexus adds a unique angle to the analysis and will contribute to closing this gap.

I will, thus, pose the following research question: In how far can the IS woman be considered an anti-development agent? I have chosen the word agent to convey the active over the passive in line with the following Merriam Webster definitions of this word: “one that acts or exerts power”, “something that produces or is capable of producing an effect”, “one who is authorized to act for or in the place of another” and because agency is an important ele­ment in feminist perspectives on development. The extent of her anti-development agency is supported by two hypotheses: 1. She can hardly be considered an anti-development agent since the lack of development in the Is­lamic state depended mainly on (gendered) barriers external to herself ; and 2. Depending on her role in the Islamic State, the IS woman can be more or less considered an anti-development agent (actively) contributing to the lack of development in the Islamic State.

To answer my research question, I will primarily draw on literature by postcolonial feminist theo­rists such as Mohanty, Spivak, Castro Varela and Dhawan. I will, thereby, reflect on gendered barriers to development as well as on drivers of female agency identified via the primary sources that I will work with in addition to secondary literature along which I will structure the chapters of this paper. My primary sources are: The Islamic State's manifesto on women “Women of the Islamic State” issued by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade, the IS all-female police force and media wing, and the IS online magazines Rumiyah and Dabiq. These sources are, unfortunately, limited to those that were written in English since I do not speak any Arabic, but they should suffice to answer the research question accordingly. I will, further, clarify all terminology used directly upon its mentioning in the corresponding chapters and conclude by verifying or falsifying the two hypotheses in a summary of the results obtained from the analysis.

2. The Gendered Barriers to Development

Postcolonial feminist critique on development emerged as a reaction to “Western” liberal feminist perspectives on development. The latter are said to smack of a certain Eurocentrism and have a tendency to homogenize and universalize women and their experiences since they don't seem to take differences of women from once-colonized territories into account. (Kumar Mishra, 2013) “First World Women” are also found to apply the concept of “othering” themselves in an attempt of demarcation (Mohanty, 1984, p. 337) and tend to view “Third World Women” as victims in need of aid and empowerment degrading them to objects of development cooperation. Postcolonial feminist perspectives, thus, dismiss the concept of a global sisterhood as a violent construct, which is considered to negate power imbalances among women and support (neo-) imperialist politics. (Burchardt and Tuider, 2014, p. 387-390) They, further, argue for the importance of shedding light on patriarchal and colonial structures of power not only by questioning the premises of feminist theory, but also through a high degree of self-reflection. (Edthofer, 2011, pp. 60-65)

How can we now understand some of the critique brought forward by the postcolonial feminist perspective on development with view to the status of and action by IS women in the Islamic State? First, I'd suggest, by looking at the gendered barriers to development concerning the Islam­ic State:

2.1. “Western” Femonationalism

A central aspect that needs to be examined here is “Western” femonationalism, with which Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, is in reactionary tension. The term femonationalism describes the "contemporary mobilization of feminist ideas by nationalist parties and neoliberal governments un­der the banner of the war against the perceived patriarchy of Islam in particular, and of migrants from the Global South in general." (Farris, 2012, p. 185) It reflects the instrumentalization of wom­en's equality for political purposes by right-wing European parties in close connection with the in­tegration and unveiling of Muslim women. This approach falls into the category “white men [claim­ing to be] saving brown women from brown men” (Farris, 2012, p. 186) and is reminiscent of proselytizing behavior. Islam, as a religion, is attacked and military interventions, such as the US intervention in Afghanistan, are legitimized in the name of women's liberation. (Farris, 2017)

This antagonism is met by heavy IS propaganda against the “West” and all concepts and values associated with it. The online magazine Rumiyha, therefore, even makes a gender-specific argu­ment for waging jihad2 against the worst enemies of Islam, the liberal “West”, suggesting that America and Europe are prioritizing the targeting of IS women and children in their war against Is­lam “[...] to destroy the “land” and its “crops,” as women are “arable land.” (R5, p. 34) The West is further blamed to target IS “women’s husbands with drones, to bomb their homes and to drop white phosphorous on their children” (3, p. 25) inflicting injustice upon IS women in “the name of freedom, humanity and equality”. (M, p. 27)

The Manifesto for Women, further, makes reference to the regions’ colonial past whose inflicted oppressions and stretches of poverty are reported to have been felt most by women: The hijab was banned, the courts blocked the Shari’ah so that women’s issues could not have been dealt with justly, and women were kidnapped, tortured and killed and had to bear the babies of Shiite militias. (p. 28-30) A dire picture is painted of women under colonial rule, which serves to justify the establishment of a global caliphate to which, particularly, women from the Arabian Peninsula accused of having turned toward “Western” ideas of nationalism and modernization, are invited to move to. (p. 12; 38-40)

The IS, therefore, conveys a very romanticized picture of traditional life in the Islamic State. There, women are said to have been able to regain their rights (e.g. to wear the hijab) and profit from social security and justice. The level of corruption is stated to be zero and state of the art health care facilities as well as modern medical technology are said to be in place. (M, p. 30-32) Also, public services are found to be up and running and the streets are reported to be “[...] clean, empty of waste, the light shines at night and life is refreshed.” (M, p. 33) Via the online magazine Dabiqe, the reader also learns about the IS currency, the gold dinar, which is said to put the wealth back in the hands of the people in contrast to paper money feeding solely the modern bank system. (D6, p. 58-62) The reader is, further, presented with a summary of IS benefits and ser­vices provided, including: “returning rights and property to their rightful owners, pumping millions of dollars into services that are important to the Muslims, ensuring the availability of food products and commodities in the market.” (D1, p. 13)

In this rose-tinted portrayal the IS also makes sure to give women purpose by emphasizing wom­en's role as the wife of a heroized jihadist as well as their importance in their complementary role as mother and educator of the next generation of jihadists in the context of a larger state-building process. The IS promises to provide them with a place to live and in exceptional cases they would also be able to fight; much more important, however, would be their role in the IS propaganda machinery for recruiting more women. (Steele, 2015) According to Von Knop, all of this constitutes the “female jihad”, and many women from all over the world felt attracted to it. (2007)


1 In this paper, I work with UNDP's definition of human development as a global standard focusing on improving the lives of people in three main areas: 1. long and healthy life, 2. knowledge, 3. decent standard of living (Human Development Reports)

2 A holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also : a personal struggle in devotion to Islam espe­cially involving spiritual discipline (Merriam Webster, 2019)

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The IS Woman as Anti-Development Agent? An Analysis of the Postcolonial Feminist Critique to Modernization Theories in the Context of the Status of Women in the Islamic State
University of Vienna  (International Development)
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woman, anti-development, agent, analysis, postcolonial, feminist, critique, modernization, theories, context, status, women, islamic, state
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Anna Scheithauer (Author), 2022, The IS Woman as Anti-Development Agent? An Analysis of the Postcolonial Feminist Critique to Modernization Theories in the Context of the Status of Women in the Islamic State, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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